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LEADERSHIP CHANGE IN BEIJING: FROM HU TO XI



Author : C.Uday Bhaskar


Beijing is all set for its momentous, once-in-a-decade top leadership change on Thursday (November 8). The baton will pass from President Hu Jintao to his successor Xi Jinping, though, as China watchers point out, the 'princeling' Xi was not Hu's personal choice. The Prime Minister-designate Li Keqiang, who will take over from Wen Jiabao, was seen as President Hu's preferred candidate, but, clearly, there was opaque but intense factional contestation and the apex of the Chinese Communist Party has prevailed in favour of Xi Jinping.

Carefully-orchestrated form and the stern tranquility that characterise public life in China will be on display on November 8 as the Hu-Wen team steps down and the mantle of leadership for a 1.34-billion-strong country passes to the Xi-Li combine. But beneath this seeming tranquility and regulated placidity lurks a complex undercurrent of latent turbulence that will challenge the new leadership. Traditionally, domestic stability is the highest priority for the ruler in Beijing, be it the Emperor of eras bygone or Deng Xiaoping in 1989 - when tanks were called in to quell the student protests in Tiananmen Square.

With an export component that is almost 30% of its $7-trillion GDP, China is critically dependent on external trade and the global economic slowdown is bad news. While on a brief visit to Beijing a week before the November 8 transition, one had occasion to gauge the local mood and it was a mix of unstated anxiety and some misgivings about the current state of rectitude and institutional integrity in Chinese public life.

This sounds eerily similar to the high-octane, high-visibility corruption scandals that currently inundate the prime-time shows on Indian television but, in China, there is a big difference. Authoritarian regimes place great premium on silent societal compliance and the safety vents of a noisy and irreverent democracy are visible by their absence. Few of my Chinese interlocutors were willing to objectively discuss the past Hu decade or make any assessment about what the future holds. But the general mood of disappointment and muted anger about the Party was palpable and elliptically referred to.

These included the spate of high-profile corruption cases, viz, the better-known Bo Xilai scandal, the sex-orgy video that went viral on Weibo (China's social media equivalent), the death of a Hu Jintao top aide's son in a rash driving incident - and, most recently, allegations reported in The New York Times against PM Wen Jiabao for disproportionate wealth - have dented the image of an austere Communist Party that, though stern of demeanour, cares for its people. China needs to sustain its cracking 10% growth rate to ensure that the rising socioeconomic aspirations of its billion-plus masses are met, and this is proving to be elusive.

In the first half of 2012, the GDP growth figure slipped below the disturbing 7.5% benchmark and the amber lights are already flashing for the Xi-Li team. Modern technology that was used astutely and aggressively to reinvigorate the Chinese manufacturing sector over the last quarter-century to make the Panda the global export giant it has become has been a mixed blessing for the opaque Beijing Party leadership.

The same communication and cyber variant of technology has created a huge but unseen domain of Chinese 'netizens' and, irrespective of the many filters and controls put in place, today, the Party cannot control the flow of information and nothing can be hidden for too long. As one Chinese interlocutor put it, in the past, the people feared the Party and its oppressive security apparatus; the Party is unnerved by the mood of the people as reflected by social media and cyberspace.

Will sagacious leadership be able to calm the growing domestic turbulence where inclusive growth has become a mirage? Neither the Arab Spring nor the tectonic political changes in Myanmar has gone unnoticed, by the Party or the people. While there is appreciation that the Hu era more than quadrupled China's prosperity index and conducting a near-flawless 2008 Olympics, even while confidently demonstrating space and cyber capabilities, it is moot as to how this accretion of comprehensive national power has been harnessed by Beijing.

The last phase of the Hu period saw the 'rise' of China and its assertive profile roiling the region. The bilateral relationship with the US and Japan, two major economic partners, will have to be equitably managed, while the Beijing-Delhi orientation is stable but skewed. The tranquility and harmony that is so prized by the guardians of Tiananmen will have to be cognisant of the many turbulences that buffet the Hu-Xi transition.

( C Uday Bhaskar is a Visiting Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation. He can be contacted at cudayb@gmail.com . This article first appeared in The Economic Times on November 7, 2012.)
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