When President Xi Jinping and Premiere Li Keqiang took up the reins of power in March of this year, questions naturally arose concerning the direction in which they were going to steer their country. Were they open to political liberalization? Did they have the resolve to seriously tackle some of China’s most pressing domestic problems? And what would their foreign policy look like, especially as it relates to America? While none of these questions can be answered definitively, we can nevertheless already see the outlines of what the Xi-Li administration might look like during the next ten years.
China’s new leaders appear determined to perpetuate a familiar refrain: economic reforms without political liberalization. However, unlike their predecessors, Xi and Li are undertaking economic reforms that have the potential to fundamentally alter the course of the country’s economy. After years of breakneck growth resulting from investments and cheap exports, the new leadership is setting the stage for slower growth rates, even as low as 6.5 percent annually, in order to ensure long-term sustainable economic growth based on consumption and innovation.
The country’s recent credit squeeze is testimony to this new outlook. When China’s central bank announced in June that it would not continue lending unlimited amounts of money to banks, the markets were taken by surprise. Credit rates soared, sparking fears of a precipitous economic downturn, which in turn forced policymakers to moderate their previous statements. Nonetheless, in a banking system that relies far too heavily on unregulated, shadowy lending, it was a stark reminder that reforms are now just as important as GDP growth.
Despite these much needed structural economic reforms, China’s leaders have shown little inclination to reform politically. If anything, political repression has increased since Xi and Li came to power. Dissidents continue to be jailed, the Great Firewall is as active as ever, and efforts to solidify Communist Party rule remain important objectives for the new leadership. In closed-door meetings, Xi has reportedly said that the future of China’s stability relies on strong CCP leadership, arguing that China cannot follow the path of the Soviet Union, where “political rot, ideological heresy, and military disloyalty” ultimately led to the country’s dissolution.
Admittedly, the new leadership has vowed to tackle corruption and extravagance within the ranks of the CCP, but even this remains far from certain. Top officials, most notably the former railway minister Liu Zhijun, have been sentenced for their crimes, but many believe this is merely a token to appease an increasingly disillusioned population. Regardless of intentions, however, China’s populace should not expect significant political reforms anytime soon if history is any indication of the Party’s intentions.
On the international front, China’s new leaders are behaving with the confidence—and assertiveness—that befits an emerging superpower. Along with a rapidly modernizing military, China’s growing intransigence concerning territorial disputes is increasingly alarming for the countries in the region, but there is very little reason to believe this behavior will change drastically under Xi and Li. As China grows stronger, both militarily and economically, it is likely to remain determined to press its claims in the face of widespread resistance, regardless of other countries’ interests.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, China’s leaders obviously believe the country is a major player in the international arena, on par with the United States. The ‘informal summit’ between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in June, followed by the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington in July, illustrated the new reality of the Sino-US relationship. Although China remains far poorer on a per capita basis than the United States, it is obvious that the two sides now see eye-to-eye in many regards.
Moreover, worryingly for the U.S., China is now in a position to act more or less without much regard for American interests. The country’s willingness to permit Edward Snowden to depart Hong Kong despite American demands to extradite him underscored this reality. America’s initial response indicated that the incident would have serious ramifications for the Sino-US relationship. However, it quickly became apparent that U.S. policymakers moderated their views by simply saying they were ‘disappointed’ with China’s actions. American officials must have recognized they couldn’t afford a confrontation with the Chinese.
In light of China’s growing importance to America and the global community, it seems the new leadership can act unilaterally without much fear of serious repercussions. Although the two countries will continue to cooperate simply because it is in both of their interests, we can expect China to behave more aggressively in the future when it feels compelled to do so.
So, what do the first few months of the Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang administration tell us about the future of China? First, China’s economy will likely surpass America’s while Xi and Li are in office, and they will leverage this economic strength into international power that can rival the U.S. Second, although there are concerns that slower growth could have serious consequences for both China and the global economy, in all likelihood the reforms will benefit China’s consumers as well as the international companies that can cater to them. Lastly, despite these changes, there is no sign that China will open up politically in the future. Perhaps someday, but that time will have to wait.
Written by Roger Moore. Roger is a graduate student at Georgia State University, where he studies international and comparative politics.
Photo: The Chinese economy has started to overheat with property and stock market speculation. / Getty Images