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Broken shoes and dead ends in China's leadership transition

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Binoy Kampmark |  13 November 2012

Vice President Xi JinpingIt is a time of leadership transitions. The US has had its monumentally expensive election. There are changes in North Korea, now headed by a leader who has initiated modest internal reforms in an otherwise brutal state.

Then, there is the meeting of the 18th Communist Party Congress in China, where a leadership transition is taking place in strict, choreographed style. Things have been rocky in the Politburo, due to scandals involving murder and systemic corruption. The body is deeply factional and fractious, despite the public face of unity. Social media and the communication cycle have made clamping down on rumours even more difficult.

The executive body of the Congress has formalised a list of names for congress delegates to review. The favourite remains Vice President Xi Jinping (pictured), who has for some time positioned himself to replace President Hu Jintao. Yet even he has become enigmatic, disappearing from public view in September without any formal explanation, failing to make scheduled meetings with foreign dignitaries and troubling China observers.

It would seem that the problems that face China and its citizens are considerable.

Under Hu, the security establishment blossomed, and economic reforms stalled. Party officials, mindful of fears that Chinese growth has become lethargic, released figures on Friday showing that the sluggishness is abating. Output from factories, workshops and mines rose 9.6 per cent in October, from 9.2 per cent in September. Consumer spending has increased while inflation kept down to 1.7 per cent.

'What a lovely dataset to welcome in China's new set of leaders,' crowed HIS Global Insight economists Ren Xianfang and Alistair Thornton. In his drawn-out farewell address, Hu claimed that 'People's quality of life has dramatically improved. Democracy and the legal system has been improved.'

In real terms, the Chinese leadership have been mobilising their citizens for a popular platform for Beijing's sabre rattling in territorial disputes. The attempts to target Japanese companies over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands is one such instance, a mixture of popular indignation and state orchestration. But behind the political agitation lie genuine efforts to forge ties and bypass the heated engagements.

Realpolitik is not a citizen's priority. Chinese students are flocking to institutions in the US and Australasia. American companies seek inexpensive labour in China; its teachers, struggling to find work in their home country, do so in Beijing, one example being Jonathan Levine of New York, who found employment at Tsinghua University. For such people, 'China bashing' is distinctly off the cards.

There is also acute dissatisfaction with the politburo leaders. Hu's farewell speech has been ridiculed by some Chinese bloggers who have managed to evade the censors. One user of Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-styled platform, claimed, 'No matter if it's the new or old road, if you put on two broken shoes, how can you walk down a good path?' Another: 'Won't walk down the old path ... We only walk down a dead end.'

Australia's unimaginative perspective on China's growing and jostling power accords with Washington's. In Obama's terms, China can be an adversary or a partner. That is a difficult stance to take, given that China has become America's largest debt holder, while America is China's greatest purchaser. There is a dual strategy of containment and management, an approach that risks failing dramatically depending on how Beijing responds.

The United States is increasing its Pacific presence in naval terms, holding more exercises with South Korean and Japanese forces, and basing more troops in Australia. In real terms, the re-deployment will not see a dramatic increase in vessels, but the belligerent symbolism is unmistakable.

Australia has a very selective interest in China — it buys China's commodities, but is troubled by its increasing global influence, not merely in the consumer market, but in its hunger for resources. That hunger is both an asset and a threat.

The great challenge, argues Charles Doran, is how to integrate China into the global system without conflict, a case of identifying its 'power cycle'. Powers in their twilight, in the face of powers that seem challenging, often precipitate conflict. A similar view was expressed by Kevin Rudd to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in leaked WikiLeaks cables — seek to 'integrate' China, and if not, deploy force in the manner of a 'brutal realist'.

The new China is a complex leviathan, facing internal struggles in terms of economic reform, the role of the party, and its territorial assertions. The striking question for the new leadership will be whether they do, in fact, walk to a dead-ended future with broken shoes, or embrace a different pathway with a new set of footwear.

Binoy Kampmark headshotBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.



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Submitted comments

We would all do well to remember that China's economy is at risk. The government has been investing in infrastructure for many decades with the return of that investment at very low if not negative levels. Moreover, the housing bubble in China is legion and will burst! Beware Australia! When China sneezes Australia will be the sick patient.

joe remenyi 14 November 2012

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