China's Litany of Domestic Difficulties
   2013-02-28 16:40:01      Web Editor: Yangyang

By Stuart Wiggin

As the first annual session of the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) looms large, China's new leadership under the direction of Xi Jinping is readying itself for a course of domestic and diplomatic policy designed to allow China to emerge atop of the international pile. While social and administrative issues are set to dominate the upcoming two sessions, the impact that domestic policy will have upon the success or failure of China from an international perspective is crucial.

Stapleton Roy, a longtime senior US diplomat who served as ambassador to China between 1992 and 1995, spoke earlier in February on the topic of the importance of "arresting the current drift in US-China relations toward strategic rivalry." During his talk at the East West Center in Hawaii on February 13, Roy referenced the "litany of internal difficulties that illustrate why it would still be foolish to postulate that the 21st Century will belong to China." This idea of the 21st Century belonging to China is one that has been talked about within academic circles for a number of years; the thesis being that China will inevitably become the global hegemon over the course of the next five to six decades.

Whether or not the idea of the "Chinese Century" is true, or whether the US is indeed in decline, is quite simply academic at this point. However, in order for such a neologism to become a reality, China's leaders will be forced to address the "litany" of internal problems that Stapleton Roy referenced. Failure to effectively deal with the problems of a rapidly ageing population; a slower rate of economic growth; an increasingly apparent "middle income trap"; and official corruption would seriously threaten the political strength of the Communist Party domestically and destabilize China's economy.

One the issue that attracts the most attention in headlines at home and abroad, namely corruption, Xi Jinping's vow to fight the 'tigers' and 'flies', in reference to flushing out corrupt officials at all levels of government, highlights the awareness from those in Beijing for the need, at the very least, to project an image of clean governance. The problem that the central government faces is the disconnect that exists between the awareness for such an image at the top and the entrenched nature of local politics at the periphery.

Huang Weiting, a research fellow for the CPC Central Committee's official publication, has previously stated that the Chinese public has high expectations of the new leadership's prospects. In a Xinhua editorial published in February, Huang noted that, "For some obstinate problems, the new leaders should be prepared for a prolonged battle to tackle them step by step." The public, however, may be hoping for more rapid solutions to pressing domestic problems.

As part of the central government's "active yet prudent, step-by-step" approach to reform, it is likely that the upcoming two sessions will feature the merger of certain ministries and departments as part of so-called super ministry reforms designed to improve departmental efficiency, root out mismanagement, make the government more responsive to public needs and decrease the size of government. A report on the government portal has stated that the Railways Ministry is likely to be merged with the Transport Ministry, following several years during which the Railways Ministry has been hit by a number of scandals and received the public's ire for their track-record on safety.

For those ministries responsible with managing aspects of daily life, such as transport or food safety, that can easily rile the Chinese public if not carried out accordingly, the central government must make sure that the creation of super ministries does not create even greater interest groups than those that already exist. Furthermore, reforms cannot only focus on the national level; they must also cover the relationship between high and low level administrative bodies. If such reforms fail to transcend the struggles of interest that previously existed between former departments, or overlook issues related to vertical management, then the central government's efforts for reform will backfire.

On the subject of China's coming rise, Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990 and a statesman for which Chinese leaders have shown great respect, previously stated in an interview with Foreign Affairs that, "the Chinese are in no hurry to displace the US as the number one power in the world." Mr. Lee went on to note that, "the Chinese have figured out that if they stay with 'peaceful rise' and just contest for first position economically and technologically, they cannot lose." But in order to continue with its peaceful rise in today's modern age, the Chinese government must not fail in its efforts to rein in bureaucracy and corruption.


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