As China’s new president takes power, the US has a rare window to redraw the relationshipby Jon Hunstman / November 14, 2012 / Leave a comment
Xi Jinping kicks a ball during a visit to Dublin’s Croke Park Stadium in February (Photo: Reuters/David Moir)
On 8th November, as the 18th Party Congress gathered in Beijing to anoint a new president, China entered a new era. The past three and a half decades have been defined by the influence of Deng Xiaoping. Deng, who came to power in 1978, opened up the diplomatic door between China and the world—and the economic door, too. A generation ago, China had an economy about the size of Argentina’s; by 2020, judged by sheer output, it could have the largest in the world. But Deng also emphasised the primacy of the Communist party; there was no other competition for domestic policy making.
We are now entering the Xi Jinping era. As I saw during my time as US ambassador to China between 2009 and 2011, Xi faces a very different list of issues to his predecessors—and he will have to tackle them immediately. He will have to address the reality of China’s role on the world stage, including the need for it to deal directly with the United States. He will have to confront head-on the fact that China is less open than in years past. For 10 years, there has been very little movement—indeed, there has been backsliding on human rights and civil society. Meanwhile, China has become more assertive in the region, with the growth of its military spending and its claims to disputed islands.
He will also have to confront the rise of powerful special economic interests. He is one of the few people in China who can deal with the state-owned enterprises, which have been able to write their own script for the past 10 years; he will have to get tough on their abuse of intellectual property rights.
What will he do? It will take him six months to a year to consolidate power. But he has reform in his DNA; he has been exposed to the most economically forward-looking parts of China, in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces and in Shanghai. I’ve seen over the last five years that he’s a very adept operator in the rough and tumble of high-level Chinese politics—a pretty tough business. He’s worked the party—and the “princeling” class (the influential descendants of senior Communist party officials). He is 59, confident, personable—and…