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
    +14

    Comment number 12.

    Trying to judge China by western standards is a mistake. We have lots of problems in the west which China doesn't have. When the UK and US were industrialising, there was little democracy, and much scandal, corruption and social division. China is working through that process now.

    400 million Chinese have come out of poverty in recent years - a huge social and humanitarian achievement. Urban China tops the world for educational standards. It is introducing pensions and health care.

    The new administration will be be too cautious and too controlling, But China's continuing rise is inevitable.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 3.

    China is vast, and has a huge population. Two things that really make it a hell of a challenge to govern.

    Given the size, from the Kyrgyz border to Hai Nan, it comprises hugely diverse cultures and ethnic groups, so cohesive central government is a nightmare; despite this, China is the amongst fastest growing economies in the world.

    Sadly, this growth is largely fuelled by low wages; as China gets richer, wages rise, so growth slows, risking discontent amongst 1.4 billion people (and growing). Not an insignificant problem.

    I genuinely wish them well: some big challenges ahead.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 18.

    How's China a dictatorship...
    It's one party, with different factions - very much like the UK, when you have 3 parties but they are actually the same.
    Unlike the west, the key thing to have in leadership change is "no change" - stable, secure transfer. Not many Chinese people (%-wise) actually want a major riot in the big cities or mass protest.
    Most like it nice and slow, at a pace that everyone can accept..
    Keep our nose out of a country that's doing better economically and we know little off please..

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 58.

    In 1960, life expectancy in China was 36 years. In 1980 it was 65, In 2012, 75 years. My guess is that most Chinese people think that this change is a good thing.

    I have been to China. I taught in Shanghai several years ago. It wasn't the height of summer but the pollution was no worse than some US cities I've stayed in - certainly nothing that should affect the health of short term visitors.

    In the late 1950's, famine killed up to 40 million Chinese people. When judging China and the Chinese, spare a moment for how much better life in China is now. On the whole, it continues to improve.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 65.

    What does the future hold for China?

    Well,with an increasingly wealthy middle class society,the Communist Party will find it difficult to be as autocratic as it once was.Chinese folk now travel widely & want what others have.May be China will morph into a party democracy,they have morphed into every thing else.
    What ever they do I wish them well...

 

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