'Conservative reformer' Xi Jinping takes full power

He has also rejected any turn to western-inspired political liberalisation

'Conservative reformer'  Xi Jinping takes full power

Xi Jinping, the new leader of the Communist Party, has assumed the presidency of China, completing his formal transition to power. He did so at a legislative meeting that has signalled a more responsive approach to an impatient public, while defending the party’s top-down control.

The National People’s Congress anointed Xi as president four months after he was appointed as Communist Party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission, putting him at the top of all three major power centres in China: the party, the army and the state.

There was never any doubt that compliant delegates to the annual Parliament would overwhelmingly endorse Xi for president. They also named his ally Li Yuanchao as vice president. Only one of the 2,956 delegates who cast valid ballots in the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday voted against Xi; three abstained.

The new president faces conflicting expectations of how he will apply the power in his hands – expectations that he kindled himself. Since he succeeded Hu Jintao as party leader in November, he has used meetings, speeches and visits to a frenetic coastal city and a dirt-poor village to signal that he wants some economic liberalisation, more room for citizens to criticise the government and a crackdown on the official corruption that has infuriated Chinese citizens.

Yet Xi has also rejected any turn to western-inspired political liberalisation and has demanded utter loyalty from officials and the military. “I think that he’s attracted to the idea of a kind of enlightened dictatorship, or neo-authoritarianism,” said Li Weidong, a former magazine editor in Beijing who is a prominent commentator on politics. “He rejects fundamental political reform, but he wants a cleaner, more efficient government that is closer to the public.”

“I think in the end it will be difficult for them to avoid issues of political reform, because otherwise it will be impossible to eradicate corruption,” Li said. “Relying on personal authority and party indoctrination and traditions won’t solve the problems they face.”

Meeting Parliament delegates this week and last, Xi repeated vows to counter slowing economic growth by encouraging consumer spending and pulling down barriers to farmers migrating to towns and cities. He told People’s Liberation Army delegates that a strong, loyal military was essential to his ‘China dream’ of patriotic revival.

He has also shown a lighter public touch than his predecessor Hu, the stiffly disciplined Hu. After an uproar this week over thousands of pig carcasses floating down a river near Shanghai, state news media highlighted Xi’s earlier comments on water pollution.

“The standard that Internet users apply for lake water quality is whether the mayor dares to jump in and swim,” Xi told officials from the area near the polluted Lake Tai in eastern China, according to a state media report.

Xi, 59, is the son of a Communist Party official who served under Mao Zedong and became a supporter of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to curtail party controls and nurture markets. Li, the vice president, is also the ‘princeling’ son of a senior cadre.

Many party insiders thought that Li was destined for a place on the elite, seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, but he was left out of the lineup announced in November. However, Li’s new post will keep him close to Xi, and he could still climb into the Standing Committee at a party congress in 2017.

Before Parliament ends its session Sunday, it will appoint Li Keqiang as prime minister, succeeding Wen Jiabao, and install new deputy prime ministers, ministers and other senior officials. “They are all the sons of the party,” said Yao Jianfu, a retired party official and a researcher in Beijing.

“For them, there’s no conflict between defending their own power and developing a capitalist economy in China,” he said, adding that Xi “will have to lean more to the left in politics than he can lean to right in economic policy, otherwise he won’t be able to stabilise his place on the emperor’s throne.”

Outwardly, at least, Xi has accumulated the levers of power more smoothly than his recent predecessors. After becoming party leader in late 2002, Hu waited almost two years to take the Central Military Commission chairmanship from Jiang Zemin, who remained a constraint on Hu. Jiang was long overshadowed by Deng, the aged patriarch who installed him and at one time threatened to remove him.

But analysts and former officials said Xi and his comrades face other, no less forbidding obstacles to their vows of change: the array of powerful political families, state-owned conglomerates and ordinary urban residents who fear that change could threaten their interests.

“The talk of reform is genuine,” said Jennifer Richmond, who analyzes China for Stratfor, a company based in Austin, Texas, that offers advice on political and security affairs. “There is absolutely an understanding by the new leadership that they cannot carry on in the way that they have.

Old system

“But so many of those that got rich off the old system are a part of the system, and the changes they make will affect them,” Richmond said. “The ultimate fear is loss of party power, and that’s just unacceptable whether you’re a conservative or a reformer.”
Parliament offered signs of the obstacles that any ambitious change will face. A reorganisation of government ministries and agencies approved by delegates turned out to be much less thorough than what political insiders and analysts said was proposed several months ago. The powers of the National Development and Reform Commission, which many pro-market economists see as a hurdle to real reform, remained untouched. “When they start to diminish the power of the NDRC, that’s when I think that this is genuine,” Richmond said.

Shi Zhihong, a senior adviser to the Chinese leadership, this week told a Hong Kong newspaper, the Wen Wei Po, that Xi and his colleagues are working on a ‘blueprint’ for economic and social policy changes that would be presented to a party meeting, probably late this year. But Xi has stressed that none of the changes he has in mind are intended to undermine the party’s hold on power.

In comments to officials that have not been openly published, Xi has warned against confusing his idea of reform with western-inspired democratisation. “Some people define reform as reforming in the direction of western universal values and a western political system; otherwise it’s not reform,” Xi said in a copy of his comments that has circulated among officials. “This is stealthily switching one idea for another, and it distorts what reform is for us.”

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