Will Xi the strongman be a wise man too?

Generations suffered through actions by former Chinese strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Can Xi Jinping take actions that benefit generations instead?

BEIJING • When he was 19, Hunan native Cheng Baoluo aspired to be a mathematician and to marry in his 20s. Instead, he married at age 36 and held mostly blue-collar jobs before ending his career running a chocolate factory.

Mr Cheng, now 71, belongs to the generation that had its youth and career prospects torn asunder by the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 under  Mao Zedong. Schools were shut and China fell into mayhem. Millions suffered a similar plight as Mr Cheng.

Then there is north-eastern Jilin native Sun Yuejiu, 37. Through years as sole caregiver amid her father's crippling muscular disease from 1995 to 2009 and her mother's health woes like gallstones, she was dogged by one question: "Why am I alone with no siblings to share the burden?"

The university lecturer blames it on China's controversial one-child policy, which was launched by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and abolished only last year. Millions suffered similar fates.

My interviews with these and other  "victims" of the Cultural Revolution and the one-child policy have been much on my mind recently. I came to China as a foreign correspondent in April 2012. My stint here, which ended on Wednesday, has coincided with President Xi Jinping's ascent to power at the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) once-a-decade leadership transition in November that year.

The past four years have been witness to Mr Xi's rapid consolidation of power - driven by his anti-graft drive that set new precedents in the number and seniority of officials purged.

Posters of Mao (right) and Mr Xi in Shanghai. Lessons from Mao and Deng will hopefully guide Mr Xi in minimising negative consequences and maximising positive impact instead. PHOTO: REUTERS

After being elevated in October as the CCP's "core leader" - which means his authority cannot be questioned and places him on the same pedestal as Mao, Deng and former president Jiang Zemin - Mr Xi is undoubtedly China's new strongman.

But the jury is out on the return of strongman leadership, which was thought to have ended under former president Hu Jintao's collective leadership style through his tenure from 2002 to 2012.

Many say a powerful leader will be better able to push through reforms that reportedly stalled under Mr Hu and also shore up the CCP's public image that has been blighted by rampant official corruption.

No one knows for sure now how exactly Mr Xi will wield his powers and to what ends. What is clear, though, is that he is in a position to effect changes that could affect generations to come, just like Mao and Deng did with the Cultural Revolution and the one-child policy respectively.

But others warn of the danger of Mr Xi turning into a leader able to act without checks and balances, much like Mao. Memories of the Cultural Revolution still haunt many here. No one knows for sure now how exactly Mr Xi will wield his powers and to what ends. What is clear, though, is that he is in a position to effect changes that could affect generations to come, just like Mao and Deng did with the Cultural Revolution and the one-child policy respectively.

So far, it is hard to say he has launched or implemented anything as epochal as Mao and Deng. For instance, he has abolished the one-child policy, but the move may have come too late to change societal habits and increase China's birth numbers.

But one cannot rule out the possibility of Mr Xi rolling out generation-impacting moves, as he is likely to remain at China's  helm for at least six more years, and given his penchant for  breaking with tradition.

Lessons from Mao and Deng will hopefully guide Mr Xi in minimising negative consequences and maximising positive impact instead.

In a large and complex country like China, with a centralised bureaucracy, the impact of policies can last for generations - for better or worse.

Deng's policy to open up China continues to reap dividends. The Cultural Revolution robbed China of the talent of a generation that never had the chance to maximise its potential. The one-child policy affected at least two generations, creating  demographic woes today like a gender imbalance, a shrinking workforce and an ageing population.

There are fears among some China watchers that Mr Xi might turn into a megalomaniac strongman. All eyes are on the CCP's 19th Party Congress late next year to see if he will go to extremes in packing his allies in a new leadership team.

To be sure, Mr Xi has adopted measures too that serve as checks on top leaders, presumably including himself. The Chinese society, with an increasingly educated and vocal citizenry, is also well placed to fend off a wayward strongman.

One possibly better way to entrench his legacy is for Mr Xi to focus on making China a more equitable society, by helping inland regions catch up with coastal regions, and narrowing the income gap.

Maintaining income equality is central to achieving the country's two centennial goals: becoming a "moderately well-off society" by 2021 (the 100th anniversary of the CCP's founding) and becoming a fully developed nation by 2049 (the 100th year of the People's Republic of China).

A "moderately well-off society" is achieved when all Chinese enjoy high standards of living and the 2010 gross domestic product per capita of US$5,679 (S$8,120) is doubled by 2020.

But a study in 2014 by the Peking University found that income equality has worsened even as China got richer, with about a third of the country's wealth held by 1 per cent of its people and the poorest quarter of Chinese citizens owning only 1 per cent of the country's wealth.

The study also showed that China's Gini coefficient, a widely used indicator of economic inequality, rose from 0.45 in 1995 to 0.73 in 2012. A Gini coefficient of zero represents absolute equality, while one represents absolute inequality. Societies with a Gini coefficient of over 0.4 are deemed to be at increased risk of widespread social unrest.

Creating a more equitable society will thus serve a practical need in fending off political instability.

Narrowing regional inequality can also help unleash the potential in inland regions, as growth is slowing in the coastal areas after three decades of rapid development. The world economy will also benefit with a higher-earning workforce and stronger-spending society in China.

There are signs that Mr Xi already sees the need to improve equality and is acting on it.

At the CCP's third plenum in late 2013, the words fairness and justice (gongping and zhengyi in Chinese) appeared no fewer than 20 times in the 22,000-word report listing the meeting's 60 "decisions". In contrast, these words appeared seven times in the 11,500-word report at a similar meeting in 2003, and three times in a 15,800-word report in 2008.

Individual income tax reforms are in the pipeline too to make high-wage earners pay more. E-commerce is being tapped to help rural residents make a better living. More cities are also letting rural migrants enjoy public services as part of the urbanisation push, which will help boost their disposable income.

Mr Xi is also tackling regional inequality.

One study found that the combined income of households in eastern coastal regions was 2.7 times that of households in inland regions.

To catalyse the western region's development, he has roped in Singapore through the government-led Chongqing Connectivity Initiative launched in November last year. Focusing on modern services and connectivity, the project aims to turn Chongqing into a logistics and services hub and replicate the model across the western region.

The central government last month also updated a decade-old masterplan to revitalise the three north-eastern provinces of Jilin, Heilongjiang and Liaoning, which are often the growth laggards among China's 31 provinces and regions.

A strongman leader can be a double-edged sword.

The hope is that by the time Mr Xi ends his tenure at the top echelons of Chinese politics, China would have become a more equal society. Then he might be judged by history as not just another Chinese strongman, but one who wielded his powers wisely and benefited generations to come.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2016, with the headline 'Will Xi the strongman be a wise man too?'. Print Edition | Subscribe