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Leadership Gap in China

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
December 1, 2008
Washington Post

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This should be China's time to shine. The country is sitting on almost $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and may post a 9 percent growth rate this year, probably the highest of any nation. In the midst of a global financial crisis, the world has come to China's doorstep seeking leadership. Yet China's leaders have largely kept the door shut, arguing that Beijing can do the most good for the world by putting its own house in order. China wants to be a responsible partner, not a global leader.

Many in the United States have assumed that China wants to ascend to superpower status; and what better time for Beijing to step up? China matters more to the world every day-not just on trade and finance but on climate change, food safety, nonproliferation and other global challenges. Yet China's leaders are right: They need to focus on the home front before they extend themselves globally, for their own sake and for ours.

Above all, China's leaders need to sort out where they are going politically. It is hard to lead globally when your domestic political system is in massive transition-or, worse, turmoil. Beijing faces more than 90,000 protests annually as a result of endemic corruption and ongoing crises in public health and the environment. Exports, the lifeblood of the Chinese economy, are falling; layoffs are already in the tens of thousands, and China's stock market has lost two-thirds of its value over the past year. Chinese media report daily on a stream of new regulations-to limit the ability of factories to fire workers, to manage state-run reporting or to restructure the public health bureaucracy. Yet all this tinkering at the margins has failed to reassure the Chinese people, or many outside the country, that the government has a clear plan for its political and economic future.

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