Courtesy Reuters

China's Leadership Gap


After 28 years of reform, China faces challenges of an unprecedented scale, complexity, and importance. China has already liberalized its markets, opened up to foreign trade and investment, and become a global economic powerhouse. Now its leaders and people must deal with popular dissatisfaction with local government, environmental degradation, scarce natural resources, an underdeveloped financial system, an inadequate health-care system, a restless rural population, urbanization on a massive scale, and increasing social inequality. Most of these problems, of course, have existed throughout the period of reform. What is different now is that the pace of change is accelerating while the ability of the state to manage that change is not keeping pace.

Solving any one of these problems by itself would be a formidable task. But Beijing must deal with all of them at once. Because China's government is a one-party system with minimal popular participation, success depends on the energy and ideas of its leaders. Yet the Chinese government today finds it harder than ever to attract, develop, and retain talent. Graduates from the country's top universities, who once would have filled government posts, are instead choosing to take jobs in the private sector. Ironically, by creating new opportunities for talented people, China's three decades of reform have made undertaking new reforms more difficult. Moreover, the structure of the country's bureaucracy stifles initiative and promotes mediocrity. Worse, many officials, from the village to the central government, are corrupt, eroding the government's effectiveness and feeding popular discontent with the system.

Of all of China's challenges, none is more critical -- or more daunting -- than that of nurturing a new generation of leaders who are skilled, honest, committed to public service, and accountable to the Chinese people as a whole. Unless China manages to produce such leaders, Beijing will fail to meet the country's challenges, and its public promises of a more prosperous and democratic future will remain unfulfilled.


For much of China's

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