China's leadership change

by Rebecca Macfie / 10 November, 2012
As China stage-manages a rare leadership change, the powerhouse faces economic and social challenges that threaten the Communist Party’s hold.
China's leadership change - Chinese flag

Two days after the Americans go to the polls to elect their president, China’s political elite will meet in Beijing for the 18th Communist Party Congress, heralding a once-in-a-decade leadership change for the world’s most populous country and second-largest economy. The handover of power from the incumbent leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, to their successors, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, will be tightly scripted and choreographed.

The business of the Communist Party’s National Congress will occur behind closed doors; no noisy rabble of protesters will be gathered outside. But the leadership change comes at a time of great challenge for China. The scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, the former party chief of the mega-city of Chongqing, has seen the one-party regime grappling with what the Wall Street Journal calls its biggest political crisis since the violent crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Bo, an ambitious and charismatic party high-flyer who reportedly ruled Chongqing with an iron fist and aroused the spectre of Mao-style personality-driven leadership, was undone after his police chief and former close ally fled to the US consulate in Chengdu early this year with allegations of corruption and murder. Soon after, Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was accused of the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in a seedy Chongqing hotel in November 2011, for which she was given a suspended death sentence after a one-day trial. Bo has since been sacked from his post and expelled from the party, and is due to be tried for corruption, abuse of power and illicit relations with women.

New Zealand journalist Jamil Anderlini, the Financial Times’ bureau chief in Beijing, argues the Bo scandal will prove to be a defining moment for China’s Government because it has shown people “how rotten it is right to the top”. Although China has had scandals before, the critical difference now is Weibo – the country’s equivalent to microblogging site Twitter – which spreads news so rapidly that the state censors have been unable to keep control of it. Nor does the Bo case stand alone as evidence the country’s political top brass use their positions to enrich themselves. Despite efforts to suppress the news, recent revelations that the son of a high-ranking ally of President Hu was killed in Beijing in March in a 4am crash involving a black Ferrari underscore concern at the privileged lifestyles of the elite and their children.


The recent downfall of once-powerful Railways Minister Liu Zhijun, who was responsible for the massive and rapid expansion of China’s high-speed rail system, has also provided a glimpse into China’s pervasive graft. Liu has been thrown out of the party and accused of taking bribes in a case that revealed huge corruption at the heart of one of China’s most prestigious projects. He has also carried much of the blame for last year’s high-speed train crash at Wenzhou, which killed 40 people and highlighted shortcuts and systematic safety failures in the development of the rail network.

In a detailed article on the Wenzhou crash for the New Yorker, writer Evan Osnos has called it China’s “Hurricane Katrina”, exposing the “iconic failure of Government performance”. Liu’s “spectacular” corruption raised the question of whether the Chinese Government “at the highest levels has lost its way”. Osnos argues the case has “forced people to ask whether [those] at the very top of the Communist Party are still operating in the people’s best interests, or whether it has become something closer to a kleptocracy.” Professor Xiaoming Huang, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, believes China’s leaders will handle the crisis surrounding the Bo case in a way that ensures political stability won’t be threatened. But he is pessimistic about the regime’s ability to root out deep-seated corruption, given so many have vested interests. Indeed, a major investigation by the New York Times last month found that family members of Prime Minister Wen have amassed a fortune worth US$2.7 billion.


China’s incoming leaders also face pressure from an economy no longer enjoying the double-digit expansion that characterised much of the past three decades. Analysts say the excessive power of state-owned enterprises is squeezing the private sector and curtailing innovation and growth. The gap between the rich and poor is massive and growing, and food safety and pollution are perennial concerns. A recent Pew Research Center survey of Chinese attitudes found people had grown more anxious in the past four years – although 70% said they were financially better off than five years earlier, more people thought such issues as rising prices, official corruption, widening inequality, food safety, and health and education were “very big problems”.

The forced eviction of farmers and householders from their land is also a routine source of grief and unrest. A recent Amnesty International report says intimidation, harassment, violence and murder have all been used to remove occupants from their land without proper compensation, and it documents 41 cases of self-immolation between 2009 and 2011 due to forced evictions. Amnesty argues powerful incentives are driving the evictions, as the income from the sale of land rights is the single largest source of revenue for local governments, which have borrowed heavily from state banks for economic-stimulus projects.

The report cites scholars who estimate that in 2010 China saw 180,000 incidents of protest and unrest – twice as many as in 2006 – with most of them sparked by the seizure of farm land. Many believe China’s social and economic stresses are reaching a dangerous point. The question is whether under incoming leader Xi the all-powerful Communist Party can adapt and respond to the pressure for change, and continue the economic transformation that has seen hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty over the past 30 years.
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