x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

China also prepares for change

All eyes were on the US presidential elections on Tuesday, but the results of another leadership transition - in China - will have just as much significance for the world community.

As Americans wrapped up a bitterly contested election this week, China was preparing for its own leadership succession at the Communist Party congress starting today. To outward appearances at least, it is sure to be a far more harmonious affair. Vice President Xi Jinping is all but guaranteed to be selected as the next chairman of the Party in the coming week, along with a new generation of leadership for the nine-member Standing Committee and the Politburo.

China's current model of leadership transition has accomplished the remarkable since 1992: the stable passage of power in almost the complete absence of visible political infighting. For outside observers - whether they approve of China's political system or not - that stability is a crucial measure by which to judge the society.

What happens in China matters to the rest of the world. As the euro zone staggers from crisis to crisis, and the US economy suffocates under a mountain of debt, the dynamos of China and India (as well as the other Brics) are driving global economic growth.

In parallel with China's political stability, the country's leadership has carried off an extraordinary economic success story - annual per capita GDP has risen from about $200 (Dh735) to more than $5,000 (Dh18,400) in the past two decades. Ordinary Chinese, by and large, have accepted limits on political participation in return for more economic opportunity.

Therein lies the greatest challenge to China's new leadership. The blistering rate of growth is slowing (indeed, it must slow to be sustainable). The economic privatisation programmes launched by Deng Xiaoping beginning in the late 1970s - the bedrock of the economic success story - have also seen massive wealth disparity. The recent New York Times report detailing the family wealth of outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao directly reflects on the legitimacy of the next generation of leaders amid perceptions of high-level corruption.

The ability of Mr Xi and his colleagues to speak to the demands of ordinary Chinese, foster measured growth and maintain social stability will be a delicate balancing act. Like the succession process at this week's summit, political and economic reforms - if they occur - will initially proceed behind closed doors.

The rest of the world will be watching eagerly for any signals of change. China's dynamic economy, and its more robust foreign policy, will have consequences for many besides its 1.3 billion people.