5. Improve Treatment of Ethnic Minorities
Beijing's policies in Tibet and Xinjiang, which constitute about half of China's territory, may be its greatest human rights failure over the last decade. Massive investment and infrastructure development have done little to offset the anger and despair of Tibetans and Uighurs forced to endure ever-tightening restrictions on their culture, language, movements, and religion. In the wake of protests in Tibetan areas in 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009, the central government did not address underlying grievances, instead responding with enforced disappearances and harsh sentences. Since that time, access to both regions has been heavily restricted. It should be a source of profound shame and sense of failure to Beijing that at least 62 Tibetans have chosen to protest these policies by setting themselves ablaze, and it is hard to see the disproportionate indictment of Uighurs on state security charges and the razing of ancient parts of the Silk Road city of Kashgar as anything other than a grim indications of Beijing's strategy for these regions.
Xi should call for adherence to the autonomy laws that govern China's west, ideally with input from local and international experts, as a step towards a more durable and desirable solution than maintaining extraordinary troop presences in the western third of the country. Failure to treat Tibetans and Uighurs as citizens with full rights and reasonable aspirations risks a social and political explosion akin to the protests of 2008 and 2009, not to mention a protracted security challenge on China's western border.
6. Earn Legitimacy
China has fallen behind other parts of the world by continually denying its people the right to genuine and periodic elections and to formal participation in political processes. Xi should draft a new kind of five-year plan: one that charts a course for the Communist Party to receive its political legitimacy from the people. Some China observers now argue that increasing factionalism within the party creates a rough equivalent of inter-party competition; that village elections allow for low-grade political participation; and that the government is increasingly responsive to public opinion. But not since the beginning of the reform era in the late 1970s has Beijing seen such intense infighting amongst the leadership. The recent turmoil with the party's process of choosing leaders, coupled with plummeting public confidence, suggest that the current strategy is failing to produce the smooth, confidence-engendering transitions senior officials seek.
The rocky run-up to the leadership transition makes any bold policy initiatives in the coming year highly unlikely. But if Xi advances similar but less controversial reforms, such as finally abolishing the "re-education through labor" system, or allowing exiled Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng to return, bolder steps might follow. The cost will be high, and he will certainly face significant opposition from many of the interests now deeply vested in the status quo of impunity, censorship, and persecution. But the people of China cannot afford another decade like the last one.