Change in China: Its new leaders must keep tending the economy

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The changes in China brought by the 18th Congress of the Communist Party last week are important to the United States, but hard to fathom at this point. Even so, Americans should probably take away three points as they view the workings of the new Politburo and new party General Secretary Xi Jinping.

The first is that their legitimacy in the eyes of the 1.3 billion Chinese and the acceptance of their role in governance depends in no small part on the performance of the economy in providing a higher standard of living.

The second is that the military, the 2.3 million strong People's Liberation Army, plays a large part in running the show. They deter any element in Chinese society that might think democratization or other political change might make life better, improve the economy or bring new faces to the top of government. They are also very much in business, holding control of numerous economic enterprises

The third -- in case anyone in Washington is thinking about encouraging regime change -- is that the Chinese, in general, value continuity and consistency in government. Even though the U.S. military might wish to encourage a perception, to further its own claims on the federal budget, that the Chinese are being more aggressive in Southeast Asia, for example to counter America's own "pivot" to that continent, the fact is that whatever the Chinese do there or anywhere is likely to be a slow, conservative process.

Americans should keep this in mind, too. China has one, old, refurbished, ex-Soviet aircraft carrier; the United States has 11. China's efforts to extend its reach in Southeast Asia are confined almost entirely to the South China Sea, an area where its interests are centuries old.

A certain amount of analysis, perhaps wishful thinking, abounds that China's economic performance is sagging a little, which makes Americans feel less embarrassed about China's high growth rate. At the same time, China appears to have recovered relatively quickly from the global recession, enabling it to move again toward double-digit growth.

All of this probably means that the change in leadership from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping won't mean that much to China or to the United States. It is still very important, however, for President Barack Obama to establish personal lines to China's new leaders as quickly as possible.

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