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Xi Jinping

Critics underestimate China's strengths

Lau Nai-keung notes its knack of producing leadership fit for the job

China, the world's largest developing economy with a gross domestic product second only to the US, factory to the world as well as its growth engine, is now at a crossroads. Its economic pace has slowed in recent months and it seems the country no longer has any tricks up its sleeve to regain its previous, unprecedented speed.

This comes amid mounting social stress and public debt, together with a real estate bubble, which some say is the biggest in history, on the verge of bursting. At the same time, China has to deal with a more hostile neighbourhood bolstered by America's high-profile re-entry into Asia.

Two days after the US presidential election, the Chinese Communist Party began its 18th party congress yesterday. The two events served similar functions, but every evening in the past month or so we in Hong Kong have been fed at least five minutes' TV coverage of the US election campaigns, while information about the Chinese party congress has been conspicuously absent. The obvious excuse is that Chinese political manoeuvring takes place inside a black box whereas America's is out in the open. This is beside the point; it just boils down to cultural hegemony.

The new Chinese team, unlike its US counterpart that will be in office for four years, is expected to be in power for the next decade without challenge. Thus, leaders can afford to take a longer-term view and make tougher decisions to tackle real issues, a luxury that Western political leaders never have.

On top of this, power is much more centralised in China and its leaders can leverage the resources of the whole country to tackle anything they deem urgent or important.

China is therefore more efficient in managing important events, projects and national crises, as can be seen with the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Expo, as well as the Sichuan earthquake and the evacuation of nationals from Libya.

Deep pockets are be a great help, too; again, another luxury of which Western politicians can only be envious.

Western observers often correctly pinpoint China's problems but neglect to mention its ability to tackle them. Yes, China is facing great problems, but never underestimate its problem-solving prowess.

Problems have been mounting in the past decade because the outgoing leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is now commonly regarded as a bit weak. Hu suffered from bad health and his political base is also quite feeble. Xi Jinping, the next leader, appears much more robust, though his recent absence from the public eye sparked speculation that he has coronary problems, an affliction which is quite common for people of his age. Politically, Xi enjoys support from the so-called princelings, the descendants of prominent and influential senior officials, the military and the party's youth league. He is said to be enormously popular among his subordinates, because of his generosity in reward. According to WikiLeaks, cables from the US Embassy in Beijing say Xi is "redder than red" - meaning he is a diehard communist - and he is also untainted.

He is expected to be hawkish in international relations. In recent months, he has quietly changed the paradigm about the country's position on the Diaoyu Islands. Instead of delving into the historical evidence for China's sovereign claim, he emphasised the various international treaties that ended the second world war, to which the US and other Western powers were also signatories. With this legal twist, the US has had no choice but to back off, leaving Japan out in the cold. Given that Japan and its position on the disputed islands are vastly unpopular inside China, this move won Xi a lot of applause.

Again, never underestimate the Chinese Communist Party and its ability to produce a new leadership fit for the task. Ever since the birth of the People's Republic in 1949, doomsday prophets have abounded, but their pessimistic forecasts have all proved to be just wishful thinking. They repeat the warnings at their peril.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Critics underestimate China's ability to solve its problems