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What Hu Jintao Leaves Behind

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China Power

What Hu Jintao Leaves Behind

With President Hu set to step down, Elizabeth Economy reviews the dangers and opportunities he leaves for Xi Jinping.

Now that the U.S. presidential election has concluded, the world’s attention is turning to China. November 8 marked the opening of the 18th Party Congress, China’s version of a political convention at which all the top Communist Party leaders will be announced. While we won’t be treated to the sight of hundreds of millions of Chinese turning out at their local schools and senior citizen centers to vote—although the American Embassy in Beijing did host an invitation-only mock U.S. election for Chinese citizens—the suspense is almost as great. True, we already know that Xi Jinping will be the next president and Li Keqiang the next Premier, but we don’t know who will occupy the other five to seven seats within the top-level Standing Committee of the Politburo. For that, we will have to wait. The Communist Party is savvy enough to know that once the leadership lineup is revealed, no one will pay much attention to the rest of the week-long Congress. No matter what Xinhua says, the world is not waiting for an elucidation of the country’s cultural policies.

While we sit and wait, I thought it might be interesting to think not only about the future but also a bit about the past—namely what is President Hu Jintao leaving behind for President-elect Xi Jinping. Not surprisingly, Hu’s legacy is mixed, captured best perhaps by the Chinese word weiji—which combines the characters for both danger and opportunity. Navigating a path forward will require that Xi address at least the following “dangers” and “opportunities.”

The Not-So-Great Communicator: One of the most distinguishing features of Hu Jintao’s presidency was his almost complete lack of presence. Hu avoided the press and sent Premier Wen Jiabao to manage any crisis that required a personal touch. (Wen earned the affectionate moniker “Grandpa Wen” because of his responses to the people’s suffering during earthquakes, floods, and health crises.) Even Hu’s political slogans failed to excite: Who in or outside China understands “scientific development” or believes China is a “harmonious society” in the midst of a “peaceful rise.” The bar couldn’t be lower for Xi to assume the mantle of the Great Communicator.

Trains, planes, and automobiles: If Hu’s interpersonal skills left something to be desired, he nonetheless  presided over one of history’s great economic transformations.  During his tenure, per capita GDP in China jumped from roughly $1200 to $5400; per capita car ownership increased from 15 per 1000 people to around 80 per 1000 people in 2011; China now boasts the largest high speed rail and expressway systems in the world; and the country has transformed from serving as one of the world’s largest recipients of World Bank loans to loaning more money to the rest of the world than anyone else, the World Bank included. On the face of it, Xi Jinping could not have asked for a better legacy…or could he?

A Chinese people on the move: The Chinese people can’t vote at the ballot box, but they do vote with their feet. The wealthiest flee the country. During Hu’s tenure, fully 27 percent of Chinese with at least $15 million in assets have emigrated and another 47 percent are considering it. They cite the quality of the educational system, the environment, health care, food safety and protection of assets as the drivers behind their desire to leave. The poorest Chinese, citing the same exact challenges, take to the streets to protest; and those protests now total more than 180,000 annually. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has officially arrived in China.

A mandate for reform: The stasis in political and economic reform achieved during ten years of Hu-Wen rule, would seemingly be a boon to Xi: after all anything he does will be better than the nothing that was. Unfortunately for Xi, the Chinese people already appear to have an idea of what they want. A Global Times survey released just in time for the Party Congress reveals that 80 percent of Chinese advocates political reform; and more than 70 percent says Beijing needs to tackle healthcare, pensions, and social security in the next five years. What do people want most from political reform? According to the survey, they want more power to oversee the government for themselves and for the media. Nothing in Xi’s background suggests that this would be his top reform priority, but unless he wants to preside over more social unrest, more capital flight, and more brain drain, he might want to listen.

Backyard bully: One of the great surprises in recent years has been the unraveling of Chinese foreign policy. After more than a decade of earning kudos for a relatively sophisticated and nuanced approach to the rest of the world, China has become the backyard bully of the Asia-Pacific. It is a problem largely of China’s own making, and includes: serious, occasionally violent, conflicts with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan; disaffection in Canberra and Singapore; and a new degree of unpredictability in relations with previously stalwart supporters Burma/Myanmar and North Korea. Dialing all this back won’t be easy, particularly in the context of a newly revitalized U.S. presence in the region. Still, some nice words and a renewed willingness to share might get Beijing an invitation to play again.

In an interview he gave in 2000, Xi Jinping stated, “When you have just taken over a new job you will also want to set your own agenda in the first year. But it must be on the foundations of your predecessor. It is like a relay race. You have to receive the baton properly and then yourself run it to the goal.” The foundations laid by Hu are somewhat shaky, and we don’t know what Xi will see as his goal. But it sounds as though we won’t have long to wait before we know what it is and how he plans to get there.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.'  She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.