China watching is a precarious pastime: even the most astute observers can’t help being wrong, as they try to extrapolate political shifts from the symbolic and often highly ambiguous signals broadcast by the PRC’s secretive leadership. But following the selection of a new General Secretary – a rare event, as the last two reigned for ten years each – all eyes are focused on interpreting the new leader’s first decisions, in the hopes of divining what may follow over the next decade.
Xi Jinping, who ascended to the position of General Secretary of the CPC late last year, is the first of his faction to take the top job. They are referred to as the Communist Party’s “princelings,” with the imperial connotation that the name suggests. Children of revolutionaries who fought alongside Mao sixty years ago, the princelings have a reputation for middle-of-the-road conservatism – they reject both the party’s left wing, who are perpetually concerned over the fast pace of change, as well as the ardent market-oriented reformers, who argue that the pace of development is still dangerously slow.
Known for over a year as Hu’s heir apparent, Xi has accordingly been sheltered from the intense scrutiny of Western analysts. Still, the media has consistently reported on two traits in Xi: his smooth and swift ascent through the party ranks, and his charismatic appeal, which differs so much from that of his predecessor. While premier Wen Jiabao often played the smiling counterpart to the dour countenance of Hu Jintao, Xi brings a measure of charisma and informal charm that the position hasn’t seen in recent times. This trait in a national leader shouldn’t be underestimated: it may allow Xi greater political capital in enacting policies unpopular with the party or the people at large.
Upon taking power, Xi moved swiftly to consolidate his control over the armed forces, both more quickly and completely than Hu Jintao did after taking control in 2003. Xi made highly public visits to military installations, and displayed his charisma as he told jokes to low-ranking sailors while sharing a meal in a ship’s mess.
Beyond the typical media choreography, there was a clear diplomatic signal to China’s neighbours and the United States: don’t expect any softening of China’s increasingly assertive geopolitical stance. Xi will maintain or even expand the rapid modernization of the military. So far, this effort has been led by the navy, ostensibly because China’s most contentious territorial disputes are over two tiny, hydrocarbon-rich island chains. To the south, China claims the Spratley archipelago, a title that is fiercely rejected by several ASEAN member states. To the east, both China and Taiwan claim the Diayu chain, which has long been controlled by Japan. Although China’s aggressive posture incurs a diplomatic cost by worrying its neighbours, China is an essential trade partner to all of them, and a primary source of foreign direct investment for many, particularly in Southeast Asia. This grants leeway to the CPC to make bold assertions of possession, a policy that pays a domestic dividend, as it is very popular among China’s increasingly nationalistic population.
While military policy was the focus during Xi’s first five weeks in power, domestic concerns are by far the most pressing problem the new General Secretary will face. On this subject, the signals were less clear cut. Last year was a difficult one for the CPC: the party witnessed the greatest public-relations disaster since the 1989 protests when Bo Xilai, the fast-rising and charismatic governor of Chongqing, was arrested and imprisoned in connection with the death of British businessman Neal Heywood. The story fascinated world news outlets for weeks, while the censors struggled to control reactions in China’s ever-expanding galaxy of microbloggers. Moreover, economic growth dropped slightly as a result of lower exports to Europe and a sluggish American recovery, while bitter complaints of corruption continued to be expressed both in local protests, and online.
In response to these challenges, Xi has already demonstrated a leadership style that is more vigorous and public than that of his predecessor. Xi quickly embarked on a “southern inspection tour,” which was more or less a series of photo ops and publicized meetings throughout the wealthy province of Guangdong. Although the CPC is used to communicating in ambiguous symbols and euphemism, this time the reference was unusually clear. One of the last and most significant events in the life of Deng Xiaoping, the man who dismantled Mao’s command economy and initiated China’s unprecedented rise to global prominence, was a very similar inspection tour in 1992. By quite literally following in Deng’s footsteps, Xi is trying to repudiate the idea that he will shy away from meaningful reform.
Chinese news agencies repeated focused on two themes of Xi’s tour: his repeated pledge to expand the “reform and opening up” initiated by Deng thirty years ago, and Xi’s effort to bridge the gap between the CPC and the Chinese people. The first point comes as no surprise, particularly after a year of slow growth. The second was more unprecedented, as Xi made sure to be seen driving around in a minibus with a single police escort, and refused to close any roads when he visited the bustling metropolis of Shenzhen. This repudiation of pomp and circumstance may be the beginning of a serious anti-corruption drive, but it is more likely a directive to wealthy cadres to hide the obvious symbols of their excess. This will gain some time for the new General Secretary and Standing Committee – the most powerful members of the party, with whom Xi must come to a consensus – to develop a longer-term plan to reduce corruption, which threatens to derail China’s winning formula of quick economic development and relative social peace.
To an extent, Xi and the new Standing Committee have already acted in line with the two messages broadcast over the course of the southern inspection tour. In line with his promise to persist with economic liberalization, several small reforms were passed that should facilitate further foreign direct investment in China’s economy. And as a demonstration of his commitment to fight excess and corruption, the size of the Standing Committee was reduced from nine to seven members. And, in keeping with the tradition of trying out new policies in Guangdong, an experimental program was launched in that province to make public the expenditures of CPC officials.
If Xi Jinping’s first few weeks of rule have demonstrated any single overarching trend, it is that he will likely be a stronger and more active leader than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Many see Hu as having failed to either pass the necessary political reforms, or to adequately control China’s increasingly restive population. Although he is a princeling, Xi is already looking like more of a reformer than his membership in that faction would suggest. But whether he will go far enough remains to be seen. To fail to improve the Party’s reputation, which is increasingly marred by corruption in the eyes of the people, would be an egregious failure. Some high-level members of the Party have gone so far as to suggest that without meaningful action, the CPC may lose control of China even before Xi steps down in ten years’ time. Stimulating domestic consumption will be another great challenge for the new leader, as consumption in the developed world is hardly growing at all, let alone at a sufficient rate to support continued economic expansion in China.
If he is able to surmount both the economic and the political challenge, then Xi may be credited with being the greatest leader China has had since Deng Xiaoping. But ten years is a very long time in politics – especially in a country that is changing as fast as China. Not that that is an advantage. While he has plenty of time to falter, or to fail to address new problems, Xi must begin addressing corruption and enacting economic reform immediately. The stakes are higher now than at any time since Tiananmen.