There is no fiscal cliff in China, and probably no sex scandal at a spy agency waiting to burst, yet China's new leader, Xi Jinping, is under just as much pressure as U.S. President Barack Obama to hit the ground running. Xi is assuming control of the Communist Party at a time when there is a whiff of crisis in the air. Now the party's general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi will not officially become president until the National People's Congress meets in the spring. Even after the transition is complete, Xi will still face the task of building support for his policies within the bureaucracy.
Xi's inbox, however, is already full of pressing problems that cannot wait until he is fully in control. On the economy, foreign policy, and domestic politics, Xi will inherit a series of crises that -- if allowed to fester or drift -- could develop into critical challenges to the legitimacy of the Communist Party. His first 100 days will be critical.
Momentum matters in politics, even in authoritarian regimes. The last Chinese leadership transition, 10 years ago, was also accompanied by a sense of crisis -- that time provided by the SARS virus. Just as Hu and Wen Jiabao were getting settled into their new roles as president and premier, respectively, in the spring of 2003, stories began to circulate that Beijing hospitals were ferrying SARS patients around town to evade World Health Organization inspectors. As the extent of the epidemic in China and the official coverup became apparent -- by late April, more than half the 4,649 cases in the world were in China -- for a brief moment the Communist Party looked vulnerable. ("So is SARS China's Chernobyl"? the Economist asked in April 2003.)
Chernobyl it was not. Hu and Wen reacted swiftly, sacking the health minister, imposing quarantines, and generally giving the impression of a new broom. Their quick response allowed the new leaders to make a strong start. The challenges facing Xi are less dramatic than SARS, but just as dangerous to the party -- a stalling economy, a nasty territorial dispute with Japan, and a growing sense of disillusionment with the heavy-handed political system. Like his predecessors, Xi needs to use his honeymoon period to provide a new sense of direction, before the problems start to engulf him and his team of new senior leaders.
Xi's most pressing overseas concern will be the tense standoff with Japan over the small group of islands the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese call the Diaoyus, which Japan administers but which China (and Taiwan) claim. This dispute has simmered for decades but flared again this April when the nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, announced that the Tokyo metropolitan government would purchase the islands. To fend off the confrontational Ishihara, Japan's national government decided to buy three of the five islands from their private owner. China was furious, and it has responded by ordering provocative daily trips by its patrol boats into the waters around the disputed islands, a strategy some analysts believe is a long-term, attritional challenge to Japanese control. It is the sort of situation in which misunderstandings or error could quickly escalate into conflict.
As a result, Xi immediately finds himself right in the middle of a mounting diplomatic crisis, one in which he will need to strike a delicate balance between deftness and toughness. The last thing a new Chinese leader can afford to do is appear weak in a dispute with Japan, a country many Chinese still loathe for its actions during World War II.