A year of China’s transition (2012 in Retrospect)

Beijing, Dec 23: China, one of the world’s most secretive nations and an economic power house, witnessed a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in 2012 that saw the baton being passed on to a new team of leaders who will govern a staggering 1.3 billion people.

Despite a double-digit annual growth rate for about three decades, the Chinese economy is now strained by a shortage of energy and resources, a wealth gap, inequitable income distribution, corruption and environmental woes.

The country’s present leaders, under President Hu Jintao, have been in power since 2002 and are referred to as the fourth generation to rule since the Communist Party of China (CPC) came to power in 1949.

In November, Xi Jinping was elected general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, paving his way to become the country’s next president after incumbent Hu Jintao steps down in March 2013.

Li Keqiang will become premier. Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli were elected members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the 18th CPC Central Committee.

Known as a “straight talker”, frugal, hardworking and down-to-earth, 59-year-old Xi is the “princeling” son of Mao Zedong-era revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun, one of the CPC’s founding fathers.

Once in Mexico, he hit out at concern over China’s growing might. Comments like vowing to “smash” any attempts to destabilise Tibet have contributed to his image as a tough speaker.

Analysts believe the world will see more of the tough talk after Xi assumes the top job.

“With rising nationalistic sentiments in China, Xi Jinping will have to become more assertive,” Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, told BBC.

Seen as having a zero-tolerance attitude towards corrupt officials, Xi has been a trouble-shooter.

Xi is also famous for his celebrity wife, singer Peng Liyuan, who also holds the rank of major general in the People’s Liberation Army.

A well-known Chinese folk singer and actress, Peng regularly appears on Chinese state TV’s New Year Gala, the most watched TV programme of the year. She was also appointed World Health Organisation Goodwill Ambassador for HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in 2011.

China’s transfer of powers have always stoked tension and uncertainty, according to a BBC commentary. But now that China is the world’s second-largest economy and a superpower in the making, the new leadership’s views really matter.

Some analysts believe China’s economic development model, which has delivered breakneck growth but at great environmental and social cost, is now unsustainable. Now the question is whether a one-party state can deliver the necessary reforms.

“I think it’s very difficult,” says Mao Yushi, an economist. “People don’t have the right to check the government’s abuses of power. Even information is not transparent; we know so little about the inner leadership circle.”

Odd Arne Westad, professor with the Department of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, better known as the author of “Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750″, said China’s rise can continue “for a very, very long time”.

China’s peaceful rise to a super power status will depend on other countries, Westad told state-run news agency Xinhua.

“It will depend on the US accepting a much bigger role for China in East Asia. It will depend on Japan being willing to work with China and not against it.”

He has suggested other countries “to be as cooperative as possible with regard to China” and “not to attempt to contain China within the region”.

During Hu’s decade in power, China’s economy averaged 10 percent annual growth. But the economy has become too reliant on government-led investment and state-owned companies. Global organisations say the government must now let the private sector flourish.

The gap between rich and poor is glaring, and China is now home to both millionaires and 150 million people living on $1 a day. Although the government has extended healthcare and pensions to millions, it faces huge future challenges because China’s population is ageing rapidly.

While Xi was waiting in the wings for five years, he carefully avoided giving any hint of his priorities, and remained strictly neutral to avoid endangering his status as the heir among the party’s competing factions.

Xi had created quite a sensation before his election as the new leader – he disappeared mysteriously for two weeks in September.

Then the vice president, he went unseen and unheard by the official Chinese media.

“It was weird, and a little bit scary, and we still don’t really know what happened,” the Washington Post said.

A China-based journalist said “the true story” was that Xi was hit in the back with a chair hurled during a contentious meeting of “the red second generation”.

“The meeting turned violent. They went at it hammer and sickle. Xi Jinping tried to calm them down. He put himself physically in the crossfire and unwittingly into the path of a chair as it was thrown across the room. It hit him in the back, injuring him. Hence the absence, and the silence, and the rumours,” the journalist said.

IANS