China’s Challenge
A new leader takes over amid mounting and increasingly open unrest.

Students from China’s Fudan University form a hammer and sickle, November 6, 2012.


Jillian Kay Melchior

Given these problems, “Hu Jintao should be seen as a failure,” said Derek Scissors, an Asia economist at the Heritage Foundation. “He’s adopted a state-led, inefficient, wasteful development model that has delivered high growth — but China was growing fast before [he assumed power]. He created imbalances in the Chinese economy that [his successor] is going to have to fix.”

Those economic dilemmas have translated into political ones, which Hu has also handled gauchely.

Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University and an eminent China expert, told National Review Online that Hu “has proved inadequate to meet the challenges created by the Communist Party’s very success in economic development. In his last five years, we have not seen a flexible response to new and difficult challenges, but instead, we have seen a preference for repression and almost insane paranoia over which he presides in this vain quest for harmony. . . . In the last few weeks, the atmosphere is almost unbelievable, it’s almost Orwellian.”

Liberal progress has all but stalled under Hu’s watch. The government has repressed legal reformers and rights lawyers who work within the system to advocate for their fellow citizens. New institutions and legal reforms have been slow in coming. Laws on the books are poorly enforced.

While there has been some progress in encouraging Chinese civil society, citizens still suffer at the hands of their repressive government — a fact of Chinese life that hasn’t changed under Hu’s time in office.

“During the Party Congress, China’s controlled media will spare no superlatives to describe Hu Jintao’s economic and political accomplishments,” said New Jersey representative Chris Smith, chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “An honest look at his ‘legacy’ must, however, include many harsh realities such as dissidents sentenced to prison and labor camps, the brutal persecution of religious believers and the Falun Gong, severe pollution and dangerous working conditions in China’s mines and factories. Hu’s policies have driven dozens of Tibetan men and women to set themselves afire in protest, brutalized women by forced abortion and involuntary sterilization, and aggressively enforced the one-child policy that has created tens of millions of ‘missing daughters’ and a historically unprecedented imbalance between newborn boys and girls.  China will pay a high cost for these ‘bequests’ of Hu Jintao.”

That’s the legacy Xi Jinping inherits this week. Whether he is capable of handling it is anyone’s guess.

Xi “is not a strong, independent, free agent,” Cohen explained. “He has to sit on top of this extraordinary, complex political [structure]. . . . We know he’s intelligent, experienced, a bureaucrat, cautious. What can we tell? It’s very hard to say.”

The all-important question is whether Xi Jinping will be a liberalizing reformer. Ultimately, his actions will speak for him, as Hu’s have for Hu. But there’s no question that Xi is a party man. And, in the words of Hu yesterday, the party will “resolutely not follow Western political systems.” In an era of growing problems and increasing political discontent — and with Xi’s legitimacy resting on his competence — the temptation will be to exert even more control.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She has traveled extensively throughout China as a Robert Novak Fellow with the Phillips Foundation.