The Straits Times says

What China's new era might hold

The world's eyes were on the Chinese Communist Party's national congress recently because of the absolute power it wields in the most populous nation, one with the heft to cause ripples in the economic fabric of the region. It is precisely its size that makes the Western observer nervous about any abrupt change to the status quo, even as liberals might look askance at the scripted management of the week-long event. So high are the stakes that, from an Eastern perspective, a freewheeling approach to leadership change would be a risky gamble. In a world being shaken by populists, separatists, terrorists and nuclear opportunists, would one want the Asian giant to be rocked by cadre struggles or grassroots upheaval?

Hence the equanimity over the elevation of President Xi Jinping to the ranks of Mao Zedong (who united a nation fractured by war) and Deng Xiaoping (seen as the father of modern China). He was bestowed the rare honour of having his philosophy incorporated in the party's constitution, as "Xi Jinping Thought" on the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Though he now appears all-powerful, the Communist Party is not a monolith and power is more institutionally based than before. Autocracy, through a Western lens, is pitted against liberal democracy in bad-versus-good terms. But collectivist cultures do not see principled authoritarianism as an oxymoron. In China's context, it is argued that strong leadership is vital to hold a vast country together and to tackle huge challenges - like fighting corruption, creating quality jobs for the 15 million youngsters entering the workforce annually, and reforming pensions as a quarter of the population will be over the age of 65 by 2050.

Despite such formidable domestic needs, Mr Xi sees China developing into a moderately prosperous society that can stand tall among other nations. There is a grand strategy in his approach which contrasts with American president Donald Trump's focus on discrete deals. For instance, Mr Xi has been striding confidently on the world stage (with an eye on Chinese interests) and he wants to extend China's global influence via his "Belt and Road Initiative". That, as the Economist magazine noted, "is the kind of leadership America has not shown since the post-war days of the Marshall Plan in Western Europe".

While the good of such collaborative efforts is not doubted, bad aspects of global influence have surfaced. For example, there is talk in Australia of Chinese interference in domestic politics and "heavy influence" on Chinese student groups at Australian universities. Elsewhere, there are jitters about China's projection of military power abroad. How Mr Xi assuages such concerns will determine whether China's new era is widely associated with benign global leadership or with intrusions reflecting Russian characteristics.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2017, with the headline 'What China's new era might hold'. Print Edition | Subscribe