Xi Jinping's economic and political reforms get Jiang Zemin's backing
The secret discussions of party leaders at their annual conclave in the beach resort of Beidaihe set the tone for important political and economic policy issues. What sets this year's gathering apart is a departure from traditional practice by retired top leader Jiang Zemin. The former president has made pointed and positive public comments on new party leader Xi Jinping. His forthright endorsement of Xi's qualities and performance lend support in the face of pressure from conservative and liberal factions, not to mention powerful vested interests, over economic and political reforms about which Xi has been seen to have sent conflicting signals.
Jiang, who stepped down as party leader in 2002, still plays a significant role, contrary to recent reports that he is fully retired. His latest foray, in which he gave full backing to Xi, came in a delayed report last week by Xinhua of remarks Jiang made at a July 3 meeting with former American secretary of state Henry Kissinger. The timing of the report, just ahead of the seaside conclave, is significant, as was the fact he devoted a third of his reported remarks to expressing strong support for Xi. This reflects the pressure that is building up on Xi from all sides.
Jiang and Kissinger go back a long way, to well before Deng Xiaoping encouraged Jiang in 1992 to push ahead with reforms in the face of opposition in the aftermath of the June 4 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. On Tuesday, in the wake of Jiang's expression of strong support, Xi renewed his call for broad and deep reform. This will have come as welcome reassurance to liberals concerned about the significance of earlier comments by Xi in defence of Mao Zedong's legacy. Without economic and political reform, China will struggle to maintain sustainable growth.
Xi's contrasting remarks reflect a need to strike a balance between rival factions. He has been consolidating his power - a prerequisite if he is to undertake reform. There are positive signs, such as moves to set up free-trade zones and internationalise the use of the yuan. Whether he has the political courage to take on major reforms affecting the state-owned sector and vested interest groups, and political reforms to make government more transparent and accountable, remains to be seen. So far, he has been entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Now Jiang's support may be a sign that they are working together to put the country on the right track.