Kenneth Lieberthal, writing in Foreign Policy, argues that China’s incoming General Secretary, Xi Jinping, faces a much harder task in sustaining future growth and stability than their counterparts in the US.
Since Hu Jintao, the outgoing leader, ascended to the top job in 2002, collective leadership built around consensus decision making has become the norm. Each Standing Committee member manages a distinct part of the overall Chinese system. The outgoing premier Wen Jiabao runs the cabinet, Zhou Yongkang runs domestic security, and so forth.
The hurdles are high for Xi. Because he does not even get to pick most of the members of his own team, virtually no other Standing Committee member will owe his job solely to him — current and former members select the lineup of the new Standing Committee in order to achieve a balance among their interests. It may take an impending or actual major crisis, therefore, for Xi to garner the authority to drive through necessary but painful decisions.
And local officials are hardly the only impediments to reform. Beijing has fostered “national champions” — state-owned corporate behemoths, many of which are seen as key to the party’s grip on power and are closely tied to elite political families. This marriage of wealth and political power presents major obstacles to effective changes in economic strategy.
Thus, there are no simple solutions to China’s challenges, almost all of which are more difficult than those confronting the United States. In the United States, the core issue is one of gaining a political consensus on federal revenues and expenditures. For China, the challenges require major structural overhaul of the economy and wide-ranging changes in the political system. The complexity of both the problem and the necessary corrective measures are massively more daunting in Beijing than in Washington.