Huge expectations facing new Chinese leadership | Asia Pacific

Huge expectations facing new Chinese leadership

Huge expectations facing new Chinese leadership

Updated 4 March 2013, 21:54 AEDT

China's parliament opens tomorrow in Beijing, in a session that will swear in the new generation of leaders, including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

However, the complicated political culture of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, its 25-member Politburo and the powerful 7-member Standing Committee, may mean that much-anticipated reforms may come at a slow pace.

Sinologist Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese politics and director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese politics and director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney

BROWN: Well, the tasks were the same as they were, when reform and opening up started in 1978 - and that is, to continue developing economic growth and lifting the living standards of people. The issue now though, is that China has set itself - the government and the party - of doubling GDP within the next eight years. So basically, per capita GDP now is about $5000 or $5,500 US dollars - and the aspiration is to have that increased to around US$11,000 by 2020.

So this will in fact make China a middle-income status country. In most other countries in which that has happened, that has led to some kind of political, legal, social changes - has a very big, complex impact. And so, in a a sense, you can say that broadly, the party's commitment to economic development, while it remains very very important, is going to have competing political, legal and social policy issues, which are almost certain to grow urgent, as the years go on.

LAM: Anyone who's been to the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai will see the conspicuous consumption that China's economic growth is fostering, and yet the gap between the rich and poor is widening. How do you see this playing out, under Xi Jinping's leadership?

BROWN: The attempt to do something about inequality has been a constant issue for the last fifteen years. The issue though, is what do you do about it? You want people to unleash their entreprenuerial energies, obviously and that's happening in China. You want people to have the economic freedom to do that. On the other hand, you still have according to the National People's Congress last year, 150-million people living in the Chinese definition of poverty, and may be as many as 25-million malnourished.

So you've got a country with lots and lots of wealthy people but also a country with many poor people. I think the key strategy for dealing with inequality is going to be to try and build up social welfare, to address some of the big issues about the inequalities between the city and the countryside. China's urbanising very quickly, it's already 50-50 percent for the first time in history.

So really, trying to build up the kind of social infrastructure that allows people to may be, kinda feel more secure, but also to do something about the poorer people in society without access to public goods at the moment.

LAM: It's reported that outgoing President Hu Jintao's proteges still dominate the current politburo - does that mean that Xi Jinping has to tread gingerly, in terms of bringing about reform?

BROWN: Well, he is one of a group of leaders, he's not the Emperor. It's not like there's someone sitting at the centre, with all power. Obviously, Xi Jinping is a critical person, because he has the party leadership, he has the military leadership and this week, or next, he'll get the presidency. But the contraints on him from other groups in the party, from just the inability to implement things in such a complicated society - it's not going to be a free run, it's not going to be an easy run. And basically, it's a question of prioritising - where is the place where Xi really feels he can place all of the kind of concentration, to be able to get concensus on a particular issue.

We seem to have a mixture of people who believe in the role of the state-owned enterprises and feel that the state should still be running large parts of the economy. But also people who're may be more liberal, like (incoming Premier) Li Keqiang and believe in greater opening up. And so, because his leaderships is new, we really don't know the answer to that at the moment.

LAM: And indeed, a group of industrialists from the private sector will try and persuade the party to push on with privatisation. Is privatisation of state firms something the party might actively pursue under Xi Jinping?

BROWN: The non-state sector in China, the private sector creates alot of employment, alot of innovation and alot of growth. The issue really is, that state-owned enterprises have been big, big suppliers of profit, but they have become vested interests, they've become empires, political empires sometimes. So I'm sure part of the strategy will be, how do we deal with this, how do we continue to get good growth from state-owned enterprises, make them more efficient, and ensure they don't become over-mighty?

There're certain parts of the economy, the state-owned enterprises, energy and other areas which is not so easy to do. But there're some parts, where you can say Ok, we've got to marketise these. And I'm sure that will be one of the key battles in the years ahead.

LAM: As you say, China's leadership is pretty complicated, much negotiation has to take place before any kind of change is implemented. How do you think this slow pace of change might go down with an increasingly youthful and well-informed Chinese population?

BROWN: Well, it's going to be a very tough thing, because their expectations are pretty high - they want the same things as consumers in the West want, they want the same public goods, they want the same security. And so, they're going to be pretty demanding on their government and in places like Shanghai and Beijing, they already are.

How the government fulfills these expectations is going to be a huge huge challenge. And we should not under-estimate the possibilities of there being major problems in the years ahead. And may be quite soon, as some of this discontent and contention bubbles over.

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