18th Party Congress

Road to reform beckons new leaders

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 7:40am

The imminent change of leadership in China has intensified debate about the need for political and economic reform. Given all the structural problems that have developed amid rapid growth, hope for reform is placed in the new leadership. If you ask China watchers and economists about it, as this newspaper did in a recent article, they tend to be pragmatic. They expect the new leaders to follow their predecessors' policies for some time for the sake of stability before addressing reform. If you ask Chinese officials, they are in favour of reform. But major reforms have been stalled.

Ironically, a keener sense of urgency is to be found in an article in the Communist Party's top theoretical journal Qiushi ("Seeking Truth") published ahead of the 18th national party congress. Warning that stagnation or turning back would lead to a "dead end", the article called on the government to seize the moment and "press ahead with restructuring of the political system and development of socialist democracy".

Analysts link the article to a keynote speech party chief President Hu Jintao delivered to the Central Party School in July, which was seen as setting the tone for the congress, and to recent speeches by top leaders suggesting consensus on the need for further reform. Previous calls for reform not only went unheeded, but the opposite happened. For example, the state sector has grown more powerful at the expense of the private sector. Now the economy is slowing down and needs to be rebalanced to put it on a healthier, more sustainable growth track, instead of relying on government spending and exports.

If there is a consensus, a catalyst in forging it could have been the scandal over disgraced politician Bo Xilai. This case exposed a deep-rooted lack of checks and balances, one reason a growing number of Chinese are worried about official corruption and inequality. This all calls for drastic reform, which raises the question: is party-leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping a true reformer? Former president Jiang Zemin and premier Zhu Rongji made significant enhancements to Deng Xiaoping's legacy of opening up, such as joining the World Trade Organisation to help the country's economic momentum. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have largely consolidated their achievements. China is now at the crossroads. The high road to reform beckons Xi and premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang sooner rather than later.