March 14 (Bloomberg) -- Now that Xi Jinping officially holds the reins in Beijing, the world is asking this question: Can China’s new leader revamp an economy that may become the world’s largest during his 10-year term? Here’s an even better one: Will Beijing let him?
Much is being made of how quickly Xi is replacing Hu Jintao in China’s fastest formal transfer of power in more than a generation. Although it took Hu almost two years to get all top three positions -- president, Communist Party head and chairman of the military commission -- Xi has them right out of the gate. The sense is that Xi has been empowered to rebalance an economy that’s producing a dangerous gap between rich and poor.
That would sound more plausible if not for China’s billionaire bubble. The real big money in China isn’t in the private sector, but the public one. A March 7 Bloomberg News story dramatized the point: The ranks of the ultra-wealthy in China’s legislature swelled 20 percent this year. The list of China’s 1,000 richest people published by the Shanghai-based Hurun Report contains 90 members of the National People’s Congress. That, Bloomberg calculates, is up from 75 in 2012. It’s worth noting that everyone on the Hurun list had a fortune of at least 1.8 billion yuan ($289.4 million), more than former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Chinese politics is proving to be a bit too lucrative for the nation’s own good. Corruption, of course, doesn’t taint every member of Beijing’s inner circle. Yet the vast financial empires being amassed by some and the lack of transparency about wealth among politicians require attention and, where needed, legal action.
Xi must break this cycle. As more and more politicians get rich through questionable land grabs, insider trading and old-fashioned rent seeking, there is less incentive to retool the economy. Political will shrinks as overseas bank accounts swell. All that money sloshing around conspires to widen China’s rich-poor divide. But can Xi do it?
The plot thickens when you consider Bloomberg’s June story on how Xi’s extended family accumulated a fortune estimated at $376 million. Only time will tell if history remembers Xi as China’s great reformer or the great enricher of a party that’s become communist in name only.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)