China's new leaders: Changes and challenges ahead

China In just 35 years, China's ruling Communist Party has transformed the country from economic back-water to economic giant. Most Chinese have accepted its authoritarian and often brutal rule because they have grown richer and have seen their country's prestige restored. But as the Party prepares for a major leadership change, can such a rigid political system deliver the reforms China needs to move to the next stage of development?
Generational shift The Party, in power since 1949, holds no real elections. But it does now put strict age limits on leaders. As a result, thousands of senior party and government figures will retire after a congress due in November. The most keenly watched changes will be in the Politburo standing committee, China's most powerful body. Seven of the nine existing members are set to retire, ushering in a new generation.
New leaders How the secretive Party chooses leaders is poorly understood. But loyalty to Party elders and factional struggles are more decisive than beliefs or ability. The new politburo looks certain to be headed by Xi Jinping (centre), a "princeling" son of a privileged former official, and Li Keqiang (right), who has a more populist image. Other members, also likely to be men, have experience governing but little appetite for bold reform.
Model in doubt The priority for the new leadership is likely to be the economy, where growth appears to be slowing. Many analysts believe China's whole development model now needs to change. They want a bigger role for the private sector and for China's hard-pressed consumers to be encouraged to spend. But powerful vested interests inside the party, local governments and state-owned companies will contest any reforms.
Poor family in China China's economic model is creating a more unequal society, risking social tensions. The gap between rich and poor is among the widest in Asia. About 250m people who have migrated to cities receive inferior services. Central government has started tackling these issues, expanding education and health insurance. But local governments, who deliver most services, say they lack funds to do more.
Elderly couple in China Another big challenge is a rapidly ageing population. The deeply unpopular one child policy also means fewer young workers to pay for more retirees. Millions more farmers could move to the cities in coming decades, providing labour and spurring economic growth. But they may not go unless land rights are reformed and a registration system which discriminates against them is overhauled.
Chinese factory (left) and tree planting scheme workers (right) The biggest loser from China's economic success has been its environment. It is home to 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities, while farmers' water is tainted by chemicals and fertiliser. There have been success stories, for example tree replanting and urban sewage treatment. But improving the environment while hundreds of millions of people want new homes, cars and consumer goods may be an impossible balance.
Crowd in China Critics say one party rule cannot cope with all these challenges. They want ordinary people to have more of a voice. But none of the new generation of leaders has shown any interest in political reform, let alone democracy. More likely, they will put social stability first and hope the economy can keep growing during their decade in power. If it slows, their problems will mount. (Text by Angus Foster)

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