The ordinary Chinese may not be too curious about their new leaders whom they did not elect. But the two top leaders — Xi Jinping, the president, and Li Keqiang, the premier— have reasons to be careful about the public responses to the policies and measures they initiate and pursue. They need to be particularly cautious about how they tackle two crucial issues — corruption among government and party officials and the income gap between the rich and the poor. Both these issues threaten the State and the ruling communist party’s control over society as never before. In his report to the party congress last November, Hu Jintao, Mr Xi’s predecessor, had even warned that corruption could threaten the very ‘existence’ of the Chinese communist party. What he did not quite explain was why his own campaign to weed out corruption had failed. By all accounts, the answer lies in the very system that the communist party has bred and nurtured. The party’s control over every aspect of life and its total lack of accountability or transparency remain the most important reasons for endemic corruption in the Chinese political establishment. Only genuine political reform can stem the rot.
The new leaders’ international challenges are no less formidable. They inherit several major problems from the previous regime. The most menacing of these is the continuing tension in China-Japan ties over a small group of islands in the East China Sea. China’s disputes in the South China Sea with countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines make most nations in the region wary of what they suspect to be Beijing’s expansionist ambitions. Even India cannot but feel uneasy about China’s moves to expand its influence in South Asia. It is almost inevitable that the Chinese expansionist strategies will lead to the United States of America enhancing its security and strategic presence in the region. Also, China, as the only major ally of Pyongyang, must bear its responsibility for the latter’s nuclear ambitions. China’s new leaders have to prove that its economic and strategic rise is not a threat to peace and stability in its backyard and in the wider world.