A Hu-Wen golden decade. Really?
Despite China's economic dominance, serious social problems have arisen
BEIJING - A dazzling 10 years. The glorious decade. Or, in Chinese, shengshi zhongguo - the Golden Age of China.
These epithets may sound a tad hyperbolic, but for China's state media, they are apt descriptions of the past decade.
On some levels, it is hard to dispute such an accolade. China, under the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao since 2002, has truly emerged as a global power.
The Hu-Wen decade saw China successfully hold the Beijing Olympics in 2008, ride through the financial crisis months later and emerge relatively unscathed to become the world's second-largest economy, as well as become a member of an elite space club after sending the country's first astronaut into orbit in 2003.
The stars, it seems, are nicely aligned for China to take its place in the constellation of great political powers, with the two leaders acting as proud guardians of this rise.
However, a growing list of articles in recent months suggests that a more neutral appraisal of the Hu-Wen administration would produce a much less glowing report card.
For far from being visionary leaders, the two men have proven to be mere caretaking mandarins who made sure that power has remained in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
As they hand over the reins to Mr Xi Jinping and Mr Li Keqiang in the coming days, China is facing more problems, tensions and challenges than a decade ago.
Such a damning assessment has come not from "external forces", or wai bu shi li, which the CCP often blames for fomenting dissent in the country. Instead, it is the verdict of Mr Deng Yuwen, associate editor of the weekly Study Times, the publication of the Central Party School, which is the CCP's top learning institution.
Even while China has seen tremendous progress during the Hu-Wen years, the country has come upon "more problems than achievements", Mr Deng said in a well-circulated article in September.
Grandpas on the ground
WHEN Mr Hu and Mr Wen came to power, they set out to get closer to the people, departing from the style of their predecessors Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji.
Mr Hu stunned the country when he made a surprise visit to Guangzhou during the 2003 Sars crisis, speaking to doctors sans mask and walking through a busy street to shake hands with ordinary folk.
Months later, Mr Wen shook the hands of an Aids patient - the first premier to do so.
And when he referred to himself as "Grandpa Wen" while comforting a victim of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, his popularity skyrocketed.
"Their brand is 'pro-people'. In this regard there were quite a few events that they scored well in," said analyst Wang Zhengxu of the University of Nottingham.
The duo's economic policies toed the decade-long line of building a harmonious society. Rural taxes were removed, welfare benefits expanded and a more sustainable model of development was championed.
Instead of the go-go growth of the Jiang years, Mr Hu wanted to focus on quality development.
"Hu and Wen deserve credit for raising recognition and awareness that the quality of GDP growth matters as much - or even more - than quantity," said Tsinghua University's professor Patrick Chovanec.
Alas, this had to be abandoned when the global financial crisis struck in 2008. Beijing was forced to take a big bang approach with a massive 4 trillion yuan (S$781 billion) stimulus focused on infrastructure building.
It was a success. China did not sink into recession but instead saw its international standing enhanced greatly. Last year, it overtook Japan to become the world's second-largest economy, after the United States. China was ranked only sixth in 2002.
"In a nutshell, China after the financial crisis is perceived as a major global power politically and economically," said analyst Li Mingjiang from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
BUT in their haste for quick-fix results, the two leaders turned their back on what they had set out to achieve - a more equitable distribution of wealth by restructuring the economy.
RBS China economist Louis Kuijs said: "Premier Wen has been relatively risk averse and cautious. He has not been seen as pushing for reforms that are difficult and unpopular."
Their stimulus plan benefited mostly state-owned enterprises, while credit-starved private companies continued to struggle.
A multibillion-dollar lending spree in 2009 fuelled a speculative property bubble, driving home prices beyond the reach of many Chinese and widening the income gap.
Corruption, the scourge of the country, has become even more pernicious. Railways Minister Liu Zhijun, for instance, is believed to have pocketed one billion yuan - much of it from the stimulus package.
"All the 'dividends' of China, from having a young population to WTO (World Trade Organisation) membership, have been squandered," said observer Zhang Jian from Peking University, lamenting that the Hu-Wen team did not seize the opportunity to push the country further ahead.
Worse, the muscular China that emerged post-crisis has been more assertive on the global stage. It refused to join the international community in condemning its last communist ally North Korea's provocations against the South in 2010.
And its territorial spats with the Philippines and Vietnam over island chains in the South China Sea have caused the warm ties it had built up with Asean states to cool somewhat.
China's diplomacy has taken a beating in recent years as militant voices at home grew louder.
"The concerns and anxiety towards China have grown in China's neighbourhood in recent years. This is very contradictory to what China has actually wanted to achieve," said RSIS' Professor Li.
At home, the Hu-Wen duo are leaving behind more political challenges for their successors to tackle. Under their watch, there has been an uptick in major ethnic strife.
Violent riots in Tibet and by Uighurs in Xinjiang erupted in 2008 and 2009, respectively, after years of hardline policies in the two restive regions.
The duo have also not been able to keep a lid on growing public unhappiness fuelled by corruption, land grabs, labour disputes, police violence and environmental degradation. When an anonymous online post called for a "jasmine revolution" in China to emulate the Arab Spring last year, a nervous Beijing scrambled to snuff out non-existent protests.
More money has since been earmarked for maintaining domestic stability than for defending China against external threats.
"It is trying to re-establish a Maoist control of the society with new techniques," said Professor Zhang.
But more than the threats posed by enemies at home and abroad, the Hu-Wen legacy is likely to be most tarnished by the lack of reform within the CCP.
In their 10 years in power, they have failed to advance intra-party democracy and accountability.
Worryingly, they have also purged two senior Politburo members, eroding a much-desired image of elite unity which the CCP longed to project.
The high-profile removals of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai this year and Shanghai party head Chen Liangyu in 2006 show that the CCP's winner- takes-all political culture of the Mao years is very much alive.
As veteran China analyst June Teufel Dreyer from the University of Miami puts it, the scandals "appear to indicate that the facade of unanimity in the core group is unravelling".
A cracked picture of party unity is what Mr Hu and Mr Wen have to show for the past 10 years. The incoming regime will have its work cut out as it struggles to reaffirm its legitimacy to rule, said Mr Deng, the Party School expert.
History will likely remember the Hu-Wen period for what it could have been and for the opportunities missed.
Sadly, it was no golden decade.
This article was first published on Nov 3, 2012 in The Straits Times.
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When China's leadership change starts next week, control of the world's emerging superpower will be passed to a new team. The Straits Times appraises the retiring leaders and the incoming rulers.
In their haste for quick-fix results, the two leaders turned their back on what they had set out to achieve.