Clean break could give China reformists hope

By Wei Gu
September 3, 2012

By Wei Gu
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

China could benefit from a clean break. President Hu Jintao may quit his official positions in the ruling Communist Party when new leaders come in early next year, according to a report on Reuters. That would be a change from the path of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. It would leave the incomers more room to make their mark, and push through reforms with less distraction from factional fighting.

Past leaders have found it hard to hand over the reins. Mao Zedong gave up the official presidency of China in 1959, but stayed in charge for almost two decades. His successor Deng Xiaoping started to retire from politics in the 1980s but remained as China’s unofficial “paramount leader”. Third-generation leader Jiang Zemin clung to his position as head of the army for two years after stepping down as party chief and president.

Hu is considering relinquishing all of his three titles – president, Party chairman and head of the military commission – at once, according to sources cited by Reuters. That would be a good sign. While Hu has presided over ten years of rapid growth, he is not known for the kind of political or economic reforms China now needs. Hopes rest on likely new president Xi Jinping, and probable premier Li Keqiang. If Hu stands back, they have a better chance of getting a free hand.

A stronger new leadership would bring hope for reformists. There is a growing consensus in China that vested interests are getting too powerful and hindering equitable growth. The break-up of state monopolies in railways and hospitals, and reducing the dominance of state firms in banking andĀ finance, would help unleash a new growth driver. Chinese people also demand more political freedom. The Party needs to take a smaller slice if it wants the pie to grow bigger.

True, it may be mostly a question of appearances. Like Jiang, Hu will have been instrumental in placing senior politicians. He is quitting all roles only on the understanding that his protege, Vice Premier Li Keqiang, is made a vice chairman of the military commission, according to Reuters. But big gestures are still important for inspiring confidence. A clean break would be a good start to the next decade.

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