The Communist Party of China formally unveiled its new leaders on Thursday, marking an end to a turbulent few months that appeared to complicate the party’s once-in-10 year change in leadership. Hu Jintao, who served as General Secretary since 2002, has relinquished his posts as the head of the party and military, paving the way for Xi Jinping, who was anointed as his successor five years ago. Mr. Hu presided over a decade of rapid economic growth, which made China the world’s second-largest economy and raised per capita incomes fivefold. He left office stressing that the party would continue with its emphasis on development, pledging to double incomes by 2020. The Hu Jintao decade emphasised stability above all else: Even as the Chinese economy continued to grow, weathering the recession, the party maintained firm political control, showing little tolerance for dissent. Indeed, in his final address as party chief — he will continue as President until March — Mr. Hu stressed that China “would never copy a Western political system.”
The outgoing General Secretary also warned his successor that failure to tackle rampant corruption could “even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.” Yet, despite the obvious link between corruption and the absence of political accountability, the party under Mr. Hu did little to push forward meaningful reforms. The purge of former Politburo member Bo Xilai, who will soon stand trial on corruption charges, embarrassed the party, revealing how one of its most powerful leaders amassed a fortune and held scant regard for the law. Corruption is only one of several challenges confronting Mr. Xi. As the new General Secretary himself put it in his first public remarks, the party faces “many pressing problems,” starting with its officials being increasingly “out of touch with the people.” Mr. Xi said he would prioritise addressing the demands of the public for better education, greater social security, improved health care and a cleaner environment. The CPC continues to enjoy wide legitimacy after presiding over two decades of economic growth. However, anger against local-level corruption is on the rise, sparking tens of thousands of protests every year. China is also facing an urgent challenge of delivering more balanced growth. The urban-rural income gap today is 68 per cent higher than it was in 1985. The transformation of China’s economic model away from state-driven export-led growth will also require difficult measures to curtail the rising influence of state-owned companies. If the party is to address these challenges effectively, it is clear that the leadership under Mr. Xi will have to be far bolder than the previous generation of leaders, both in thought and in action.