China annual political meetings passed without any great upheaval, but not all is well for president Xi Jinping, writes veteran journalist Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao in the New York Review of Book. No legal reforms, no successor, and then there is the economy.
Equally pressing is the need for significant economic reforms. State enterprises suck in valuable capital from the banking system, which continues to be state-run, to the detriment of more dynamic private enterprises. Urbanization has taken off, but is based on expropriating land at below-market prices. Farmers still don’t own their land or have meaningful land transfer rights. Rural residents still have a hard time getting full rights in urban areas. And of course censorship has become so overwhelming that even constructive criticism is increasingly marginalized, causing many moderates to lose hope that their voices can be heard.
The complete failure to reform the economy means that the government’s argument about low growth—that China’s economy has slowed only temporarily while the economy restructures—appears less and less plausible. Instead, what could be happening is that the country’s inability to reform further is sending it into the feared middle-income trap—a country that cannot take the next step to become a truly prosperous society.
Will any of this matter to Xi? His popularity could fall if the economy continues to stagnate, while property prices continue to remain far beyond the reach of ordinary people. But leaders like Putin have remained popular despite far worse economic situations thanks to overseas adventures and blaming foreigners for the country’s woes.
But what is clear is that Xi’s image as a strong and capable leader seems less and less believable. As the country enters its political season and Xi’s reappointment approaches, he begins to look different. Instead of being the transformer China needed, he might yet prove to be little more than a vigorous custodian of the status quo.
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