China’s New Leadership : The Issues

IITM CSC Article #38
25 October 2012


China’s New Leadership : The Issues

Although 2012 seems to mark a smooth passing of the leadership from one generation to the next in China,  there is one overreachingly urgent question: can the Chinese Communist Party cope with the increasing demands of the population? China’s economic growth has begun to slow.  It may still be seven per cent, but it’s weaker than it was just a year or two ago.  The government has a clear strategy: that domestic consumer growth should take up the slack that is left by the reduction of exports.  Yet this transition will be far from easy to make. The emergent middle class may be 300 million strong and growing, but (in an echo of the complaint of many of their western counterparts), huge proportions of its income is taken up by paying for property.  At the other end of the scale, the migrant labour population is now some 200 million people who do not even have the right of legal residence in the cities where they are building the skyscrapers and stadiums that astonish visitors.  The state runs hot and cold on their status.  If these aspirant buyers can’t be brought into the system, another huge slice of society is taken out of the government’s economic model.  The massive cost of healthcare, perhaps the single biggest expense after housing, is yet another curb on discretionary spending on travel, clothes, or entertainment.

Deng Xiaoping was concerned to reshape Chinese politics so that a charismatic and destructive leader such as  Mao could never reappear and seize power as he did during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.  Yet the injection of technocratic engineers into a non-pluralist system has had both plus and minus points.  The ability to engineer wide-scale social change has coincided with rapid economic growth.  But the messy reality of China defies the engineers’ blueprint.  It will take very flexible thinking to deal with China’s problems, particularly as social media provide a new outlet for popular feelings. 

There is also growing tension across the East China Sea.  Japan and China are unlikely to repeat the horrific war of the 1930s and 1940s that saw some 15 million Chinese deaths.  Yet allowing assertive nationalism could be a recipe for greater social unrest, particularly if middle-class lifestyles don’t continue to improve.  There are more benevolent boosts to nationalism – for instance Mo Yan’s recent Nobel Prize – but much of the phenomenon is fuelled by anger and China’s leaders will have to make sure that Beijing continues to be a peaceful actor in the region.

China has plenty of inherent advantages. It has a high literacy rate (95 per cent, over India’s 75 per cent).  In addition, while its people’s aspirations have greatly expanded in the past decade, they still don’t match the fuel and resource hungry standards of the west.   Yet China’s leaders have never before had to deal with a China that seeks simultaneously to open to the world and to maintain control of power at home.  The next decade will show how flexible China’s system really is.


Rana Mitter,
Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China Institute for Chinese Studies, University of Oxford
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