Like so many of his predecessors, Xi Jinping assumes China’s key leadership position — chief of the Communist Party — as a man shrouded in mystery. He has given only hints of what course he might take, both at home and abroad.
This is hardly unusual in a system in which people move to the top by showing loyalty to those already in charge rather than by developing ideas of their own.
China’s rapid rise is one of the most astonishing stories in human history. In the 1970s, the country emerged from the disastrous Cultural Revolution backward and poor. The moment of change came with Deng Xiaoping’s: “To get rich is glorious.”
Some question whether he ever said it quite like that, but it was a point of departure that’s impossible to exaggerate. The Chinese people proceeded to get rich in spectacular fashion. Today, although many provinces remain poor, China’s economy has expanded since 1990 by a multiple of 30, and the country has become an exporting powerhouse.
Yet for all of that, Xi will take the reins at a time of growing stress. Growth is slowing. Corruption remains endemic. Protests are common. The banking system remains a tool of the state.
More worrisome, tensions between China and its neighbors — as well as with the United States — have risen dramatically.
The immediate flashpoint is the South China Sea, where China has bullied smaller powers in disputes about control of tiny island chains, valuable not only for their presumed deposits of oil and gas but their strategic locations. Some have argued that China’s bullying belies its supposedly canny strategic skill because Beijing’s behavior has aroused tremendous suspicion about its aims and prompted other countries to join together — and with Washington.
China has said it seeks to rise as a global power but plans to do so peacefully. Its handling of these matters suggests other impulses.
What Xi intends will only become known in the months and years ahead. On a U.S. trip in the 1980s, he stayed for a time with a family in Muscatine, Iowa, a place for which he still has a soft spot. In major speech in Washington earlier this year, he called for more strategic trust and less suspicion between our two countries.
A good first step toward trust would be less belligerence and bullying in the South China Sea island disputes. A better tone in that regard would be a welcome sign of Beijing’s intentions for the future.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.