China is still hungry

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China is still hungry

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As Chinese President Hu Jintao slowly moves toward the exit to make way for his successor in Beijing’s once-in-a-decade power transition in a few weeks, pundits are mixed about categorizing China’s 10 years under his reign as “golden” or “lost.” On Nov. 8, 2002, Hu ascended to the top general secretary’s post in the Communist Party at the 16th National Congress. On the same day 10 years later, he will hand over the reins of the world’s most populous country and second-largest economy to Vice President Xi Jinping and a new generation of leaders.

The state media has been blowing the propaganda trumpet extolling Hu’s accomplishments over the last decade since early June. The People’s Daily hailed Hu’s legacy as “glorious” leadership in combating a series of challenges over the last 10 years, crediting him for ushering the path of “success,” “glory” and “hope.”

The common theme of the eulogy pays tribute to Hu’s accomplishments to allow for great strides from China. Economically speaking, the praises may not be an overstatement. China’s staggering economic success under his reign cannot be matched by any other leader in the world. China’s per capita gross domestic product quintupled to $5,000 last year from $1,000 when Hu took power in 2002. The sixth-largest economy beat out Japan’s to rank as the world’s second. Cash-rich China came to the rescue when other parts of the world were in a tailspin due to the Wall Street-triggered financial meltdown in 2008.

China beamed and glittered with newfound pride and wealth during the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, not just because China won the most gold medals. More than 70 state leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, lined up for 30 minutes to shake hands with Hu during the opening ceremony. Yet critics downplayed his legacy as a “stagnant decade, if not a decade of retrogression” or a “decade of mediocrity.”

Well-known critic and Peking University Prof. Qian Liqun declared China to be at the brink of crisis. Some claim Hu should not be credited with the country’s economic prosperity. Professor Zhu Lijia of the Chinese Academy of Governance said Hu and the fourth-generation leadership mostly benefited from the effort and work done by their predecessors. They merely reaped the fruits of the reforms and opening over the past two decades. Deng Yuwen, vice editor of the Study Times run by the Central Party School of the Communist Party, raised 10 problems that were worsened under the leadership of Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Deng criticized the two leaders for failing to build a consumer-led economic structure, strengthen the middle class and address reform in household registration that denies rural residents the right to move and settle in cities, and for outdated family planning. He lambasted the poor standard of education and scientific research, the pollution situation and the looming energy crisis due to excessive industrialization, moral degradation from pervasive corruption, factional and narrow-sighted foreign policy, and most of all, a lack of progress in political reform and democracy.

In short, under the veneer of material prosperity, China’s social and structural problems deepened, economic concentration and polarization worsened, and reforms backtracked over the last 10 years.

Critics blame Hu’s leadership for slowing China’s galloping pace. It is hard to pinpoint the leadership of Hu. His speeches are more or less the same. He hardly talks and mingles with other state leaders. He is said to have responded languidly against the cascade of criticism from members of the Politburo Standing Committee during a meeting of elites at the seaside resort in Beidaihe last summer.

On the outside, what Hu accomplished over the last 10 years invited mostly envy and praise. Under his leadership, China rapidly rose and dominated the global scene during the first decade of the 21st century.

Since the humiliating defeat in the Opium War in 1840, China was obsessed with three national goals - sovereignty, building a strong nation and modernization. The nation fully gained sovereignty by establishing the Republic of China in 1949 and accomplished its goal of building a mighty country by being ranked second in the world. Modernization remains incomplete.

The task will have to be addressed by Xi as he takes on the failures of his predecessor. The criticism against Hu underscores the desires and needs of the Chinese people for balanced growth. The Chinese are still hungry. Hu has been a typical technocrat. Mao Zedong built the national foundation, Deng Xiaoping initiated reforms and Jiang Zemin set grounds for growth. Hu served as an architect of a harmonious society. He may have played the right role for the right time.

Xi is waiting to move up to the central stage. He will attempt modernization steps that his predecessor failed to complete. We also have contestants in waiting. The question is do they - Park Geun-hye, Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo - know their lines and the role they are auditioning for? They are too preoccupied with past issues and indistinguishable lines on economic democratization to make any real impression. Sadly, we are witnessing a poor performance.

* The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.

by You Sang-chul
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