Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has submitted aprogress report for his government’s performance to the National People’s Congress for the last time. There will be no surprises: as always, the Chinese Parliament – a single house that officially represents their entire society – will ratify the work of Premier Wen’s administration. Wen is leaving the stage after ten years of guiding China – with the political direction of Hu Jintao – through the hardships of the international financial crisis. There were no surprises in the 29 pages read by the now-ex premier, nor would it have been wise to expect any. Possibly due to the accusations of personal enrichment thrown at him by the New York Times, Wen was very cautious and did not even try, as he has on other occasions, to dispel his grey “man of the system.” He listed the successes of his government, an evolution that he completed with pride. The country continued to grow, his role in the international arena was strengthened, and China’s course through the crisis was safe and serene. There was reason to congratulate oneself, and Wen did just that. Along the same lines came predictions for 2013. China’s GDP will grow by 7.5%, a rate enviable by the entire rest of the world and a sign that the threat of a hard landing has come and gone. Inflation remains stable at 3.5% and urban unemployment at 4.6%; both figures are easily absorbed by an economy in perennial expansion.
In front of three thousand delegates, Wen nevertheless omitted two important aspects. He only mentioned in passing that China’s defense spending would increase by 10.7%, a double-digit increase that has created concern in Asian and Western governments alike. The strengthening of China’s military – still not in line with the country’s political strength, for that matter – is vital for the promotion of nationalism, increasing approval rates, and to threaten the Pax Americana in the Pacific. Wen also did not spend time worrying about the costs of development, or the contradictions that it has generated and upon which it was built. The problems that continue to plague China either referred to only vaguely, or not at all. Corruption, social inequality, pollution, and the lack of transparency in the finance are the problems – social, more than economic – that threaten the country. Unlike in the past, they can no longer be repressed or hidden away. The citizens that do not enjoy special favors, that are barely able to pay their mortgage or tuition for their children, are painfully conscious of their hard work as they watch the rich become richer. They would have preferred a more courageous parting gift from Premier Wen, the kind of speech that the outgoing leader was neither able nor willing to give.
Now the baton has been passed to Li Keqiang, head of the administration, with the rudder firmly in the hands of the Secretary General. Xi Jinping – who is now President of the Republic – has already given a sneak preview to his political direction: “We must have the courage, like gnawing at a hard bone and wading through a dangerous shoal.” It is possible and would be beneficial for the bureaucracy that has successfully led the country for the past ten years to be supplanted by a leadership that is less conformist and more apt to try and solve problems, rather than hide them. Denying the past is not an option, it would be impossible and counterproductive. Instead, Xi needs to innovate, without being overcome by the changes or being too timid and creating the very effects of instability he must try to prevent.