Published — Sunday 2 December 2012
Last update 2 December 2012 2:47 am
In the weeks, and months, ahead, there will be tomes written on the significance of the change in China’s leadership with 62-year-old Xi Jinping succeeding Hu Jintao as the new helmsman. The import of the epochal shift, like all things Chinese, may unravel rather slowly.
The obvious text, replete with promises of political reform, more equitable economic development, fighting corruption and the great renewal of the Chinese nation, would be read closely for underlying meaning by the world, including India, for the likely impact, big and small, of the new spearhead of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
If there were no surprises so far — in Xi taking charge with Li Keqiang as his No 2, in outgoing president Hu and former leader Jiang Zemin pushing through their seven nominees to make up the Standing Committee of the 25-member Politburo and four ‘princelings’ taking their ‘due’ place in the Politburo Standing Committee (PSBC) — it is because the moves were plotted and negotiated much in advance of the CPC’s National Congress.
The presence of the “princelings” — descendants of first-generation party revolutionaries — in the sixth generation of Chinese leadership are a reminder that the first post-Maoist ruling elite (born after 1949) is not without ‘organic’ links to the revolutionary era.
The seven may be united by their reformist credentials, which all of them, particularly Xi, are wearing on their sleeve at a time when China is facing severe tests at home and critical challenges abroad. The agenda set for Xi and Li is political reform, and political reform was the principal issue at the 18th National Congress which elected the Politburo and the PSBC.
Reform, in China, means fighting corruption and inequalities, and reducing the extreme economic disparity. In the aftermath of the Bo Xiliai affair, reform invariably means political reform; the ‘political’ part of it being exercises to keep out such political elements from party and public offices, and preventing their rise through party and government ranks.
In his first speech as party boss, Xi mentioned the “severe challenges”. “The people’s desire for a better life is what we shall fight for,” he asserted, leaving little doubt that he would strive to anchor economic reform in political harmonization. He repeatedly referred to “the great renewal of the Chinese nation,” indicating that this might well be his theme song for rallying the Party to the cause.
For India, the leadership change in China, does not imply any dramatic turn. The fact that China did not pay undue attention, as the Indian media did, to the 50th anniversary of the 1962 war suggests that the new leadership may be looking more for areas of cooperation and convergence than confrontation. In the region, with the US rooting for an Asia pivot, Beijing would like to be on friendlier terms with New Delhi. Bilaterally, China may focus on trade, as India is its largest trading partner with the target of $100 billion expected to be exceeded soon.
Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ably aided and assisted by Shivshankar Menon as foreign secretary and national security adviser, India and China have enjoyed a long spell of warmth, unspoiled by the occasional irritants and hiccups. Singh’s special rapport with premier Wen Jiabao is unlikely to lose its effect overnight even in the changed political situation. Hence, it would be reasonable to expect a period of continuity, at least as long as the present dispensation in New Delhi continues.
Beyond India, China’s relations with the US would determine the new leadership’s impact on the rest of the world. Change in China came within a week of the US elections returning President Barack Obama for a second term. Obama faces multiple challenges at home and abroad; and, he needs China as an ally to cope with the economic situation at home as well as for dealing with issues threatening regional and global peace and security.
There are strategic compulsions for Washington and Beijing to walk hand in hand, at least in the short run. Until a Europe haunted by the political instability rooted in its economic crisis resumes its role as a dependable ally, the elections in Japan are concluded and a West Asia on the boil cooled down, president Obama may resist “internationalyzing” China’s thrust for “political reform”.
Political reform in China cannot ever remain solely an internal matter, but hastening to integrate China into the “global political system” could have disastrous consequences. If China goes down, in the process it could drag down the US as well as several other economies. It would be best to wait and watch how political reform unravels in China before coming to any conclusions, particularly conclusions for responding to or influencing the process.
(The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator who has worked as senior editor with the China Daily and Global Times in Beijing)