China completes its transition

China’s transition to the so-called fifth generation of leaders is now complete. Unlike the naming of top Communist Party officials last November at the 18th Party Congress, the identification of top government officials was much less dramatic: The results had been widely anticipated and the process appeared to go off without a hitch.

As expected, Mr. Xi Jinping, selected as secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party in November, completed his voyage to the heights of the leadership by being named president of the country. Mr. Li Keqiang was named premier, a position that puts him in charge of day-to-day management of the country, and makes him most responsible for keeping the economy healthy and growing.

While these two men represent the pinnacle of power, other key officials were named as well, including Mr. Wang Yi, former ambassador to Japan, who was appointed foreign minister; Mr. Yang Jiechi, the previous foreign minister, who moved on to become state councilor; and Mr. Lou Jiwei, the new finance minister.

Those appointments, along with others, were expected. More surprising was the naming of Mr. Zhou Qiang as supreme court president and Mr. Li Yuanchao as vice president of China. The latter appointment raised eyebrows as he, unlike other vice presidents, is not a member of the Communist Party’s seven-member Politboro Standing Committee, a post that was thought to be a prerequisite for the government position. Both are seen as political reformers and liberals.

The new team represents the fifth generational transition in the Chinese leadership, and only the second to have been accomplished peacefully. The first three were the result of intense and often bloody factional struggles. It was the ascension to power of Mr. Hu Jintao in 2002 that marked the institutionalization of the transition process.

Yet, while the process has been routinized, it is no less faction-driven, nor the competition any less pitched. Now, however, the fighting is bureaucratic and consists more of bargaining than outright violence. Balances are struck.

This time, for example, Mr. Xi, the son of a revolutionary general, is thought to represent the group of other party elders (and their families), one of the most prominent of which is former President and CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin.

Mr. Li Keqiang is from a faction headed by outgoing President Hu Jintao, which has its base in the Communist Youth League.

Now, the new Chinese leadership’s task is to put infighting behind them (although it will continue on some level as leaders anticipate the transition to the sixth generation in a decade’s time) and tackle the many problems China faces.

For all the talk of a “rising China” and all the concern that has been engendered in Japan and elsewhere, those problems are formidable.

The most pressing challenge is eliminating the corruption that has become ubiquitous in China. The country’s extraordinary growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and created the world’s second-largest economy. But the wealth has not been evenly distributed and China is now one of the most unequal societies on Earth.

Some of these riches have gone to officials in return for favors, a process that has accentuated income disparities, blackened the image of the party and the government, and undermined their legitimacy.

Today corruption is the most dangerous threat to the CCP and one that must be reduced and eliminated if the party is to survive. The top leadership knows this, but it also fears the depth of problem and the impact of a full-scale assault on it. That’s why the presence of reformers like Mr. Zhou and Mr. Li is potentially so important.

But no matter what their inclinations, they cannot succeed without support from other top leaders.

The second challenge is transforming the economy from one that relies on exports and investment to one based on domestic consumption. This shift is necessary to reduce vulnerability to external shocks as well as friction with trade partners. The shift is difficult, as Japan well knows, because of the power of entrenched industries and bureaucracies that benefit from the current export-oriented approach.

The third challenge, which is related to the other two, is to clean up the environment and ensure that China’s citizens are not poisoned by their economic success. China lacks clean water, its urban air pollution is notorious, its arable land is shrinking and many of its consumer products are tainted.

The new leadership has signaled that it grasps the scale of the challenges and understands what must be done. A first step has been taken with the streamlining of government and the decision to eliminate the much-criticized railroad ministry and merge it with another ministry.

The government seems to be toning down its hostile rhetoric toward Japan. The government did not specifically mention Japan, with which China disputes the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, although Mr. Li stressed the importance of China protecting its sovereignty and territories while it takes the road of peaceful development.

Hopefully, newly empowered, Mr. Xi and Mr. Li Keqiang will recognize that tensions with Japan could undermine efforts to tackle China’s most pressing issues. They should see this country as a partner, not an adversary.

Previous generations of Chinese leaders understood the importance of the bilateral relationship between China and Japan: With the transition complete and the jockeying for power finished, China’s new leadership can, and should, return to that former mind-set.