Exit Hu, Enter Xi: Changing of the Guard

03/15/2013 09:44 am ET | Updated May 15, 2013

This week, Beijing ushered in its new generation of leaders fronted by Xi Jinping to rule the world's most populous nation for the next ten years.

During their decade-long reign, China will overtake the U.S. to become the world's largest superpower. And, in contrast to all the pomp and pageantry which marked last year's U.S. elections, Beijing's leaders are still chosen behind closed doors by an elite band of party elders.

Although this archaic system hasn't changed much since the party's inception in 1949, the country itself has undergone a huge transformation to emerge as the world's second largest economy. But, unlike the previous government which ruled during a period of unprecedented economic growth, Xi will inherit a slowing economy saddled with many challenges:

"'Hu Jintao and friends will be remembered for transitioning China from a regional to a global power, but they actually deserve little credit for that; it was going to happen no matter who helmed the country. Their decade leading the PRC should be viewed largely as one of lost opportunities, even failure,' says Derek Scissors from the Heritage Foundation."

Their environmental legacy is widely regarded to be a failure. The country is now the most polluted place on the planet. China's breakneck economic growth came at the environment's great expense, with Beijing's air quality becoming the latest and perhaps most visible victim. Earlier this year, the capital stole international headlines after it became cloaked in a thick apocalyptic smog which led to a 20 percent rise in hospital admissions.

Sparking a huge protest online, the government was forced to introduce a raft of anti-pollution measures to appease an angry public. In the past, the government would have have been able to censor such information, but the advent of the Internet and its accompanying rise of social media has ushered in a new era of public discourse which wouldn't have been possible a decade ago.

In fact, the number of Internet users in China has sky rocketed to more than 500 million today. And, it represents just one medium where the public is demonstrating its growing discontent, largely in response to environmental degradation.

Xi not only inherits a polluted nation, but one which is struggling to expand during an era of intense climate change. According to the World Bank, our planet is now on course to warn by up to four degrees Celsius within the next 50 years.

The International Energy Agency says that countries like China will contribute to much of that change as they continue to use enormous amounts of coal. In fact, the IEA projects that coal will replace oil as the world's top source of energy over the next five years.

And, although the outgoing administration has promised to introduce a carbon tax and the country's first climate change law, Xi will eventually have to move China towards greener sources of energy. In fact, as extreme weather begins to affect the entire nation, reining in climate change will become necessary to maintaining social order.

At the same time, Xi will have to move China away from its export-led growth model, and transition it towards one that is spurred by domestic demand. And, during his first five-year reign, the populace will peak, and then shrink as the legacy of the country's one-child policy begins to take effect.

Given the daunting set of challenges that lie ahead, China clearly requires a bold leader with the courage to drive though the necessary spate of reforms.

"'The sheer scale of economic and social problems in China requires policy solutions that necessitate some significant systemic political changes. But, there is no certainty that the incoming group will be able to change this leadership culture, '" says Professor David Shambaugh from George Washington University.

In fact, many analysts believe that style will be the only difference between Xi and his predecessor. Xi is certainly more confident and affable. And, although this may help in striking consensus within a fractured party, the future demands of his nation will require much more.

Last year, the World Bank laid out a blueprint for reform which included privatizing large areas of the state and the greening of the economy. But, such changes will require taking on entrenched state interests. And, this will represent the heart of Xi's main challenge.

As last year's downfall of Bo Xilai reveals, tackling such vested interests can be met with some very severe consequences. Originally tipped to become China's next commander in chief, Bo is now awaiting trial on charges related to corruption and his wife's alleged murder of a British businessman:

"'Intra-party fighting means even the privileged are not protected by human rights. The most senior officials can be imprisoned without legal proceedings at any time. So, for their own security, elites may eventually have an incentive to create the rule of law,'" says Professor Zhang Weiying from Peking University.

Many analysts argue that even if Xi is a revolutionary at heart, his room for maneuver will be severely limited. "There is no reason at all to think that Xi is going to be the Gorbachev of China," says Perry Link from Princeton University.

As Friedrich Nietzsche once said: "To do great things is difficult; but to command great things is even more difficult." If great leaders are born out of years of hard effort, only the future will reveal what kind of ruler Xi Jinping will be.