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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

China’s Heir Apparent

February 17, 2012

February 12, 2012


IT is a deeply ingrained belief in China that a young novice starting out in the real world must earn a degree, or at least spend some time in the West. “Gilding,” or “du-jin” as it’s called in Chinese, boosts the person’s credentials and chances of success. Nowhere is this belief more apparent than in politics. For a new leader, strutting on the White House lawn and shaking hands with the president of the United States validates his status as a true statesman and confirms his country’s rising power.

Ten years ago, China’s current president, Hu Jintao, made the rounds in Washington before taking the top spot. His meeting with President George W. Bush was widely seen in China as his official debut on the world stage.

The tradition continues on Tuesday as Vice President Xi Jinping arrives in Washington. Mr. Xi is slated to become general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party later this year and China’s president in early 2013.

The public sees Mr. Xi as a man of the people. When Mr. Xi was 9, his father, Xi Zhongxun, who had fought in the Communist revolution, was purged from the party by Mao. The father was detained and imprisoned and spent 16 years in a labor camp, plunging the family into poverty. During the Cultural Revolution, a 15-year-old Mr. Xi was banished to a poverty-stricken village in northern China where, for seven years, he labored with peasants, eating corn chaff bread and sleeping in a flea-infested bed.

His past sufferings will most likely make him an advocate of ordinary people’s interests. Indeed, the public expects that Mr. Xi will follow the example of his father, who later became instrumental in initiating China’s economic reforms, backed many of his progressive contemporaries and reportedly disagreed with the violent suppression of student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Mr. Xi will take the helm amid increasing disillusionment with Mr. Hu, a cautious technocrat who lacked the talent and political will to steer the country in a new direction. Even though China has used market reforms to transform itself into an economic powerhouse, the government lives in constant fear of unrest.

Wealth and opportunities have been snatched by a few politically connected individuals. Corruption is rampant, and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. President Hu has resisted calls to reform China’s political system. Instead, he has reverted to the Mao-era policy of creating mammoth state-run enterprises and allocating billions of dollars to a security apparatus that routinely cracks down on dissent.

Economic growth has offered Mr. Hu a temporary reprieve; Mr. Xi will not be so lucky. The economy is showing signs of stalling, the real estate bubble could burst and the financial system is being undermined by unregulated and corrupt lending. Meanwhile, protests against corruption and social injustice are intensifying as the country’s environmental resources are depleted without any consideration of future generations.

Inaction isn’t an option for Mr. Xi. He will have to combat corruption, improve protections for peasants and migrant workers and rejuvenate private enterprise. Given that his father was once persecuted for supporting a banned book, Mr. Xi should grasp the importance of free speech, and one hopes he will work to regain the trust of intellectuals. But without free elections, a free press and independent judges, the government can’t fulfill its promise to stamp out corruption and build a fair and just society.

Mr. Xi will face many constraints. Even though he will rule the world’s most populous nation and faces no official political opposition, he lacks the legitimacy accorded democratically elected officials. And he can’t expect to dominate China’s power structure as Mao and Deng Xiaoping did. In today’s China, every decision requires balancing the political interests of all factions. And the recent uprisings in the Arab world have made Chinese leaders keenly aware of their own vulnerability to political score-settling in the event of a government collapse. They will try everything to prevent it from happening in their lifetimes.

However, the trend is irreversible. As the insatiable greed of corrupt officials and unfair economic practices further exacerbate public anger and hatred, a large-scale crisis, set off by events like an economic meltdown or a protest by peasants or migrant workers, could occur.

If that happens, Mr. Xi seems more likely than former leaders to rally progressives both within and outside the party, take advantage of grass-roots movements and genuinely transform China’s political landscape. A responsible, democratic China that embraced human rights and international norms would stand up to terrorists and dictators and instill trust in neighbors.

Until now, the Chinese government has successfully deflected international pressure for change largely because a group of money-grubbing Western investors, desperate politicians and opportunistic scholars have fawned over China’s vast foreign reserves and market potential. One can only hope that the American government will see past the money and unequivocally support the voices of reform and push for political change from within. Despite China’s tough talk, pressure from the West matters and can make a difference.

Ho Pin is the Chinese-language editor and publisher of “The Biography of Xi Jinping.” This essay was translated by Wenguang Huang from the Chinese.

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