New year, new challenges at home and abroad

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 February, 2010, 12:00am

In recent years, mainland leaders have heralded the arrival of the new year with the word 'critical' to warn of the challenges ahead. It was no exception as the Chinese people welcomed the Year of the Tiger.

Premier Wen Jiabao has already described this year as even more complicated after the mainland succeeded in overcoming the global economic crisis and ensuring a robust economic growth last year. 'Winning is not difficult, but sustaining the winning is,' was the Chinese proverb he quoted in a speech to greet the arrival of the Year of the Tiger earlier this month.

Indeed, the mainland is faced with daunting challenges at home and from abroad. While the mainland economy grew strongly last year, the growth was mainly supported by the massive government spending in the form of a four trillion yuan (HK$4.5 trillion) economic stimulus package. This means that mainland leaders are faced with a delicate task this year of reining in government spending and expansion of bank loans to temper inflation and rising asset prices without applying the brakes so hard that it would stifle economic growth.

Its efforts to steer economic growth onto a healthier track by reducing overinvestments and overcapacity in many industries such as steel and cement are bound to run into stiff resistance from local officials.

Amid those economic uncertainties comes the draft of the 12th Five-Year Programme, which will set out the economic growth blueprint for the period from 2011 to 2015.

Internationally, it is faced with more trade protectionist measures from Western countries against Chinese exports, and the deepening rift with the United States over human rights, Taiwan, Tibet, and internet freedom signals a more challenging international environment.

Socially, it is faced with widespread social discontent over rampant official corruption and widening income gaps, to name two of a multitude of domestic challenges.

It is against this background that mainland leaders are ratcheting up repression of political dissent with a string of high-profile dissidents' convictions in recent months.

The harsh convictions of Liu Xiaobo and Tan Zuoren have particularly drawn international outrage and have dashed hopes among many optimists that as the mainland economy gets stronger, its leaders will have more confidence to allow greater tolerance for voices of dissent.

Sadly, the signs seem to indicate that the central government will strengthen its heavy-handed tactics against any form of political dissent in the next few years, in the name of maintaining social stability.

But the escalating drive against dissent has also stemmed from the mainland leadership's rising concerns over political stability.

In 2012, the Communist Party is scheduled to hold its 18th congress to elect a new generation of leaders. The political manoeuvrings have already started and are expected to get more intense over the next two years, before any compromises over the composition of the new leaders are made.

If history is any guide, different factions of the party involved in the power struggle in the run-up to the leadership changes tend to fight with one another to stake their claims on legitimacy. This means they want to be seen as being on the left of the political spectrum and upholders of the party dictatorship. One way to show that is to step up campaigns to crush any political dissent as nobody within the leadership can afford to be seen as weak on challenges to the legitimacy of the party.

Another way is to whip up and ride on nationalistic sentiment to sound and act tough on what are perceived as provocative acts by Western countries. That explains the increasingly hawkish tone of the state media and the rising voice of the hawkish military generals calling for substantive actions against Washington's recent decision to sell US$6.4 billion worth of arms to Taiwan.

Of course, China's rising economic clout, coupled with the weakening influence of the Western countries battered by the global economic crisis, has also helped strengthen the voices of the party conservatives.

But the support for more political reforms and greater tolerance for voices of dissent has remained equally strong within the party. The fact that a number of former senior party officials last month signed a strongly worded letter to publicly push for the release of Liu Xiaobo is the latest example.

Next year marks the centenary of the revolution of 1911, led by Dr Sun Yat-sen to overthrow the Qing dynasty. The celebrations of that important historic occasion are more likely to give impetus to the push for more political reforms on the mainland.