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Showing resolve at China's helm
Publication Date : 19-03-2013
One test of the new Chinese leadership's capability is how well they can steer a transition from what has been criticised as blind growth, to development with heart, of which social fairness would be a reliable gauge. In their pronouncements after being formally installed last week, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang focused on well-aired grievances - corruption, bureaucrats' excesses, procurement waste and red tape, pollution, food safety as well as local-area abuses.
The judgment of priorities is the right one to make at this juncture of China's modernisation, but a successful redressal will require nerve, perseverance and the right moral tone set by the centre and provincial leaders.
A symbolic start has been made in Xi's order for frugality, and in Li's undertaking to scrap a third of the 1,700 development processes that require central approvals. They will have to break the backs of vested interests such as in the military, and overcome internal opposition in the Communist Party hierarchy. Habits die hard. Reducing the scope for venality and process deficiencies will be targets in themselves as the State Council under Li sets 7.5 per cent as the minimal average growth rate in coming years to keep mass unemployment at bay.
The attention paid to consequences of rapid growth may surprise outsiders. China's lopsided economy of income and regional disparities is some years from reaching uniform progress. With quality-of-life issues becoming paramount, the leaders need to act forcefully. The environment has been despoiled - in some cases of waterways, poisoned beyond repair. Rent-seeking is rampant. Little empires beyond Beijing's gaze are everywhere, causing misery to folk forced off their land and homes. Left unchecked, these can spell trouble.
"Unbalanced, uncoordinated, unsustainable" was how outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao described the existing model of growth at all costs, presided over by himself and President Hu Jintao. But more indicative of the harsher clime blowing in are reports that members of the Politburo Standing Committee have been recommending that party members bone up on causes of the French Revolution.
It is no exaggeration to say China is at a crossroads, although turmoil seems unlikely as lives improve. The values reform that the Xi-Li duo say they will implement will determine whether China powers ahead or hits a plateau. Disbanding the graft-ridden railways ministry, a holdover from a command economy, indicated to the venal that corruption is unacceptable. But more than that, the new leaders must show their countrymen that they are men of substance who can deliver in the long run.