With his appointment as president of China, Xi Jinping has acquired the last of the three titles that officially makes him the most powerful political leader in Asia and the second most important persona in the world. Over the past few months it was not clear whether China’s actions represented the legacy of predecessors like Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.
From now on, whatever China does — and does not do — will be ascribed to Mr Xi and the consequential praise or criticism will be laid at his feet.
Mr Xi will be coming to power with the sort of political coh-erence on the home front that most China watchers argue has not been seen since the time of Deng Xiaoping. After several years of brutal faction fighting, Mr Xi will be in charge of the sort of united Politburo and Central Committee of the sort not seen since the 1980s. Mr Xi will need this sort of political backing. China faces multiple challenges that, if not addressed properly, could interrupt its remarkable economic and political rise. The first challenge is the economy. The Chinese economy continues to be among the most dynamic in the world. But its original model, driven by enormous investment and exports, is slowing down.
Beijing accepts it must move to one more driven by domestic consumption and indigenous entrepreneurship. But it is a transition that will be marked by considerable political and social disruption. The second challenge is the security environment. Beijing picked a fight with almost every one of its neighbours over the past five years. This seems to have been a byproduct of the succession struggle that preceded Mr Xi’s ascension. China has begun trying to repair some of the damage done by this period of foreign policy of assertiveness — rhetorically, at least, it is all sweetness and light with India right now. However, that the world’s number two power should be so strategically unpredictable has unnerved Asia. It is as yet unclear whether Mr Xi will sheathe China’s claws or be more selective in its aggression.
What no one should expect from Mr Xi is political reform. The one lesson the Chinese leadership has learnt from the collapse of the Soviet Union is to never combine economic reforms with political change. Mr Xi has never indicated any interest in democracy or its variations. If anything, Beijing had traditionally tightened its grip when it has retooled the economy.
Mr Xi sees himself as a second Deng Xiaoping: a reformer who will take China to its next level of economic development and make the final push to making China a genuine superpower. India’s own political leaders, who have frittered away the past several years, should draw lessons from Beijing’s new dispensation and ask themselves what a new Chinese growth trajectory could mean for this country.