The once-in-a-decade power transition in China is a time, both for reflection and progress, for the world’s second largest economy. Now that Xi Jinping has taken over from outgoing president Hu Jintao, he should put in place the many reforms that China needs if it is to fulfill the predictions of economists and overtake the US as the largest economy in the world in the next 10 years. Jinping is believed to be more interested in reform than the conservative Jintao and has hinted that he may consider breaking up large, inefficient state-owned enterprises into smaller entities, thereby continuing the gradual liberalisation first put in place by Deng Xiaoping. Economic growth has slowed in recent years and there are fears that if the state continues to be unresponsive it could lead to a downturn.
The new Chinese leader will also have to contend with rising inequality and an urban-rural divide. China’s vast new wealth has not been shared equitably and this could lead to frustrations and even violent protests which, given that the Communist Party still rules with an iron fist, could quickly turn extremely bloody. Jingping will also have to deal with the contradiction of a capitalist economy being guided by a totalitarian government. He will have to allow private initiative to flourish without being an impediment to economic growth.
Even though the world’s eyes are on the economic platform of Jingping, the international community should also keep a close watch on his human rights record. His predecessor was known for his complete intolerance of dissent. This is not a wise way forward for China. Not everyone in the country has been a winner in the new economy and those who have been left behind, will undoubtedly voice their frustrations. From the Buddhists in Tibets to the Uighur Muslims and the Falun Gong, there are many protesting their repression and their fears and aspirations will also have to be taken into account. There is no reason for China to continue matching its strong economy with weak human rights protections. A gradual easing of state authority may end up serving China best in the long run. We will quickly learn whether Xi Jingping is visionary enough to realise this or not.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 20th, 2012.