Column : Change comes to China

Written by Amitendu Palit | Updated: Nov 15 2012, 06:15am hrs
The 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) selected its central committee on November 14. The Congress, which began on the November 8, comprised 2,307 carefully-selected delegates culled out of a party having more than 80 million members. The delegates have elected the central committee, which will now elect the standing committee of the Politburo.

The eventual composition of the leadership does not include surprises. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, both members of the standing committee of the Politburo from the 17th Congress, are in the central committee. Xi Jinping is expected to replace President Hu Jintao. He is also expected to be elected as the general secretary of the CPC in its first plenary session. Li Keqiang is expected to replace Premier Wen Jiabao.

The central committee is significantly new given that several stalwarts are no longer there. These not only include Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, but also Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin, Li Changchun, He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang. With these leaders retiring, the Chinese leadership assumes an almost completely new look.

The striking emphasis in the choice of leadership has been on youth. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are yet to turn 60 and are more than 10 years younger than the leaders they will replace. The rest of the leadership is of similar vintage, underlining Chinas decision to put its future in the younger, post-World War generation of leaders for the next 10 years.

What is critically important is the vision of China that the new leadership will set out to implement in the months and years to come. The outlines of the vision are laid out in the resolution of the 18th National Congress. The roughly 2,500-word document traces the vision of a modern China and the efforts it needs to make in the face of some unusual challenges.

The resolution is unique in its multiple references to socialism. In a world where socialism hardly appears outside history books and dictionaries, socialism and socialist appear 33 times in the document. Out of these, 19 occurrences are for socialism with Chinese characteristics. Clearly, the CPC has made no bones in declaring to the rest of the world that whatever changes it introduces in the future will be towards justifying and consolidating socialism with Chinese characteristics. Along with socialism, Marx makes a happy comeback in the document with 8 references. Lenin and Mao Zedong follow with a couple each. Deng Xiaoping fares slightly better with three mentions.

While referring to the consolidation and modernisation of China along the lines of development based on socialism with Chinese characteristics, and eulogising Marx, Lenin, Mao and Deng Xiaoping, the resolution alludes to a scientific outlook on development. This oft-repeated phrase (seven times) justifies the process of trials and changes that has been gradually institutionalised by the outgoing leadership. Guided by this scientific outlook on development, the resolution specifies five major goals for China. These are:

Sustained and sound economic development;

Expanding peoples democracy;

Significantly improving the countrys cultural soft-power;

Fully raising living standards;

Achieving major progress in building a resource-conserving and environmentally-friendly society.

Some of the goals, like the focus on resource-conservation and the environment, indicate the seriousness with which China plans to address these concerns. A considerable amount of resources are expected to flow into environment measures over the next few years. Incentives of industries and economic administrators are also expected to be aligned accordingly through a conscious shift from the earlier emphasis on pure economic growth. Similarly, the emphasis on cultural soft power underlines the intention to step up cultural diplomacy with all corners of the world. Culture can well become Chinas most conspicuous export in the years to come.

While the emphasis on economic development is not unexpected, along with a rise in living standards, the surprise is in the repeated emphasis on achieving a moderately prosperous society. Clearly the effort to raise living standards is being set off against a tempering of expectations, which have zoomed sky high, following a sharp increase in consumption propensity and growth of liquid wealth. Accumulation has been driving greed, which is leading to ratcheting imbalances among income classes.

Indeed, the biggest surprise in the document, and the most onerous challenge for the new and young leaders of China, would be controlling corruption. In a rare admission of one of the biggest threats to socio-economic stability in China, the resolution underscores the importance of tackling corruption and ensuring political integrity. In terms of reference, corruption beats Mao, Lenin and Deng by bagging six mentions.

Hu Jintaos repeated mentions of corruption during the Congress and its emphasis in the resolution is a clear throwback to Bo Xilai. The shadow of Bo has hung heavily on the resolution irrespective of how he is perceived: as a crusader against authoritarianism and high-handedness or an amasser of wealth and money through shady means. His spectre will continue to haunt China as the new and young leadership assumes charge to steer China into a new future.

The author is head (partnership and programme) and visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore. He can be reached at [email protected] Views are personal