18th Party Congress

Only reform can ensure progress for China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 3:14am

Hu Jintao's swansong speech as head of the Chinese Communist Party was bound to set out a grand vision and be optimistic. At the opening of the 18th national congress yesterday, the nation's future direction and his legacy were on his mind, leading to a focus on achievements and failings, targets and challenges. There was little that has not already been heard over the past 10 years of his presidency. He told the more than 2,000 delegates, who in the coming week will confirm the leadership for the next decade, of the need to improve lives, fight corruption and reform the political system. They are heady goals that need courage and wisdom to turn from rhetoric into reality.

The task falls most of all to the next Politburo Standing Committee, to be unveiled next Thursday after the party's most fraught leadership transition in decades. At its head as party chief and premier-in-waiting will almost certainly be Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, whose immediate challenge will be to bring about and ensure unity. Without the party's supreme body working together, Hu's words will remain empty. Much has been achieved in the past decade and it must be built upon, widened and formalised for the national good.

Hu can rightly be proud of the benefits brought by policies he spearheaded. The economy has grown four-fold in dollar terms over the past decade to become the world's second-biggest. Lives have been greatly enriched, a solid middle class built and the foundations of a consumer society put firmly in place. China is now seen as a great power next to the US and few doubt that it will rise to the top.

The outgoing leader's legacy is also ensured; the constitution will be rewritten to include his theory of scientific development, which calls for balanced planning of the economy and environment and improvement of livelihoods. With that in mind, economic growth has for the first time been set aside as the top priority in favour of doubling GDP and per capita income by 2020. But wealth has brought challenges for the party. Corruption, environmental damage, inequality, illegal land grabs by officials, and unsafe food are foremost.

Hu rightly highlighted reform as the best way to push growth and defuse tension. The lack of meaningful progress means that the country is now at a critical juncture in its development. If the optimistic outlook painted yesterday is to be attained, the party has to embark unwaveringly on that course.