While the U.S. Presidential election has been grabbing all of the headlines, a quieter and more subtle power change is underway in China. The once-a-decade Communist Party Congress is expected to install a new group of leaders to help China cope with fast changing domestic and international landscapes. Ushering in the so-called “fifth generation” of leaders, the Congress is expected to install Mr. Xi Jingping as the Communist party’s top authority and as the President of China. Mr. Xi will be replacing Mr. Hu who first assumed office in 2002.
China does not have a direct multi-party election like in the US and many other countries. Instead Communist Party officials are elected at the National Congress of the Communist Party of China, though most of the time the decision about how will be “elected” has already been made and the Congress merely rubber stamps the decision. All members of the Congress are Communist Party officials and all people elected to office are also part of the Communist Party.
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The office of President in China is more complicated than in other nations. Technically the President is an “honorary” title with the Premier of China holding much of the direct power. However, the President of China also holds the office of General Secretary of the Communist party, the highest rank within the party structure. The General Secretary generally determines the overall direction of the Party and the country, leaving the details to be worked out by the Premier of China (essentially the Prime Minister).
A charismatic 59 year old, Mr. Xi is married to one of China’s most popular pop singers, is seen as a cautious reformer, but also an individual open to change. Mr. Xi has acknowledged that China must confront many of the ghosts in its closet, including rampant corruption among the Communist party’s leadership and ensuring that economic development benefits the people as a whole. With the spread of social media and digital communication the Communist Party is aware that they must change and adapt or risk civic unrest.
Mr. Xi is known for his charisma and likable personality. A fan of many North American and European staples, such as soccer and Hollywood movies, Mr. Xi is also seen as a more progressive figure than the outgoing Mr. Hu who has been criticized for a rather tepid handling of the economy and an outright poor handling of social problems.
Compared the Arab Spring and its fall out, the Eurozone Crisis, and the 2012 political elections in the United States, China may appear to be a bastion of relative calm but appearances can be deceiving. The Communist Party is coming under increasing pressure for reform from a civilian population that is now demanding a greater share of the benefits of China’s astounding economic development.
Perhaps for the first time in its modern history China is facing labor shortages as migrant workers are refusing to work for the low wages and in the poor working conditions being offered. Riots have been breaking out on a near regular basis at many manufacturing plants, including the Foxconn plant responsible for producing iPhones. And with the proliferation of social media and digital communication the Communist Party is well aware that unless conditions improve China may face it’s own Arab Spring style revolution.
Further, protests break out in China on a daily basis, averaging approximately 500 recorded protests per day. These protests can range from demands for increased freedom of expression to protests over working conditions. While most of these protests have been small in scale with the spread of social media there is a risk that these protests may eventually boil over into full civic unrest.
China’s economy has been slowing in recent months though economic indicators in the last few weeks have pointed largely up. Mr. Xi will now be tasked with guiding China through a turbulent international economy while also shoring up domestic issues. Mr. Xi must also continue China’s gradual shift towards a consumer driven economy less reliant on exports.
Most importantly, however, Mr. Xi and the Communist Party as a whole, must contend with rampant corruption within the party. As the Bo Xilai scandal has proven, corruption has reached into the highest echelons of the Communist Party. Even the out-going Mr. Hu has acknowledged that the Communist Party’s future is likely to be determined by how it responds to corruption. Without major reform there is a high risk that the one party state will collapse, possibly dragging China down with it.
By most accounts Mr. Xi is set to become the next Premier of China. Mr. Xi comes with a long history of civic service and has also served in the military. So far there have been no charges of corruption levied against him and he is viewed as largely pro-Western. Most analysts agree that he will bring a moderate but also progressive leaning hand to the Communist Party’s leadership. Upon assuming leadership of both the Communist Party and the office of President Mr. Xi will be in charge of setting the general course of the surging nation. His guiding hand could well determine China’s fate and place in the world for decades to come.