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China's lost decade

Ruth Kirchner, Simon BoneMarch 13, 2013

As the era of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao ends, China can look back at 10 years of economic growth. But many are pointing to corruption, stagnation and environmental devastation.

Fireworks over the Bird's Nest stadium during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games (Photo: dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

For months, a generational and leadership change has been underway in China. In November, the party leadership was replaced, and a week ago, the National People's Congress convened to anoint the country's new political leadership. At the end of this week, President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are expected to step aside to make room for a younger team.

Hu and Wen have ruled China for ten years. If Chinese propaganda is to be believed, China experienced a "golden decade" under their leadership. In that time, the country grew to become the second-largest economy in the world. It was an era of prosperity for millions of people, with new skyscraper-dotted cities, vast new freeways and high-speed railways, the country's first astronauts, the Beijing Olympics and a new sense of importance on the world stage.

Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang walks outside the orbit module of the Shenzhou-7 spacecraft for a spacewalk. (Photo: AP/Xinhua)
The Communist Party hopes to gain prestige from projects like the space programImage: AP

Few dispute the country's unprecedented economic boom - at least not in the coastal cities that have been its main beneficiaries. As one Beijing retiree said, "They have done a good job. Everyone can feel the improvements in living standards."

The problems of prosperity

But with that boom have come the problems of unchecked and unexpected growth - inflation, speculation, corruption and pollution. And while many Chinese are enjoying their modest share of the prosperity, these problems also afflict their daily lives. As another resident of the Chinese capital described it, "The home prices are constantly rising and falling, they are not stable. Inflation is high. And the air pollution in cities such as Beijing is terrible."

A bullet train passes over the wrecked carriages involved in Saturday's crash in Wenzhou, east China's Zhejiang Province, on Monday, July 25, 2011. (Photo: AP)
The 2011 high-speed rail disaster unveiled corruption and poor standards in China's vast new infrastructureImage: AP

Critics say the price of China's growth has been high. The most visible victim is the environment, which has faced devastation on a massive scale. But with the Communist Party leadership as firmly anchored as ever, little has been done to address the social problems resulting from a far wealthier country that remains under an essentially unchanged dictatorial system.

Dissident Yu Jie settled in the United States last year after years of harassment by the authorities. "We will also be paying a high price for the corruption, the huge income disparities, the demoralization and the hatred between the little people and the privileged."

Critical intellectuals are particularly disappointed that there has been no progress in the past decade towards greater freedom of expression, press freedom or the rule of law. They talk of a lost decade of missed opportunities.

A guard stands in front of the Tiananmen during severe smog in Beijing, January 12, 2013. (Photo: AP)
Beijing's air pollution is among the worst in the worldImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Veteran legal scholar Jiang Ping of the China University of Political Science and Law belongs to the reformist wing of the Communist Party. "The biggest mistake, of course, is that there were no political reforms in the system, no progress - in some areas they even regressed. This is a disgrace."

A boom for secret police

Instead, by arguing the need to preserve stability in the country, the security apparatus expanded. China now spends more on internal security than for national defense. Only Prime Minister Wen, who always liked to present himself as close to the people, sometimes spoke of a need for political reform. That's something many give him credit for, even if he was unable, or unwilling, to push anything through.

The more wooden President Hu, on the other hand, consistently gets poor marks. Writer and historian Zhang Lifan is among the disappointed: "His greatest achievement is that at the end he gave all the power, and all his offices, to his successor. Otherwise, in ten years Hu Jintao achieved next to nothing."

A heroin dealer in Chinese custody, later executed (Photo: dpa)
China leads the world in executions, but its legal standards are poorImage: picture alliance/dpa

Yet Hu and Wen managed crises that would have long ago cost politicians in other countries their jobs: These include the earthquake in Sichuan, with 80,000 dead and the tainted baby milk powder scandal that made 300,000 children sick and killed six. There was the unrest in Tibet and the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang. And the global economic and financial crisis, which also hit China hard.

Wen is himself one of the first to admit that not everything went smoothly. In his last major press conference a year ago, he admitted emotionally, "I am responsible for the problems that occurred in the economy and society during my tenure."

But he is now leaving behind the problems that have accumulated: A growth model that has reached its limits, state-owned enterprises that are unwilling to reform, gigantic environmental problems and massive social tensions. It is not an easy job for his heirs, the new team of incoming President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang.