When one speaks of China’s “changing of the guards“, it is often the many that have the least say. Xi Jianping’s ascent to office will be historical in its endeavor, and a feat if it succeeds. Shifting demographics means that Xi will have to deal with the reality of difference between nouveau riche and ultra poor, men and women, young and old. Unlike Xi’s predecessors, under his tenure are the most crucial years in China’s development. Xi will have to negotiate China’s past, contend with its present and define its future as the country faces a time of difficult social realities.
Xi has greater power and fewer constraints than his predecessors as he is to take over the presidency and eventually the head of the military – meaning he will have a stronger influence in molding China’s social policies. Little but his secretive nature is known of Xi Jinping, he is certainly enigmatic. He is characterized by some as charismatic, unlike the drab Hu Jintao, and widely considered of a liberal mind. The only alarming facts about Xi are, first, his coziness with the People’s Liberation Army, and second, that he is no stranger to exercising an iron fist against dissenters.
Almost certainly this will clash with an emerging new middle-class plagued with housing shortages and an infrastructure incapable of supporting the population. In several major cities, half-raised condominiums climb into the skyline encapsulating China’s plight as a civilization rising to the heavens but leaving many pieces, and many people, behind. No country, no matter how fast its economy is growing, can become a superpower when its lifeblood middle-class has no place to sleep or any sure way of getting to work. At the bottom of the social ladder, there is rising dissent among the working class across the country, with a widening wealth gap in the middle. In sum, protests levels have spiked last month to record levels since January 2011 because employers are failing to pay workers’ salaries on time. These facts are a considerable lag on living standards, and coupled with land disputes and increases in police activity means there are no signs of civil unrest subsiding any time soon.
China’s massive population is aging, and the overwhelming elderly demographic means that there are simply not enough young people to look after them. As the fertility rate has shrunk to 1.7 children per household, Xi will have to look into ways of addressing the country’s uneven demography. Although China’s controversial one-child policy has relaxed somewhat in certain provinces, there is no national agenda to dismantle the law. In addition, the government has taken no pains to inform the rural population of the loosening of said policy in certain provinces. Consequently, the pervasiveness of infanticide and sterilization continues as baby girls are killed for prized male heirs.
Some wonder if another social movement is imminent. This year marks the twenty-third anniversary of Tiananmen. Optimists are looking to Jiangping to be like his father Xi Zhongxun, considered a hero for having both fought alongside and spoken against Mao. He is considered to have become “rehabilitated” during the Cultural Revolution, and is known for having blasted the Party in 1989 for the student massacre at Tiananmen Square. However, this seems unlikely as Xi snapped at critics of China’s human rights practices in 2009.
Nonetheless, as the disparity in social conditions continues to escalate disproportionately between the people and the government, a crisis is imminent. Though it will not be easy for dissenters this time around, as the Party has learned from its mistakes during the June Fourth movement, and the Chinese government has put concerted effort to erase 1989 from the country’s memory. On the other hand, as online freedom and democracy are being fought for with communication technology and social networking sites like Sina Weibo, “the Chinese Twitter”, it is hopeful that these tools might level out some of the playing field. As the Chinese saying goes, “enough ants may bite an elephant to death.”
– Trent Lee