If polls tracked public political sentiment in China, as they do in the West, new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping would probably be riding high in the ratings. He already appears presidential, setting a no-frills tone for China's pampered ruling elite months before he succeeds Hu Jintao as president. Public reaction has been positive. But it is conditional on the promise of a less remote governing style being fulfilled by substance.
Xi has set the bar high, promising to fight corruption that he says threatens the party's rule, to push reforms begun by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping , uphold the rule of law and rein in abuses of power. That is a broad commitment to aim for progress where there has been little, or the reverse. Official corruption flourishes despite past anti-graft drives by new political leaders; the state enterprise sector has advanced while the private sector liberated by Deng has retreated; the rule of law is honoured more in the breach than the observance; and abuse of power routinely violates people's rights.
That said, Xi has made a good beginning, with the Politburo pledging to rein in the over-the-top working style of senior officials which, ironically, reflects inherited feudal traditions more than the slogan of "putting people first". State leaders lost no time in making good on the promise. A Politburo Standing Committee motorcade dispensed with traffic controls and Xi himself avoided the extravagant ceremony and tight security accorded his predecessors during an inspection visit to Shenzhen and Guangzhou, while showing a common touch on walkabouts. If the new rules prevail, that will be a start on addressing public discontent and the stated aim of winning back the trust of the people.
Meanwhile, since Xi was appointed, each day brings reports of officials being sacked or detained for graft. His trip to Guangdong, with the first stop in Shenzhen, sent a message to further Deng's open-door policies of reform. But the rhetoric and Xi's visit raise expectations that conflict with powerful vested interest groups. To fulfil them, he must confront two related issues - the business activities of the families of senior cadres, and the economic domination of state-owned enterprises, which is the main obstacle to the economic restructuring necessary for sustainable, healthy growth. If senior officials are to lead by example, setting a benchmark for transparency by declaring their families' assets would do more to restore trust in government than a style makeover.