Xi Jinping

A year on, China's Xi and Li prove themselves as doers

Zhengxu Wang says while the first-year report card for the Xi-Li leadership is impressively full, with some deft achievements in foreign policy, Beijing's perceived shift to the left is worrying

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 November, 2013, 8:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 November, 2013, 4:11am

Soon, Xi Jinping and the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee will have occupied China's top leadership positions for one year. This anniversary marks an opportune time to appraise the performances of Xi and Premier Li Keqiang.

From the outset, the new leadership duo hit the ground running. Compared to their predecessors Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who took the reins in late 2002, Xi and Li have found it easier to exert their authority.

The new leadership duo hit the ground running. Compared to their predecessors Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao ... Xi and Li have found it easier to exert their authority

First, the transition of power was far more complete and clear cut than 10 years before. This allowed the new leaders to take a series of actions that demonstrated their commitment to delivering results.

On the economic front, Li has been far more decisive than Wen in his first year. He has set the direction of the policy changes that are to follow in the next few years. The signals from both Li and Xi have been unmistakably reformist, including the setting up of a free trade zone in Shanghai, efforts to clean up China's chaotic credit market, and the rescinding of a series of government approval requirements.

A few months into Hu and Wen's tenure, the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic broke out. The two leaders were thrust into responding to one of the biggest public health crises in recent years. There have been crises early in the Xi-Li leadership too: bird flu, dead pigs clogging up Shanghai's rivers and an earthquake in Sichuan .

Although serious incidents, they were small compared with Sars. In that sense, Xi and Li have enjoyed more luck than their predecessors. However, they have also handled their own setbacks efficiently, contributing to their quick consolidation of power.

During the last two years of the Hu-Wen era, China's foreign relations soured on several fronts, most notably with its neighbours over long-running disputes involving the Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea. Xi reacted by rolling out a carefully crafted diplomatic offensive in an attempt to reverse the damage to China's regional and global image.

He quickly strengthened China's relationships in Africa, Russia, Central Asia and Latin America, including Brazil, and with a strikingly early visit to Central America. Around the same time, Li's trips to South Asia and Europe bolstered China's standing in those regions. China subsequently signed a free trade agreement with Switzerland.

Most likely as a result of these moves, the US began to feel under pressure to repair its fractious relationship with China. This resulted in an informal meeting between Xi and President Barack Obama in California, which was hastily shoe-horned into the itinerary of Xi's Central America tour. Sino-US relations are now considerably more stable.

Neighbourly relations have improved, too, with Xi and Li visiting a number of Southeast Asian countries. And, recently, Xi held a high-profile meeting on China's relationship with neighbouring countries, injecting a strong sense of direction to China's foreign policy work.

Upon taking up the leadership mantle, Hu and Wen were highly constrained by several factors, the most notable being the retention of the military leadership post by the then outgoing leader Jiang Zemin . Since Xi and Li have come up against fewer such obstacles, they have achieved a lot in a short space of time.

The steps taken by Xi in foreign affairs certainly suggest a quicker and firmer grip on that policy area. Further, his ability to crack down on several instances of high-level corruption, including one involving a ministerial-level official, is also striking.

Xi has displayed a commitment to reinforcing the party's ability to rule. This is probably the right thing to do given the governance challenges the country is facing. Regardless of political persuasions, it is difficult to argue against the notion that the Communist Party is still necessary for China to achieve its developmental goals.

There are other possible areas for institution building, such as reform of the legal system, but this is a colossal task and the party leadership does not yet seem ready for the challenge.

And in trying to fix problems within the party, such as corruption and the rising challenges of disunity and ideological confusion, Xi is surely too old-fashioned. Much of his thinking and approaches to building up party and state, such as even more restrictions on media freedoms, provoke whispers of a Maoist revival.

The ongoing "mass line" campaign, which aims to reconnect party officials with the people and shun all forms of decadence and excess, harks back to the tactics of endless study sessions imposed during the Mao Zedong period.

It is hardly surprising. Xi was a product of that system and therefore his perspectives on party and state building are closely defined by the Maoist era during which he was educated.

The same can be said for his views on democracy and political reform. The past year has witnessed controversies surrounding the party's attacks on "universal values" and "constitutionalism". These concepts and ideas are in fact in line with at least some of the party's ideological and political commitments. But the party propaganda machine has treated them as Western conspiracies against China, apparently fearing that an open discussion of these concepts will threaten the party's hold on power.

These events have led to people questioning Xi's real position on political openness. And many in the Chinese intellectual and business classes were disappointed by this perceived shift to the left of China's political spectrum.

At the third plenum of the party's 18th Central Committee that opens on Saturday, Xi and Li are expected to unveil a road map for economic reform. With that, the real business will begin.

The challenges are mountainous in these areas: breaking up the state sector's monopoly in banking and finance, energy, telecommunications and other industries; transforming the taxation system to ensure a good balance between the central and local states; establishing transparency in government processes; and removing local government from its dependence on land sales and gigantic infrastructure projects; among others.

And it is in these areas that the performance of Xi, Li, and the party leadership team they represent will be graded, and recorded in the history books of future generations.

Zhengxu Wang is associate professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and deputy director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham