If you think we have problems, consider China

Whomever we elect our next President is going to face an incredible array of challenges. But next year’s newly inaugurated president with the toughest job in the world won’t be Obama or Romney. That dubious distinction goes to Xi Jinping, the expected choice to be China’s new leader when the Communist party congress meets in November.

Consider what he faces. He will govern a country of more than 1.3 billion people who speak seven very different languages and more than a hundred distinct dialects. China is coming off years of spectacular progress that has made it the world’s second largest economy. The next president now must cope with declining economic growth, mounting inflationary pressures, crushing poverty for many of his citizens, horrific environmental challenges, a real estate crisis that dwarfs ours, major disagreements with every neighboring state, a military that is demanding a greater role – along with all of the same problems faced by the rest of a world coming out of a great recession.

Most countries would give anything to have the 7.3 percent growth rate China recently announced for the second quarter of 2012. But it represents a sharp decline that could increase in the future. In recent years the Chinese government has said it must grow at a rate of at least 8 percent annually to assure jobs for new entrants into the workforce. Without that growth, unemployment increases and with it the potential for instability that is the greatest political fear of those in power.

The conflict between a strict dictatorship and a growing market economy also gets more difficult to manage every year. More and more multinational companies are complaining that it is difficult to do business in a country with no real rule of law, where they lose disputes with well-connected Chinese interests regardless of the facts. And the government’s tight control of information, media and the Internet makes innovation in cutting edge technologies and ideas difficult.

With all of that on his plate, I believe Xi’s number one political challenge will be to manage the leadership succession in the Chinese government as the original Maoists leave the scene and are replaced by a new generation of leaders. Inside China, the media never mention this. But the rest of the world was given a rare look at the infighting going on among the governing elite when the wife of Bo Xilai, one its most prominent politicians, was put on trial for the murder of a British businessman and, last week, duly convicted.

Convicting a man’s wife as a murderer may seem a bizarre way to thwart his political ambitions, but that seems to be what has happened. The Beijing leadership was unhappy with both the politics and the governing style of Bo, who was until recently the powerful communist party chief in the city of Chongqing and a member of China’s 25-member ruling Politburo. He had engaged in a populist campaign to return to the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution. His platform resonated with many in China who are upset with the new market economy that has made a few fabulously wealthy while the masses live in abject poverty. Many of the richest people in the country are known as “princelings,” the children and grandchildren of the original leaders of Mao’s communist revolution. The fact that Xi, Bo and Bo’s wife are all princelings just emphasizes how inbred China’s leadership has become, and the viciousness of the infighting among them.

Google Bo Xilai to get all the juicy details about the supposed murder and the charges of corruption that came out of the trial. Suffice it to say the trial put an end to Bo’s ambitions to become a member of the ruling nine-member Central Politburo Standing Committee. A potential rival to Xi Jinping has been disgraced and removed. A Washington Post editorial summed it up well: “By the time of the party congress, when Mr. Xi and a new politburo are installed, the Bo affair may be wrapped up, officially. But China’s leadership will have demonstrated – to the world and to its own people – its continuing disregard for the rule of law, its defiance of accountability and its fear of popular opinion. That’s a poor way to inaugurate a new leadership.”

Whatever the new leadership does, it is no exaggeration to say that it will affect not just the lives of the Chinese, but ours as well.

Originally published 18 August 2012 on delawareonline.com