China: New leaders to take power at Communist Party congress

  • 7 November 2012
  • From the section Asia
Xi Jinping in Beijing, September 2012
Image caption After being groomed for high office, Xi Jinping emerges from the shadows

He has never faced election. We don't know what he thinks about the global economy or global warming. And many Chinese would better recognise his folk-singer wife.

Yet Xi Jinping, 59, is about to become China's most powerful man, anointed leader of the ruling Communist Party at a once-a-decade congress.

China's secretive transfers of power have always stoked tension and uncertainty. But now that China is the world's second-largest economy and a superpower in the making, the new leadership's views really matter.

China also faces huge challenges. Some analysts believe its economic development model, which has delivered breakneck growth but at great environmental and social cost, is now unsustainable. The question is whether a one-party state can confront vested interests and deliver the necessary reforms.

"I think it's very difficult," says Mao Yushi, an outspoken economist. "People don't have the right to check the government's abuses of power. Even information is not transparent, we know so little about the inner leadership circle."

China's present leaders, under President Hu Jintao, have been in power since 2002 and are referred to as the "fourth generation" to rule since the Communist Party came to power in 1949.

They are stepping down because the party insists on strict age limits for its leaders. Seven of the nine members on the all-powerful politburo standing committee are too old to remain in office.

Mr Xi, who is already on the standing committee, will be at the core of the fifth generation and will gradually assume President Hu's powers and titles.

At first glance it is an attractive inheritance. During Mr Hu's decade in power, China's economy has averaged 10% annual growth and lifted millions out of poverty.

But growth has papered over other problems. The economy has become too reliant on government-led investment and state-owned companies. Organisations like the World Bank say the government must now let the private sector flourish.

The gap between rich and poor is glaring, and China is now home to both a million dollar millionaires and 150 million people living on $1 a day. And although the government has extended healthcare and pensions to millions, it faces huge future challenges because China's population is ageing rapidly.

Critics argue that Mr Hu's natural caution stopped him tackling these issues, emphasising stability instead.

They point especially to the absence of political reform. While people are freer now to express themselves in private and on blogs, the Communist Party still controls every important job and silences criticism. It also spends more on internal security than national defence, suggesting it fears its own people.

Hopes and fears

Mr Xi will have to be different, some analysts say. He is younger and better understands the West. And his privileged upbringing as the "princeling" son of a top official has given him an easy-going charm and self-confidence.

Sun Zhe, of Tsinghua University, has met Mr Xi and says he is a natural leader whose charisma can dominate a room full of people. "Xi will be a different personality. He's a very likeable guy and that's important," he says.

Ahead of the congress there have been rumours of Mr Xi meeting with prominent reformists, prompting speculation about his plans - even though Mr Xi has never publicly said where he stands, presumably to stop it being used against him.

Mr Sun says some kind of political reform is inevitable: "Younger Chinese, people born after 1979, they won't tolerate the current ways of managing public affairs.

"Don't expect Western-style politics, but we can borrow some political skills, let the media oversee the government for example. You could see some kind of one-party democracy, like Russia under Putin, that could be possible."

But others doubt that men like Mr Xi, who are so clearly a product of the Communist Party system, will be looking to change it.

Mr Mao says the new generation will not usher in fundamental change. "The new leaders are chosen by the old leaders. They must keep the Communist Party in power," he says.

Li Fan, a civil rights campaigner, says Mr Xi's new generation will try and act differently to win people's support.

"There is likely to be more toleration of people on websites, they may be more assertive over local governments. But there are so many problems, this kind of policy cannot last for long.

"People may say OK, this government is good. But the precondition is that the new leaders will be giving this to avoid giving democracy," he says.


China's political system has also changed. In the past, charismatic leaders like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping dictated the country's path. Today's leadership is much more consensual, and Mr Xi will have to keep the balance between its different factions. Outgoing leaders will also remain influential, at least at the start, in restricting his options.

In fact, some analysts worry that the political system has changed so much that the party's bureaucracy can only produce cautious administrators like Mr Hu, not bold reformers prepared to stand up to powerful vested interests inside the party and state-owned industries.

"If you're going to try and rebalance the Chinese economy, you must take risks," according to Steve Tsang at Nottingham University. "There is a certain inherent contradiction between what the system is delivering and the leadership the country demands," he says.

China's Communist Party has long excelled at re-inventing itself in order to hold on to power.

If it can speed up economic reforms and address public concerns like inequality and corruption, Mr Xi could hand over smoothly to a successor in 2022.

But each generation of leaders inherits a new generation of raised expectations. If the party cannot deliver these economic reforms, the calls for faster political reform will only get louder.