China is set for a change in leadership - but not policy. Sinologist Christian Göbel tells DW that the Communist Party faces challenges from the Internet and new media.
DW: Professor Göbel, after taking over the highest party offices in November, Xi Jingping and the new Politburo are now also taking over the highest political offices. Xi Jinping is set to be the new president and Li Keqiang prime minister. Can we already draw conclusions from the speeches they have given in the interim as to what we can expect from the new leadership?
Christian Göbel: I want to say two things. First, it's not the case that something completely new can now happen. The policy guidelines, or what is set to happen in the next few years, have been laid down over the last few years. For example, we have had a new five-year plan since 2011. We already know the plans for technology and innovation. And these policies will continue. There will not be any significant change in course here. In China, however, it is always an interesting question as to how existing laws are actually implemented. There are, for example, very strict environmental laws and very strict anti-corruption laws in China. But it's a matter of whether such laws are implemented.
The question is often discussed whether Xi Jinping is a reformer. And reform means political openness, perhaps more democracy and freedom. What is your assessment?
Media reports often say that Xi Jinping likes to laugh and is more easygoing than, for example, his predecessor, Hu Jintao. The Chinese media also write that he had been sent to the countryside, and therefore knows the poor very well. But I do not think we can allow anything to be drawn from such biographical fragments. Because another factor that is less discussed is that someone like Xi Jinping - and this applies to every party leader, every member of the Politburo - has a very, very long slog behind him. And whoever overcomes this and survives has proved that he can adapt well to the system, knows the rules and knows how to survive in the system.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the new leadership in China?
First, there is the challenge of rising inequality. Rural development must be brought into line with urban development to some extent. The urbanization process should be controlled so that none of the involved groups suffers a loss. China must come to a better distribution of income and thereby increase domestic demand, which in turn, could promote innovation. Then, of course, corruption and nepotism must be fought, and the environment protected. Moreover, in recent years, we have an increasingly well-informed population. Access to information has become much easier than it was ten years ago, especially through the Internet and microblogs. It has become very difficult for the government to suppress information. This has led to a situation where the people are much more able to keep tabs on the government than before, and can also comment very quickly on government policy, without the censors coming after them as quickly.
You mentioned one major problem: environmental protection. That is also an area in which the new, well-informed middle class is becoming more active. That's because they are discovering that the wealth they have accumulated is not the be-all and end-all. People are already risking their health simply by going shopping - the air quality is very poor and customers cannot be sure whether or not the food they buy is safe.
In political science, we would say that a change has taken place, from "survival values", in which it's just a matter of getting by each day, to "self-expression values," where it's about more than just food and a roof over your head. This change has happened in all industrializing societies. And this is now a challenge for the party. Because the population is now saying: Well, we have enough to eat and we have a roof over our heads. But where do we go from here?
Christian Göbel teaches at the University of Vienna Institute of East Asian Studies.