Commentary

On China's Leadership Transition

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

China’s once-in-a-decade leadership change has just been completed with the appointment of Xi Jinping as president and Li Keqiang as premier of the world’s second-largest economy.  Given China’s appetite for oil as well as its growing political role in the world at large, changes in Beijing can be significant for the Middle East. Regional observers and commentators have been quick to point out the importance of China’s leadership transition, but few have been drawn too deep into speculation over what policies, if any, may be impacted in the Middle East as a result.  Perhaps due to the ongoing political upheavals in the Arab world, many regional commentators are keen to stress China’s own domestic challenges.

In an editorial reflecting on those challengess, The Khaleej Times staff is quick to point out that “The new Chinese president has taken on the reigns of power at a time when the world’s largest communist state is in a state of confusion and chaos.... Beijing has to keep in mind that moving towards a pluralistic society will help it elevate its stature in an interdependent globalized world where there is so much at stake for the upcoming superpower. Xi’s obsession of a small government that is pro-people and hiccups free can go a long way in setting in a self-accountable new political dispensation. This change of guard in China should mean genuine business.”

A similar sentiment is expressed by Ananth Krishnan, who, reporting on the appointment of premier Li Keqiang, stressed the importance of pursuing bolder reforms: “Mr. Li…is seen by Chinese analysts as having a good equation with new leader Xi Jinping, raising expectations that the new administration will be able to be more effective than the previous leadership in bringing about a consensus in the party for bolder reform measures. Moves to make government smaller by dissolving two Cabinet-level ministries…with an aim to increase efficiency were approved by the NPC on Thursday, and seen by Chinese analysts as a sign of intent from the new leadership that they were prepared to take difficult measures.”

One of the reasons why the impetus for reform (mostly economic rather than political) has been so central to the discussion around the leadership changes has much to do with the challenges that the Chinese economy and state are said to be facing. Qatar’s daily, The Peninsula, for example expressed the view that, given the weight of the task ahead of it, the new leadership does not have much time to act: “Xi faces largely unprecedented challenges.... The Chinese model of development may face bumps in the near future and it would be Xi’s administration that will have to contend with this.... Xi needs to get his act together from the beginning. Besides graft he has to deal with a recalcitrant North Korea, rebellions by minority Muslims in the northwest, and island disputes with neighbors in the East China Sea. The new leader should aim at change for which history will judge him favorably.”

Returning to the Khaleej Times there is a discussion of another menace the new guard in Beijing will contend with: “It is clear that the biggest challenge that the single-party system in China faces is not from an alternative political force, but from an angry population that is demanding the government to undo the damages wreaked by uncontrollable pollution. And even though the Chinese Communist Party may be keeping hush-hush about the country’s carbon footprint, the debate on the environment in China’s lively social media shows that the public is angrily demanding answers. So it is time that the Chinese government slowed down its single-minded race to the top and reconsiders its priorities.”

The presence of these significant domestic challenges has caused some to doubt China’s ability to fill any sort of international leadership gap that one day might be left by the United States. Asharq Alawsat’s Amir Taheri is not convinced China is ready to take over such a role: “To start with the political setup in China today remains fundamentally unstable.... Another fault-line is the emerging duality of power. China today boasts a new middle-class and a large stratum of wealthy individuals and families. However, the new economically empowered strata lack the corresponding political power their status warrants.... China’s failure to pose the problem of minorities, especially the Uighurs, the Tibetans, the Mongols and the Manchus, represents another fault-line.”

In his column for the Lebanese Daily Star, U.S. journalist Fareed Zakaria also touches on similar themes and makes the argument that the best outcome for the region, as well as the United States and China is a “strong U.S.-Chinese relationship…. China has become the dominant power in Asia. Simultaneously it is going through economic challenges, as the heady growth strategy of prior decades faces obstacles, and a complex political transition.... the fact remains that the only durable path to stability in Asia is a strong relationship between the U.S. and China. The two countries are not always going to agree, but they need to have better and deeper ties.”

However, as the Saudi Gazette editorial notes, it might be a mistake to expect China to desire a Western-style leadership role: “China was ever a conundrum. It is a country of both great change and no change. Economically the transformation that it has undergone has been stunning. Politically, it would seem that little is different…. China’s foreign policy has been adroit. It has secured natural resources by investing and working closely with any African state that is of use to it. Beijing has not concerned itself with the political credentials of African leadership.... the new leadership which will run the country and its economic development for the next decade surely needs to be judged by China’s own unusual standards rather than being compared with Japan, South Korea, Europe or the United States.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.