By Richard Wike, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Richard Wike is associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. The views expressed are his own. You can follow him @RichardWike
When incoming Chinese President Xi Jinping finally takes office later this week, he will face a difficult set of problems that in many ways stem from his country’s remarkable economic success. Year after year of impressive growth has lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty, but Beijing is now wrestling with the side effects of that growth, and the Chinese public is increasingly concerned about issues ranging from pollution to consumer safety to inequality and corruption. It is this popular discontent that Xi will face from day one in office.
Xi will be able to see the most visible sign of China’s growth related problems right outside his office window. The stunningly poor air quality in Beijing and other major Chinese cities has generated international headlines over the last two months, and prompted considerable anger within China itself. Bloomberg News reports that pollution has become the leading cause of the country’s 30,000 to 50,000 annual “mass incidents,” the Communist Party’s preferred euphemism for protests. Even before the recent spate of air quality stories, most Chinese saw this as a major problem – a 2012 Pew Research Center poll found 75 percent identifying air pollution as a big problem, and 36 percent describing it as a very big problem. And it’s not just the air – water pollution wasn’t far behind, with 33 percent naming it as a very serious concern.
In addition to these worries about the environment, China’s fast-growing middle class is increasingly concerned about dangerous consumer products. In recent years, there have been scandals over tainted chicken, contaminated baby formula, and toxic fruit, to name just a few examples. In 2008, only 12 percent said food safety was a very big problem, but by 2012 that proportion more than tripled, to 41 percent. Over the same time period, the percentage describing the quality of manufactured goods as a very big problem jumped from 13 percent to 33 percent. Similarly, just 9 percent were very concerned about the safety of medicine in 2008, compared with just over a quarter four years later.
However, for Xi and the new cadre of Chinese leaders, public unease about economic fairness may pose an ever bigger challenge. Increasingly, the public believes the spoils of rapid growth are not being shared equitably. In the 2012 Pew Research poll, 81 percent agreed that today “the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.” Nearly half said the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem, up from 41 percent in 2008.
A related public concern is corruption, which outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao described as the greatest danger facing the ruling party. Wen himself has been at the center of debates about corruption since last October, when the New York Times documented the considerable fortunes allegedly amassed by members of his family.
Wen is hardly the only high-ranking official with suspiciously wealthy family members. The dramatic downfall of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai led to revelations about his wife’s business dealings and his son’s studies at various elite schools in Britain and the United States. Many in China believe the politically connected are reaping the rewards of the country’s economic success, while average citizens are being left behind. Indeed, in 2012, half described corrupt officials as a very big problem, up significantly from 39 percent in 2008.
Although Xi will take the helm of a country that continues to enjoy rapid growth rates, many analysts believe China will not see the same high levels of growth it has enjoyed over the last decade. How the Chinese public responds to these economic changes will be a major issue for his tenure. But Xi will also be dealing with a public that is increasingly concerned about issues beyond simple economic growth. Such problems will provide some daunting challenges for the new president and his team over the next few years.