Facing a divided and unequal society, Xi Jinping and the other new leaders have to embrace serious reforms.
On November 15th the world changed. A little. Or maybe a lot. Not just because the US general election results were known, but because arguably the most important superpower changed its leader. Hu Jintao steps down and Vice-President Xi Jinping took over the position of what might be called Commander in Chief across the 4 municipalities, 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions and 2 special districts that make up the Chinese mainland. He governs the approximately 1.3 billion people spread across 56 ethnic groups around the more than nine and a half million square kilometres in a country which borders 14 others, from Russia in the North, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the West, North Korea in the East and Laos in the South. And if he manages to do that well, then that will be no small feat. His experience as a local garrison commander, and as the son of one of Mao’s colleagues and the architect of the ‘Special Economic Zones’, he has a good pedigree.
You see, there are different ways of looking at China. A country with one language? No, and not even one written version of the language. Each of the ethnic groups has their own spoken language, and there are traditional and simplified versions of written Mandarin. And then the South (Hong Kong, Guangzhou, etc) includes approximately 64 million who speak Cantonese, which is so much harder for the immigrant to understand than even spoken Mandarin. Africa has its clicks, Mandarin has its four tones (a change in intonation changes the meaning) and Cantonese has its nine.
If language is not universal across a country only just smaller in surface area than the US, then perhaps currency is. Interestingly, even currency is not universal across the arm of Chinese governance – there’s the Hong Kong dollar, of course for example, (pegged to the US dollar) and the Pataca from Macau (ironically pegged to the HK dollar) – the remainder of the country uses the Reminbi or Yuan. Climate varies a great deal across the territory whilst time zone is universal at a standard 7 hours ahead of GMT.
But the leadership of China needs to account for more than time zones and climate. Leadership involves having followers: in China, those followers come in a wide variety of ‘shapes and sizes’, and in the modern China may be more likely to get on their e-bikes, create traffic chaos and “go along” with what their country does than be actively engaged in determining its direction: it is reported that membership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was only around 82 million in 2010, and whilst Victor Gao (former translator to Deng Xiaoping) might rightly claim that this is more than the population of Germany, it is still around 6% of the population. The diversity of China presents a real challenge to those seeking to bring the country together.
So what is the biggest challenge for China? Of course, that depends on who you talk to and their area of research expertise and interest, but there is little debate that China is a country of population extremes. On the surface, most folk in China seem to go about doing their normal day to day business with more regard for getting things done than for changing much about their society – making sure that the battery on the e-bike is not being used excessively seems more important to many of them than their own rights. But then those are the folk you see every day on the streets of China’s larger cities. Those who work in offices might be wishing to develop alliances, relationships (guanxi ) and networks in order to further their businesses and organisations. These would be the comparatively well connected, and/or the comparatively well educated, and in China, these would be the nouveau riche. According to recent state statistics, the middle class now numbers around 600 million people. They drive modern western-made cars, speak English reasonably well and might have studied at some of the top institutions – known as ‘985’ or ‘211’ universities, which includes the likes of Tsinghua or Peking universities – or have parents who have done well. Bringing such diverse groups together won’t be easy. The link would be through socially based entrepreneurship and socially based business competitions – such as the Nottingham Social Enterprise Competition – that seek to reach out and affect social change amongst those whose needs might be many.
The social gap in China is not small. Visitors to China are often staggered to find that in the years since the end of the cultural revolution (which ended in 1976), China has become a wholly developed country. The skyscrapers that now dominate the skyline of cities such as Shanghai, Shenzhen or Qingdao are part testimony to that along with an international tourist industry to rival many others, economic growth averaging 9.25% between 1989 and 2012 and a manufacturing sector that sees major cities with factory after factory on its outskirts. I guess there’s little surprise when Chinese visitors to certain countries in Europe ask: “where are the factories ? “, after visiting even the smallest of towns.
But not all have benefitted and whilst China’s infrastructure (health, legal systems, financial regulation, etc) seems at times, more indicative of a developing country than a developed one, there is serious conviction that China’s economy is going to struggle to achieve the annual 7.5% growth target Hu Jintao’s regime has been seeking. So what will happen to the millions of rural migrant workers who have migrated to the cities for work – those who live in temporary ‘housing’ set up alongside new building projects – or those who work in the manufacturing sector making products which are either not needed in the quantities they are produced (either because of little domestic demand or because of oversupply in overseas markets)? Some will be fortunate: Bosch has more workers manufacturing products in China than it does in Germany, I am told, and such markets are much less likely to dry up. But others will struggle. And in China, that struggle could be very painful indeed for those on the wrong side of the economic divide.
There are many ways in which the economic divide mirrors other divisions in Chinese society. Of a country the size of China, more than 50% of the population live in rural areas, tending to unskilled rural occupations, and receiving an average annual income of around US$300 – significantly less than their city-dwelling counterparts. Geographically, the economic powerhouses of Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and special economic zones around Guangzhou and other regions are in the coastal East of the country. The West of the country (especially the North West cities) – traditionally the Silk Road routes – have not had (until recently) had the same levels of investment as the East, whilst cities in the South and central China (Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan etc) have been steadily growing, all of them keen to raise their profile and elicit every increasing amounts of investment from western economies. It is worth looking at a road map of China at where the ‘G roads’ (freeways, motorways or highways) are, and whilst you could legitimately claim that roads follow population density rather than being a sign of inward investment, it is also the case that a partially migrant workforce such as that in China will move to the larger cities for work. In a country where a two mile stretch of road can be built in a city in two weeks, the US$4 trillion invested in road building and other infrastructure projects since 2008 might go some way to alleviating economic gaps between the East and the West of this vast country.
So, what other ‘gaps’ exist in this middle kingdom where harmony is such a treasured commodity? There’s the gap between the educated and the less educated, though this is less marked than the economic gap of course. Competition is tough to say the least. School monitors heIp teachers and tutors to take registers and get their classes ready. Study is an all encompassing activity, occupying all waking hours and if they’ve been successful in reaching their final year of state provided education at high school, then there’s the Gao-kao – the word that strikes terror into the minds of every Chinese eighteen year old seeking a place at a Chinese University. Fail, and the one child of the family may end up in a technical college; succeed and that one child will be likely to provide for their parents after retirement and into old age. Of course, there are possibilities to send that one child overseas, or to a western university within China, but a Chinese education in a university in the homeland will be a much cheaper option (it would typically cost in excess of US$ 40,000 for a western education in a country where the average per capita income would be just US$ 3,000 in the urban areas – and up from just US$ 760 in 2000 – and around US$ 1200 per year in the rural areas.), will educate that student in good sound political thinking and will ensure that the child’s behaviour is regulated by 11pm curfews and dormitories where up to 6 will sleep in a room.
But the biggest challenges arguably relate to party governance. “United we stand” might sound like a good mantra, but appearing united is just as important. And so the CPC keeps itself fairly closed and secretive. Divisions are rarely heard of and whilst the corruption scandal involving Bo Xilai has rocked the governing party (it was the subject of the first question at the press conference at the opening of the 18th party congress), there are changes taking place within Chinese society which cannot be rolled back. Facebook and YouTube are not permitted in China, but the micro-blogging website Weibo now has in excess of 368 million followers. And people are talking, and often negatively. They seem to know more about the party than the party might like them to know. Taxes are high, yet the physical infrastructure, health provision and education are less than world class in many places. Whilst the CPC has had a history of maintaining stability, its lack of more rapid change could end up being the largest source of instability that China has known for a while. Or not, and the explicit scepticism might diminish as China’s economic fortunes improve. Time will tell.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.