What does the future hold for China?

A Chinese military member in Tiananmen Square across from the Great Hall of the People before the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, 5 March 2013 People want to know how Xi Jinping will govern an increasingly complex China

China's moment of change has come. After a decade in power, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are stepping aside. Xi Jinping and a new generation are taking over.

Already elevated to the post of general secretary of the Communist Party last November, Xi Jinping will be confirmed as China's new head of state by the National People's Congress now meeting in Beijing.

So, naturally, the question everyone is asking is, what does the future hold for China? How will Xi Jinping govern this huge, complex and increasingly powerful nation?

Flat atmosphere

Seen from the outside, China is envied by many, praised as the economic success story of the past decade.

As developed nations have stumbled, China's rise has seemed unstoppable. You'd think this would be a moment of celebration for China's leaders, old and new.

But as Premier Wen delivered his final major address to the Congress, the atmosphere was curiously flat.

He listed many successes - half his speech, 14 pages, was devoted to them. There was little sense that he was bowing out on a high though.

In the past five years, Mr Wen said, 30 million homes have been constructed or renovated, 18,000 reservoirs reinforced, 19,700km (12,200 miles) of railway and 609,000km of roads built - the lists went on and on.

Start Quote

Development is still the key to solving all our problems - we must keep economic development as the central task and give it our undivided attention”

End Quote Wen Jiabao Chinese premier

Many times Mr Wen hailed "impressive achievements" and lauded his government's efforts, saying "we always strove" to do X, "we vigorously promoted" Y. The applause from the Congress, though, was muted.

Listening, Xi Jinping sat betraying little emotion. The reason may well be that both Mr Xi and the Congress seem to be preoccupied not by past achievements but future problems.

Few easy answers

Wen Jiabao listed many of those problems - economic growth that's slowing, unsustainable and unbalanced, social services, pensions and healthcare that need investment, issues of corruption, serious pollution of China's air, soil and water, and food safety scares.

So for China's Communist Party, this leadership change is not so much a time of celebration as of introspection and anxiety.

The party is aware that in the eyes of many Chinese, its authority is eroding. And while the party leaders know the problems they face, they know too that there are few easy answers.

Wen Jiabao's speech was long on aspirations, short on announcements. Take pollution for example. China's leaders know it's an issue that ordinary people are increasingly angry about, but they have offered few solutions.

"We should adopt effective measures to prevent and control pollution," Wen Jiabao said, but he didn't enumerate what those measures might be.

There was no promise of a Clean Air Act or tough new powers for China's environmental authorities, just the promise to do better.

Chinese Communist Party leaders after the opening session of the annual National People's Congress in Beijing, 5 March 2013 The Communist Party is aware that in the eyes of many, its authority is eroding

Mr Wen's reticence may be because he is about to step down. The new leadership may be waiting to announce new measures so they can take the credit for new policies.

But it may also be because many of China's problems are so tough to fix, particularly for a Communist Party that is, at heart, cautious and careful, concerned about making any missteps, about the unintended consequences of any changes it might make, and beholden to many of its own vested interests.

Leadership change

Take pollution again as an example. Reducing it will mean imposing new costs on industries that have to clean up their acts.

Some of those industries are state owned and are powerful political players. Others are private firms that live in a cut-throat, competitive world where costs matter.

A woman cycles past traffic during a sand storm in heavily polluted weather in Beijing, 28 February 2013 There was no promise of a Clean Air Act in Mr Wen's speech

New regulations would mean imposing new costs and may lead them to cut the size of their workforce. So, if you're Xi Jinping, what's worse - having more unemployed workers to find jobs for, or dirtier air for people to breathe? It won't be easy being China's new leader.

Which takes us back to the question hanging over this Congress and its leadership change. What direction will Mr Xi take?

The best answer for now, it seems, was there in Wen Jiabao's speech.

"Development is still the key to solving all our problems," he said. "We must keep economic development as the central task and give it our undivided attention."

"Urbanisation is a historical task," added Mr Wen, saying, "we can continue to advance our cause only by adhering to reform and opening up."

That's a pretty clear indication that change under Xi Jinping will be modest and incremental. "Reform and opening" means China's current path, opening its economy, but not reforming its political system.

So China under Xi Jinping will continue to pursue rapid economic growth, it'll continue to build its giant cities, to shift tens of millions from the countryside to the towns.

The Communist Party will try to make itself cleaner, more efficient, more responsive to the needs and aspirations of China's people.

But the old formula, trying to deliver increasing prosperity but not relaxing political control, is the one Mr Xi and the Communist Party are keeping faith with for now.

Damian Grammaticas Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    94 China holds $1.2Tn in US Treasury securities that will be paid back to the owner of record at the time of maturity in US dollars whatever they're worth at the time.The interest rates and payouts are fixed.China can sell its Treasury bonds and take its chances with other less certain currencies like Euros or Pounds or Yen or buy gold.This is only about 8% of total US gov't debt. The US has many mechanisms to hurt other nations if it chooses.Just ask Iran, NKorea, Cuba. There's a point where security concerns outweigh national economic self interest.China doesn't want to reach that point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    China is not alone -
    Russia published its new foreign policy concept in which Putin states most important aspect of Moscow’s foreign strategy is to strengthen its ties with China. The two countries hold the same principle on core issues in international politics & that can constitute a basic hold in maintaining regional & global stability. Russia will engage in full spectrum foreign policy cooperation with China when dealing with MENACES.
    I'm guessing this is not what Obama administration wanted to hear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    @93 - China owns most of the US Debt and has the largest foreign reserves of US currency - the US has ZERO power over China because they minute they pull anything, China bankrupts THEM and keeps trucking along on their exports and development projects with South America and Africa.

    China is not North Korea - the US can't do jack to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Does China think its cyber theft of foreign industrial intellectual property to produce products will be allowed to sell in the West where the profits are? Does it think it's cyber attacks on the US will go unchallenged and unresponded to indefinitely? The US has the power to bankrupt or shut down China at any time if it chooses to. China should keep that in mind and tread more carefully. Like other insular dictatorships it becomes arrogant not understanding who and what it's toying with. The US now has its own cyber military unit and you can be sure they're the best in the business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    No nation that ever confronted the US ever had anything good come of it. Even North Vietnam's nominal military victory over the USA was a pyhrric one. Vietnam was among the poorest countries in the world and had to give up its socialist/communist ideology it fought such a costly war to extend. Had it been an independent tyrannical dictatorship it is today the war never would have happened.

    China is both an adversary and partner with the US.No two nations have a relationship that's more complex.China's best hope for the future is to emphasize cooperation with the US, minimize confrontation

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    As long as we continue to spend our money in China, supporting a government that tortures, murders and rapes its people, very little will change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.


    When and how did a nation that cannot fight a war, defend it's interests or operate a couple of KM beyond it's shore become either the 1st or 2nd power of the world?

    People seem to be expecting far to much of china that in reality, due to significant internal and external limitations they will probably never achieve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    It's right to hope China becomes more democratic, it would be a sad day if the No. 1 or No 2 power in the world were to remain a totalitarian state and make no mistake that is what it is. You still can't rely on your rights and freedoms especially if you don't fall into the 'Han' Chinese mold. The truth is thought that this change has no roots to grow from, China has no democratic tradition nor do any of its predecessors. China like Burma has no clue how to be democratic or respect human rights it is from the time of Confucianism a beaurocratic state. Democracy is seen as too 'western'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    All this talk about China's rise as inexorable always dismisses the age old 'Emperor' question .... high employment but low wages and environmental standards, or higher industrial standards, but higher unemployment with the risk of social unrest (or even, heaven forbid 'revolution' - like the one that got the communists power).

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    It is interesting that the idiologists in China recognise that the way to suceed is to quell the corruption and extravagance of their own. So as to better exploit those failings in us? Despite the usual propoganda, perhaps the Chinese leadership are more utilitarian and respectful of their citizen's rights than we are? Is it time for us to change too?

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Chinese rise is partly fueled by rise of mediocrity and crony capitalism in the west.
    Slowing down of scientific & technological development, strengthening of dynasties, increasing influence of parental money & power to dictate the future of a child in the west (mainly in US) helped China's rise in technological and political scene. But one's demise would not sustain other's rise for long. At some point both would go down together.
    There are some countries without any aircraft carrier or ICBM etc but provide a much better, more peaceful & prosperous life to its general citizens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Correction 83: China's education does NOT encourage original thinking. >31% of Chinese research publications r plagiarized.

    It's impossible to verify Chinese claims (as was USSR) unless it opens up, despite of current show off (of power & money).
    Political (China) or religious (Saudi, Iran etc) subservience can never groom real leaders, true thinkers (scientist, technocrats included) that would be more acutely needed in this well-connected world to run a government or national institutions. China is yet to show any sign towards that. China born professionals abroad also show that mentality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Will there be a major confrontation (not necessarily military) between China and the US? China's aggressiveness and other policies are heading it that way.The US is countering with a Pacific strategy that will put American military muscle on China's doorstep as the US bolsters economic and political ties with China's increasingly nervous neighbors. The US has military committments to SKorea, will likely back Taiwan, the Phillipines, and must back Japan.China wil be surrounded by increasingly hostile nations and will likely escalate, a very foolish response but in keeping with its arrogance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    @ 82 lordBanners.
    What u said is partially true.
    In reality, no country (US included) would afford to defend or act as a sink/market for others to develop. China's education does encourage original thinking, think independently. It may be great for routine manufacturing, where almost everything (starting from design, material etc) is dictated by others. Its rise in R&D is just data cranking & cheap/polluting trials. None trust any Chinese data, even in academic research. more than 31% of Chinese are knows to be plagiarized.
    Mere volume of data or money does not make great scientists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    West only re-discovered Africa (slavery) after China begun 'Partnerships',something we still disdain to do.
    US already abandoned Japan to China over dispute with those Captured islands.
    China is big enough(population & Climate) with enough Moolah(ours) to split into 4 Self-Competing Econ Zones bigger than US - Competitors' worst nightmare.Growth comes from Fgn Exchange.
    Most astute Politician of modern times Lee Kwan Yu who took Singapore from poverty to First World in 40 yrs(education)helped design modern China.
    Still, we can keep pretending Superiority via infantile finger-pointing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Some says..."Yeah has all that except human rights, dignity, and morality."

    Like what it is in the west, first things first for China is to get ton loads of money then live in decadence and to max out on luxurious self-indulgence after that China will get into it and all will fall into place like what you have now in the west.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Eastern Asian economies rising is nothing new. Most of the Far East has rapidly urbanised and industrialised. Singapore did it, Hong Kong under the British did it, Japan did it, South Korea did it, Malaysia, etc.

    China is mostly notable because of the sheer population size which makes total GDP very high, however per capita it does poorly for the region especially compared to the more democratic neighbours including the effective autonomous territories of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

    I hope China continues to grow but doubt it can truly surpass its neighbours for a long time to come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    @55 - Wow, two "groups" came back all suffering from the same respiratory illness?

    How long were your groups (or is that two people) actually here for? I live in China - have for five years now. Yes, there are DAYS that pollution is terrible (this is not a 24/7 phenomenon) but having been in Beijing pre-Olympics and post-Olympics, the government is making strides towards clearing it up.

    Before casting stones, why don't we look at the impact of Industrialization on London or Chicago and the problems that came from there - not like Western governments didn't put their people's health at risk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.


    you shouldnt post comments like that here. prepare for a bunch of people climbing over themselves to tell you how wrong they think you are.

    anyway, i agree with you. things happen in cycles and if the chinese can solve their problems just like other nations have before them, then the path ahead seems quite clear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Good Communist do NOT have a problem controlling "The People"- history have shown us- the "old fashion" democrats this.- Lenin- Stalin- Castro- Pol Pot & Hoeneker- spring to mind! Just another " Controller"


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