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Change in China

As a new leader is chosen, Adam Bushby examines how the world's most populous country is governed

As expected, Xi Jinping has been confirmed as the man who will lead China for the next decade. Replacing Hu Jintao, Xi will head up the omnipotent Politburo Standing Committee, which comprises Premier Li Keqiang, Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang, Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng, propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, Vice-Premier Wang Qishan and Tianjin party boss Zhang Gaoli; seven men who are largely unknown in the west, but speak for a fifth of the world's people. This decision matters, considering the fact that in the past decade China has steamrolled Japan to become the world's second largest economy, and the impact this vast country is capable of having on the rest of the world.

Secret history

As a son of a former Communist Party vice-premier, Xi Zhongxun, one might assume that growing up Xi had it relatively easy, but his story makes for interesting reading. When he was nine, his father fell foul of Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution and Xi lived out his formative years in a cave in the village of Liangjiahe. "I ate a lot more bitterness than most people," he once told a Chinese magazine.

But this experience of living as the masses did may well give him some empathy for the rural population, which numbered over 650 million as of 2011. And the new General Secretary's alleged distaste for official corruption could be seen as a direct consequence of his father's fate.

But as with all things political in China, "alleged" is the operative word. One-party rule by its very nature lacks transparency. The new so-called fifth generation headed up by Xi takes the reins for a ten-year period (though only Xi and Li will serve two five-year terms due to those over the age of 68 facing mandatory retirement), yet those on the seven-man Standing Committee have never fought an election. This has held true for China's rulers since Mao Zedong founded modern China in 1949 and, in many ways, the cloaks and daggers are still littered around the Great Hall of the People - the precise nature of the selection process is still a secretive one, seemingly reliant on factions formed over decades.

All talk, no action?

But China's brand of communism has become a different beast from the one created by Mao. Superlative growth in recent times has made sure of that. Although western-style politics are still way off, changes in tack can be expected as evolution, if not revolution, becomes the order of the day. But evolution into what? Wu Qing, a famous Chinese civil rights advocate, believes change will come: "People want rule of law. People want democracy and freedom. In the constitution it says people have freedom of speech, freedom of publication, and freedom of lots of things. And yet it is hard. But people are pushing for that."

Commentators have identified some big challenges for China's government over the midterm on top of calls from its population for greater personal freedom, including a rising disparity between rich and poor, gender imbalance as a result of the one-child policy implemented at the end of the 1970s, and poor employment and working conditions in places. But Xi said in 2009: "There are some well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you. What else is there to say?" The truth is that we do not comprehensively know where Xi stands on policy, or how he intends to tackle the nation's challenges; Chinese leaders prefer to do their talking behind closed doors.

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