Analysis: China’s secretive changing of the guard

Jenny Steinitz 24 November 2012

The Chinese Communist Party convened its 18th party conference on 8 November, beginning the process of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in which 70% of top party officials were replaced and General Secretary Hu was replaced by Xi Jinping. Xi will also take over as President of China in March.

This transition marks the end of months of secrecy, uncertainty and internal conflict. Like the US, China is now at a major turning point, and, arguably, the new Chinese leadership faces a far greater challenge than the returning President Obama. It is imperative that China should now both implement major economic change if it is to sustain prosperity and growth in the future, and undertake political reform of the vast and corrupt bureaucracy that operates in the Chinese political system. But does Xi have what it takes to implement these desperately needed reforms, and to transform China into a responsible economic and political world leader in the years ahead?

Political and economic analysts around the world are desperate to gain insights into the incoming leader and the implications of his leadership for an increasingly powerful and prosperous China. However, unlike the US presidential candidates, it is very difficult to determine exactly what makes Xi tick. His policy preferences, his record in government and even his remarkable life story have all been kept under wraps, and any achievements he may have made whilst in office have been swallowed up into the achievements of the collective Communist Party leadership. Xi’s rise to power has rested mainly on his neutral approach to politics, which ensured the support of the party’s competing factions, but leaves little to help predict his future leadership skills and strategies. It is difficult therefore to know whether Xi wants, or even has the ability, to implement the economic and political reform that China desperately needs.

If reform is his aim, the obstacles for Xi are large. Because of the political system in China, most members of Xi’s team will be appointed by the party, rather than by him. This means that most of his Standing Committee will not owe their jobs solely to Xi and he may not have the authority required to drive through the much needed economic reform.

Xi’s predecessor, Hu, recognised the great problems facing China, and especially the need for more sustainable economic policies and an increase domestic consumption of Chinese goods, but little was done to tackle the problem. The leadership instead decided to muddle through, passing off the painful decisions onto their successors. Much of the political problem lies in the massive bureaucracy and local officialdom outside the capital, which has wreaked environmental devastation, social inequality and political corruption on the country. China will therefore need to implement huge political change before economic reform is even a possibility.

Much was made of the contrast between the awkward and almost robotic leadership of former General Secretary Hu and the charismatic performance given by Xi at last week’s party conference. But it remains to be seen whether Xi will go beyond the mere day-to-day management of the Chinese economy as seen under Hu, and whether he will push forward the reforms that will drive China from being one of the great world powers to fulfilling its potential role as a responsible world economic leader.

Jenny Steinitz