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Jaimon Joseph
Tuesday , November 27, 2012 at 17 : 36

A look at the new Chinese leadership


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We know all about Barack Obama's recent victory, Michelle's beauty, Romney's chicanery and perhaps even the name and breed of the first dog of the United States. But do we know as much about the new President-in-waiting next door? Considering China is the world's second largest economy, the only superpower after the United States, India's largest trading partner and the only country in our immediate vicinity that could steamroll us militarily - perhaps we ought to have paid more attention to its recent change of guard.

Pigeons in Beijing were ordered not to fly. As were remote controlled toy planes. Taxi drivers were warned not to roll down their windows (lest passengers throw out subversive literature). Balloons and ping pong balls were withdrawn from shop shelves (Inflammatory words could be scribbled on them). There was a near total clampdown on political discussions online.

Meanwhile, the Great Hall of The People, China's Parliament, was abuzz with the electricity that always accompanies great power.

The Communist Party of China probably has more members than any other party in the world - more than 82 million. Representing those millions at the 18th National Congress of the People's Republic of China, were 2,270 members. From those members were picked 370 candidates for the Central Committee, who then picked 25 candidates for the powerful Politburo. From this pool, came the 7 members of the all powerful Standing Committee - the men who will lead China for the next ten years.

The X Men

Xi Jinping

The 59-year-old Xi Jinping is the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and head of the Central Military Commission, which controls China's armed forces. He will take over as President of the People's Republic of China next March, when current President Hu Jintao steps down. Jinping is close to Jiang Zemin, a former president who is believed to have had a hand in picking the current crop of leaders.

The first thing that Xi Jinping did after the political formalities were over, was apologise. To the press corps, for keeping them waiting for almost 45 minutes. Nobody would have dared protest of course, but humility is an interesting trait, in the future leader of China.    

Tall, heavy set and affable, Xi has tried to project himself as a 'normal' guy. In a visit to Ireland earlier this year, he stopped by a stadium simply to kick soccer balls around. In the US, he spent hours visiting a mid-western family he had stayed with years ago, during his college days.

He is what many Chinese call a "Prince-ling", a descendant of someone who was once a high ranking official in the Chinese government. His father Xi Zhongxun was a revolutionary hero, who fought alongside Mao during the Chinese civil war. He was appointed Mao's propaganda chief but later, he and his family were banished from Beijing, during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Xi Jinping was a teenager then and for seven years, he was made to live and work in a village in remote Liangjiahe, to learn how farmers lived. "Knives are sharpened on stone. People are refined through hardship," he later said of his experience.

Xi's father ensured he got a proper education, something of a luxury in those times. He graduated in Chemical Engineering from Tsinghua University and spent time on a US farm in 1985.

He applied to join the communist party but was turned down multiple times, before finally being allowed to join forty years ago. He worked as a personal secretary to an important military leader, a post that could have helped him cultivate contacts in the military. He spearheaded reforms in coastal provinces and was appointed Party Secretary in Fujian and Shanghai. Jinping was elected to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 and was appointed Vice President in 2008.    

Experts are divided on what Xi's policy decisions might be. Some believe he prefers a more pacifist approach to the US but doubt if he will be able to stick to that approach, as America makes its presence felt more aggressively in Asian waters. Some think his affable personality could make him a conciliatory force, moderating an increasingly shrill public discourse in China. There are others who believe Xi will make 'resurgent nationalism' his political credo, as he faces internal strife, turbulence in Tibet and disputes with neighbouring countries.    

Xi JInping's wife, the 49-year-old Peng Liyuan, was till recently probably more famous than him. A soprano singer who performs revolutionary and patriotic songs, she commands a huge fan following, especially in the Army. She was recently appointed as WHO's goodwill ambassador for HIV/AIDS and TB prevention programmes and joined Bill Gates for an anti-smoking campaign in China. It'll be interesting to see how she will adjust to her husband's appointment as President - unlike the US, China has not really had a culture of First Wives in the limelight.

Their daughter Xi Mingze is currently studying at Harvard. She shot into public attention when as a teenager, she volunteered for relief work after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

Li Kequiang

Li Kequiang, 57, will take over from Wen Jiabao as Prime Minister, in March. An ally of current President Hu Jintao, he was in the race to be President but was probably outmaneuvered by Jiang Zemin, who wanted his own man in the top seat.

Though blessed with a youthful bearing, an easy smile and affable disposition and being among the few leaders who are completely at ease with English, some experts believe Mr Kequiang might struggle to form his own power base in the Standing Committee. They put that down to his patchy record as an administrator.

A native of China's poor Anhui province, Kequiang worked as a manual labourer before getting a law degree from Peking University and a doctorate in rural economics. He became China's youngest governor, when in 1998, at the age of 43, he was appointed as the Governor of Henan. Outspoken and cautiously pro-economic reforms, he managed to transform Henan from a poor province into an attractive investment destination.

But his record was marred when entire villages in Henan were infected by HIV/AIDS, because of a tainted, government-backed blood donation camp. Not only did he handle the crisis ham-handedly, he tried to prevent the news from being reported in the media. A string of national health scandals followed during his watch.

The Others

Zhang Dejiang, 66, the Chongquing Party Secretary and former Chief of Guangdong, trained as an economist in North Korea. He is a conservative and supports the state sector and is a Jiang Zemin Ally.

Yu Zhengsheng, 67, the former Shanghai Party Chief, has a degree in Ballistic Missile Control Systems. He is a cautious reformer and is also a Jiang Zemin ally.

Liu Yunshan, 65, the Senior Propoganda Official, is expected to keep the media on a tight leash. He is a former Xinhua reporter. A conservative, he is a Hu Jintao ally.

Wang Qishan, 64, is Vice Premier, in-charge of Economic Affairs and Head, Internal Disciplinary Body. He is the financial problem solver and crisis manager and has led strategic and economic dialogue with the US. A former Beijing Mayor, he is a Jiang Zemin ally.

Zhang Gaoli, 66, may be named as the top-ranked Vice Premier. A financial reformer and Party Secretary, Tianjin, he has studied economics and statistics.

At least nine Tibetans set themselves ablaze in protest, in the week the 18th Party Congress was held. Other Chinese minorities are also getting increasingly restive. Yet, only one Tibetan, one Uighur Muslim and 7 representatives from the other minorities have found a place in the Great Hall of the People.

This might signal an unyielding, iron-fisted approach to minority issues. Only 10 women have got a place in the central committee, with only two in the Politburo.

What happened backstage

A curious detail in this year's Congress was the resurgence of former Chinese President, 86-year-old Jiang Zemin. Mr Zemin, Hu Jintao's predecessor, was reported to be near death last year. This year, he walked into the Great Hall of the People with Mr Jintao, ahead of everyone else - a statement of his undiminished influence in the corridors of power.

Jiang Zemin, who brought China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and who favours more privatisation and better ties with America and Europe, has voiced his frustration in the past with Hu Jintao's more traditional, socialist policies. He has managed to outflank the current president and pack the new Standing Committee with four of his allies, including Xi Jinping. At least three members of the new Standing Committee, aged 65 or above, are expected to step down after three years, which will allow Jintao's pet protégée even more elbow room.

Corruption

It is probably the single most pressing challenge the new leadership will have to battle - it was referred to in the speeches of every top official at the Congress. Recent weeks saw the sacking of Bo Xilai, a very high ranking party official suspected of corruption and the trial of his wife for a sensational murder.

Charges of corruption did the rounds when Ling Gu, son of Ling Jihua, an official similar in rank to the White House Chief of Staff, died recently in a car crash. Twenty-three-year old Gu was found naked in the car with two women. But what irked people was that he was driving a 500,000-pound Ferrari, when his fresh out-of-graduate-school salary was only 6000 pounds. Ling Jihua, a close ally of Hu Jintao, was quickly demoted.

Both Bloomberg and the "New York Times" did startling exposes on massive corruption by the families of Wen Jiabao, the outgoing Prime Minister and Xi Jinping, the incoming President. Wen, who has always been seen as pro-reform, anti-corruption and scrupulously clean in his personal life, personally requested the standing committee to investigate his case and reportedly, his request has been accepted. Experts believe he might be volunteering for scrutiny himself in an effort to advance the idea of mandatory public disclosures of wealth by all leaders - something not very popular right now.

Challenges ahead

China has experienced the biggest, fastest industrial revolution in human history. Urban population grew by almost 480 million, in the past 30 years. Half of the Chinese population today lives in cities. Hu Jintao's ten year reign saw China grow from the world's sixth largest economy to its second largest economy. But that rate of growth is no longer sustainable.

China's economy is slowing down. Experts acknowledge the need to grow domestic demand instead of depending purely on exports. They also want the production of value-added, better quality goods and an opening up of the services sector. Meanwhile, as wages rise, China is losing its edge as a cheap factory. Pollution and corruption-related industrial protests have shut down a number of factories and production is suffering.

Rapid industrialisation also spawned a large middle class, which demands more economic and political freedom. China today has the largest number of Internet users in the world - 538 million, compared to just 60 million in 2002. While the web is heavily censored, anger against the government's corruption and heavy handed approach is growing. Unlike in the past, these voices can't be brutally silenced, without risking the economic gains of the past few decades. The party knows it has to reform quickly.

Meanwhile, young Tibetans and Uighurs are getting increasingly restive. An aggressive American pivot towards Asia has emboldened many of China's neighbours including Japan, Vietnam and even the Philippines to increase friction over strategic issues.

What India can expect

A Guangming newspaper editorial recently suggested that the border issue with India should be put on the backburner. There could be something to this sudden development, considering the daily is an official mouthpiece.

Interestingly, 70-year-old Dai Bingguo, China's chief border negotiator since 2003 (Atal Bihari Vajpayee's time) has retired. Over the past nine years, he dealt with Brajesh Mishra, JN Dixit, MK Narayanan and Shiv Shankar Menon, without yielding an inch.

Experts suggest that the choice of the next border representative, could provide some indication of China's intent. Appointing a junior assistant of Dai Bingguo could indicate a desire for continuity in negotiations. But someone new might signal a desire for a new approach. Interestingly, Xi Jinping, the incoming President, is also head of the Tibet Work Forum - the highest Beijing body dealing with the province.

India is a poor seventh in China's list of export destinations. Yet, the country is our largest trading partner. While trade in 2002 was just $4.9 billion, in 2012, it is close to $73 billion. But there is a huge trade deficit in China's favour. Not just this, almost 50 per cent of India's international trade now passes through the South China Sea. So we have strong reasons not to pick a fight with our neighbour.

Interestingly, China has strong reasons to maintain the status quo too. With its recently announced push towards economic engagements in Asia, India is an appealing destination. Indians have a penchant for low cost equipment and we have relatively few non-tariff trade barriers.

China is also worried that the US is scheming to rope India into an alliance against it. It has an interest in ensuring that India stays neutral and non-confrontational. Hence both the economy and the US can work to drive China and India closer. But New Delhi will have to work to leverage this opportunity to build a more comprehensive relationship with Beijing.


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More about Jaimon Joseph

I've always been scared around gadgets and software. And in awe of people who're good with them. After three years of science and tech reporting though, I think I'm starting to get the hang of things. Before this, I covered automobiles, health, careers and business, for seven years. Nice thing about technology is, it lets me poach into all those fields once in a while. I love this job. But I'm not sure how I managed to land it. I did my BA in Advertising from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce and MA in Journalism from Madurai Kamaraj University. I wanted to be a cartoonist, a guitar player and a footballer but sucked in all those fields. I can play the flute and harmonica though. And I have an interest in machines that move - it was cars and bikes earlier but considering there's nothing revolutionary happening there, it's military stuff now. I'm the sort who drools over figures. Not the 36-24-36 types. But top speed, acceleration, fuel consumption, drag co-efficient. I drive an Alto though. And usually take the Metro to work.
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