Is Xi Jinping a reformer or a conservative? The question is without doubt one of the most discussed by intellectuals and scholars all over China since the Chinese leader took power.
The public seems divided on the topic. So far, it seems Xi hasn't done enough to substantiate or override this speculation, even though the media and hopeful liberals have sometimes compared him to Chiang Ching-kuo, the former Taiwanese president who is credited for ending authoritarian rule with democratic reforms in Taiwan in the 1980s.
The question has remained a puzzle until an interesting twist was revealed this week during Xi’s visit to Indonesia, when he surprised many by quoting an adage widely known as the motto of Chiang Ching-kuo.
"When counting profit, you should count the profit for the whole world; when seeking fame, you should seek a fame that could last for thousands of generations." (計利應計天下利，求名当求万世名)
Xi made the comment in a speech he gave in Jarkata on Thursday, calling for greater cooperation with Southeast Asia's biggest economy and the region as a whole.
Among various accounts on the origin of the saying, some claim it was the creation of Japanese politician Ito Hirobumi. Historic accounts say Yu Youren, famous scholar and a founding member of the Kuomingtang, gave Chiang a calligraphy work of these words in 1961, urging him to make decisions based on the greater good for the people of Taiwan.
This newest remark made by Xi has sparked discussions in China with many speculating on the path he will lead in the future.
“I believe Xi is currently focused on power consolidation by playing a game of balancing between reformists and conservatives,” said Joseph Yu-shek Cheng, a political science professor at City University of Hong Kong.
“And apparently when he travels abroad, he’d like to send a message of reform,” Cheng added.
Cheng said while Xi will surely continue his battle against corruption at home - a “popular and necessary” one, he will also further financial liberalisation and economic reforms.
Other scholars in China see this as a hint of Xi's reformist mentality.
“It’s a sign that Xi will follow Chiang to end an authoritarian rule in an authoritarian manner,” said a Chengdu-based independent scholar who prefers to stay anonymous.
“He’s already relaxed controls in areas which were heavily regulated by the government in Shanghai’s free-trade zone,” he added. “And if the experiments in Shanghai turn out successful, Xi will definitely launch them in other parts of the country.”
On China's social media, Xi’s remark elicited curiosity and sarcastic comments.
“Of course he’s counting the profit of the whole world - that’s why they are introducing inheritance tax,” a reader commented, referring to recent rumours of an inheritance tax law, which caused outcry online.
In a SCMP online poll conducted last month, 63 per cent of readers said they believed Xi is a conservative, while 11 per cent said he was a reformer. Another 26 per cent said it was too early to tell.