The Economist board has an editorial describing Xi Jinping as the man who “must” change China:
As ruler of the world’s new economic powerhouse, Mr Xi will follow his recent predecessors in trying to combine economic growth with political stability. Yet this task is proving increasingly difficult. A slowing economy, corruption and myriad social problems are causing growing frustration among China’s people and worry among its officials.
In coping with these tensions, Mr Xi can continue to clamp down on discontent, or he can start to loosen the party’s control. China’s future will be determined by the answer to this question: does Mr Xi have the courage and vision to see that assuring his country’s prosperity and stability in the future requires him to break with the past?
Until recently, the Chinese were getting richer so fast that most of them had better things to worry about than how they were governed. But today China faces a set of threats that an official journal describes as “interlocked like dog’s teeth”. The poor chafe at inequality, corruption, environmental ruin and land-grabs by officials. The middle class fret about contaminated food and many protect their savings by sending money abroad and signing up for foreign passports. The rich and powerful fight over the economy’s vast wealth. Scholars at a recent government conference summed it up well: China is “unstable at the grass roots, dejected at the middle strata and out of control at the top”.
Once, the party could bottle up dissent. But ordinary people today protest in public. They write books on previously taboo subjects and comment on everything in real time through China’s vibrant new social media. Complaints that would once have remained local are now debated nationwide. If China’s leaders mishandle the discontent, one senior economist warned in a secret report, it could cause “a chain reaction that results in social turmoil or violent revolution”.
But, you don’t need to think that China is on the brink of revolution to believe that it must use the next decade to change. The departing prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has more than once called China’s development “unbalanced, unco-ordinated and unsustainable”. Last week Qiushi , the party’s main theoretical journal, called on the government to “press ahead with restructuring of the political system”.
Ultimately, this newspaper hopes, political reform would make the party answerable to the courts and, as the purest expression of this, free political prisoners. It would scrap party-membership requirements for official positions and abolish party committees in ministries. It would curb the power of the propaganda department to impose censorship and scrap the central military commission, which commits the People’s Liberation Army to defend the party, not just the country.
No doubt Mr Xi would balk at that. Even so, a great man would be bold. Independent candidates should be encouraged to stand for people’s congresses, the local parliaments that operate at all levels of government, and they should have the freedom to let voters know what they think. A timetable should also be set for directly electing government leaders, starting with townships in the countryside and districts in the cities, perhaps allowing five years for those experiments to settle in, before taking direct elections up to the county level in rural areas, then prefectures and later provinces, leading all the way to competitive elections for national leaders.
Mr Xi comes at a crucial moment for China, when hardliners still deny the need for political change and insist that the state can put down dissent with force. For everyone else, too, Mr Xi’s choice will weigh heavily. The world has much more to fear from a weak, unstable China than from a strong one.