Let's hope Xi Jinping does pursue bolder reforms

Party's leaders seem to be having difficulty finalising power transition, fuelling nervous debate on country's future prosperity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 7:18am

With just over three weeks to go before the 18th national congress opens to approve a once-a-decade leadership transition, the party appears to be in a long, difficult labour to deliver a complete line-up of new leaders.

The resulting uncertainty about the true colours of China's next leaders, coupled with a noticeable economic slowdown, have led to sharp debate over the future direction of the world's second-largest economy.

On this issue, there are two camps with sharply opposing views. The optimists believe China's economy will remain on a growth trajectory for the next 20 or 30 years, with gross domestic product growth to average 7 to 8 per cent. That's much slower than the double-digit growth rates achieved for most of the past 40 years, but still enough to enable China to overtake the US as the world's largest economy.

The optimists generally dismiss the current political uncertainty and economic slump as temporary, and expect the new leaders to continue the path of reform and opening up once the transition is settled.

After all, maintaining a strong economy is the most important source of the party's legitimacy, which enables it to cling to power.

On the other hand, a growing number of pessimists believe China is heading into stormy waters with no relief in sight. Politically, the party is corrupted to the core, and the scandals involving disgraced politician Bo Xilai and his wife show the party risks an implosion at the highest level. And, at the same time, the leadership is also grappling with widespread social unrest at home and a nationalistically charged war of words over territorial disputes.

Economically, the growth model is "unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable". In many ways, the pessimists contend, China's leadership today is facing challenges similar to those which toppled the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and the Kuomintang.

Whether the optimists or pessimists are proved right will have global ramifications. At stake is whether China will have a strong leader in current Vice-President Xi Jinping , expected to succeed President Hu Jintao early next year, and a strong government to tackle the next decade of challenges.

Interestingly, there are also two schools of thoughts on Xi's leadership. The pessimists believe that Xi is unlikely to undertake drastic reforms needed to rebalance the economy and put the country on a healthier growth track, at least not in the first few years of his reign.

This is partly because, after growing up in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Xi shares the prevailing wisdom of the current leadership that maintaining stability should be the top priority.

But optimists hold that Xi, a princeling son of a revolutionary elder, has the courage to pursue bolder economic and political reforms and tackle corruption. In fact, he and his supporters have been trying to send subtle messages along this line. For example, he recently met the son of late reformist party chief Hu Yaobang and dropped hints about bolder reforms ahead. The optimists had better be right.