Beijing bluster

The Chinese president, Hu Jintao, was in Harold Macmillan mode today, telling his people they had never had it so good. "China's overall strength has grown considerably and people enjoyed more tangible benefits" under his leadership, he said. "China's international standing and influence has risen notably". Perhaps he should be called Super-Hu.

Yet the "trust us, all will be well" message emanating from the Communist party's 17th congress in Beijing is not entirely convincing. Independent experts say China is entering a critical 15-month period at home and abroad. And while Mr Hu admitted the country faced "unprecedented challenges", his prescription - increased, centralised party control and vague promises of greater openness - does not look like the answer.

External pressure on Beijing is mounting almost by the day, driven by perceptions that it will do almost anything to make next year's Olympic Games a success. The concerted international effort to induce China to adopt a tougher approach towards its wayward client generals in Burma is but one recent example.

Ibrahim Gambari, the UN's envoy to Burma, is on his way back to Rangoon via China, with the US and EU egging him on. Probably only Beijing has the power to insist upon a genuine reconciliation dialogue. The spectre haunting Mr Hu, if he fails to act, is of renewed Burmese unrest, and more brutal repression, on the eve of his Olympic jamboree.

The squeeze is on in numerous other directions. George Bush will tomorrow become the first US president to invite the Dalai Lama to a public meeting at the White House. The talks, following a similar move last month by Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, are a pointed signal to Beijing that, in western eyes, Tibet's lost independence is not necessarily a lost cause.

Broader civil rights issues are increasingly coming into focus as China takes centre stage. Human Rights Watch reported this month that internal repression, including abduction and violent intimidation, was intensifying.

"In March, Yu Hongyuan, the Olympics Security Protection Centre's commander-in-chief, advocated 'harshly penalising one person in order to ... frighten many more into submission' to ensure the success of the congress, the Games and 60th anniversary celebrations of the People's Republic in 2009," the US-based group said.

Having given ground on its support for Sudan's government after Darfur campaigners threatened to label the Olympics "the Genocide Games", Beijing is being pushed to do more. The US in particular is relentlessly stressing China's responsibility as an emerging global power to cooperate on shared problems such as the nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea.

Slowly but surely, Beijing's non-aligned era doctrine of non-interference and non-intervention in other countries' affairs, born of bitter national experience, is crumbling before a mixture of realpolitik and moralistic arm-twisting.

This evolution has not gone unnoticed by Taiwan's government. Not coincidentally, it mounted its first national day military parade in 16 years last week and has stepped up its bid for UN membership. China has regularly threatened Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province, with military attack. But today Mr Hu, far from boldly rattling sabres, sounded almost conciliatory.

Internal challenges to party control are also multiplying. After years of rapid growth, the economy shows signs of overheating and inflation is rising. According to Albert Keidel, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment, food prices rose by 15% in July. Pork went up by 90%, instant noodles by 20%, and cooking oil and eggs by 30%. "These are explosive price increases in key consumer categories," he said.

"China's economy looks today much as it did before the inflationary catastrophes of 1988-89 and 1993-1996 ... If inflation gets out of control, draconian steps to suppress it could cause hardship and social unrest" - as happened prior to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Precedent suggested remedial action by the Communist party would come too little, too late, Mr Keidel said.

According to Elizabeth Economy, writing in the Foreign Affairs journal, China's escalating environmental problems could also disrupt Mr Hu's hopes of steady national advances, resulting instead in a great leap backward. She cited Pan Yue, a senior official, who warned that "the [economic] miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace".

Large-scale air and water pollution, desertification and the illegal timber trade endangered the health and livelihood of many millions, Ms Economy said. But while Beijing was aware of the problems, local officials bent on getting rich routinely ignored it initiatives.

"Turning the environmental situation around will require something far more difficult than setting targets and spending money. It will require revolutionary bottom-up political and economic reforms," she wrote.

As Mr Hu made very clear today, change of that order is not on the cards. It seems this great helmsman is sailing with his eyes tight shut.

Simon Tisdall