The Risks of Taking China’s Helm
Didi Kirsten Tatlow
Beijing. Running China over the next decade may prove to be one of the toughest jobs on the planet.
Slowing economic growth, deepening social tensions and rising military nationalism, centered on China’s controversial claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, provide an increasingly unstable backdrop for hard choices that must be made on balancing prosperity, stability and justice, according to Chinese analysts. People — not just the new, monied middle class, but also farmers and the urban poor — are clamoring for a say over scores of issues, including corruption, land rights, housing and medical care, pollution and, recently, even forced abortions, a gruesome consequence of the one-child policy.
For this reason, insiders say, creating a sense of social equity will be one of the biggest challenges facing the man expected to get the country’s top job — Xi Jinping.
Much rests on the personality of the next leader. What will Xi be like?
“Xi Jinping,” says Wang Zhanyang, a well-connected scholar at the Central Institute of Socialism in Beijing, “will be a little Deng Xiaoping.”
As if aware that people may wonder how Xi, who is over 1.8 meters, or 6 feet, tall, could be a “little Deng” — Deng was 1.5 meters, or 4 foot 11 — Wang continued: “I mean that Xi will be a young Deng Xiaoping.”
For Wang, who has spent years studying Deng, the comparison is a compliment. Others could read it more ambiguously. Deng, China’s last strongman, who died in 1997, was a pragmatist who encouraged wealth acquisition and called for political reform (though he never set a clear timetable for it). But he was also brutal about holding on to power, notoriously supporting the military’s shooting of unarmed democracy protesters and ordinary citizens in Beijing in June 1989.
In an interview last month, Wang focused on Xi’s personal qualities. “He’s got depth. He’s smart. He reads books. That’s very important. A person who reads books can understand complicated things,” he said.
“He can achieve things that a person who only reads articles or documents cannot,” he said.
Wang said that among the books Xi was said to be reading were ones about China’s “social contradictions” — code for the rising unrest created by decades of rapid economic growth in a one-party state where abuses of power are common. Many expect Xi to try to resolve such issues by focusing on improvements in social welfare.
Xi is also said to have read “The China Wave” by Zhang Weiwei, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai and the Geneva School of Public Diplomacy and International Relations. That book offers a vigorous summary of the “China model” theory, which holds that China can successfully meld authoritarian government with a capitalist-style economy. (Section titles include “The China Model May Win Out” and “Political Reform, the Chinese Way.”) It depicts China’s rise as the rise of a civilization — something bigger than a nation.
If Xi gets the country’s top jobs, as is widely expected — he is likely to become the Communist Party’s general secretary later this year at the 18th Party Congress, and president of China next March — some scholars predict the pace of reform will step up.
What kind of reform?
“Overall reforms. Openness will enter a new phase,” said one scholar with close ties to leaders. He insisted on anonymity, given the atmosphere of rising tension before the party congress, with insiders being warned not to talk to foreign reporters.
Major political players, including Xi, are “united on hastening reforms which will contribute to social stability,” the scholar said.
Powerful, state-run economic interest groups, notably in the property, energy and telecommunication sectors, exercise enormous influence over policy, crimping room for reform, many analysts agree. That is where hopes for Xi run high in some quarters, and where Wang’s comparison to Deng may be significant.
“China is still a country run by personalities, not by the law,” said the scholar who asked for anonymity. “So whoever is leader is terribly important and is the key thing. Everything flows from that.”
“The next leadership will be filled with quite strong people, and though the interest groups are a problem, if the leader is strong enough, he may be able to change them,” he said. Xi may have what it takes, he said.
Many people representing different viewpoints within the party are vying for Xi’s attention, analysts say. But the 2,270 delegates due to gather for the congress in Beijing are basically united on two points, the scholar said.
“We have to expand domestic demand” in the economy, to strengthen growth and buffer China from the vagaries of the global economy, he said.
And, he said: “Whatever their views on the future, everyone agrees that social stability is a priority. The situation is already considerably urgent.”
New York Times