Xi Jinping might be strong reformer China needs - to surprise of the West
Far from being of the 'old guard', new president may be the one to kickstart long-stalled reforms
As soon as Xi Jinping and the six other top Communist Party officials walked into the media limelight at noon on Thursday, many overseas analysts and media organisations immediately labeled China's new leadership line-up as being "conservative" and dominated by the "old guard".
They expressed concerns that, with such a line-up, Xi could find himself hamstrung in his efforts to carry out political and economic reform that is needed to put the country on a path to more sustainable growth.
Their concerns appeared to stem partly from the observation that former president Jiang Zemin again managed to outmanoeuvre President Hu Jintao in filling seats on the Politburo Standing Committee with his protégés and allies - accounting for five of the seven members.
Moreover, they pointed to the fact that Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, two relatively younger leaders known for their liberal views and reformist outlook, failed to make the cut, even though they were seen as Hu's close allies.
The unspoken suggestion was that Jiang's allies and protégés are largely hardliners, while Hu's supporters are liberals and reformists.
People should really take these findings by so-called China pundits with a pinch of salt.
First of all, their sweeping characterisations lack a solid basis. There is a good reason that the 10-year reign by Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao is now referred to as "the lost decade", for its lack of meaningful economic and political reform. By comparison, many Chinese are now nostalgic for Jiang's 13-year reign, in which the country joined the World Trade Organisation and undertook major economic reform that paved the way for the lift-off during Hu's era.
In fact, many people have argued that, during the past 10 years, the opposite has happened - not only through reform being stalled, but also rolled back in many ways, with the state sector consolidating its hold on the economy.
Secondly, Chinese officials with liberal leanings, in the eyes of so-called China observers, are not the same as the ones defined by Western standards. Liberal Chinese officials may be seen calling for more transparency and accountability in the government, for the need to uphold the rule of law, and even for more efforts to promote civil society. But their goal is to maintain the dictatorial rule of the Communist Party and to toe the party line, including by muzzling the media and showing intolerance for political dissent.
In fact, the prevailing view among China's elites seems to be that undertaking a new round of reform is the only way forward, and even its most liberal-minded economist, Wu Jinglian, said over the weekend that the 18th congress had put reform back on the agenda, and that now implementation was the key.
It goes without saying that for reform to proceed, the country needs a stronger leader. The question is: will Xi fit the profile?
The latest developments give reason for optimism. The fact that Xi has taken over the leadership of the party and the military at the same time, and will assume the presidency in March, has given him a stronger mandate.
Then there's the fact that he is a close ally of Jiang, which means it will be much easier for Xi to get support from other leaders in addressing vested interest groups or pushing for reform.
Much has been written about the leadership's decision to reduce the size of the Politburo Standing Committee from nine to seven, to reduce political wrangling in the hope of reaching faster decisions. More importantly, the move was aimed at allowing the top leaders to focus on strategic issues and challenges. Over the past 10 years, the nine committee members have functioned like the line managers often seen in multinationals - responsible for only their own portfolios, and failing to spend time on the big picture.
But a deeper layer of meaning is that the decision was also aimed at bolstering Xi's authority.
One prevailing concern is how Xi deals with the possible intervention of the party elders. For the first time in the party's history, Xi will have to face a situation in which he has two retired party chiefs, Jiang and Hu, breathing down his neck. There will also be about 20 retired Politburo Standing Committee members who can influence the policy agenda through their own supporters.
But the latest speculation from the corridors of power in Beijing suggests that the party elders, including Jiang and Hu, have reached a consensus to give Xi a freer hand in making his own decisions. If that is true, it is a major boost for Xi's power.
It would also explain why we saw a confident and relaxed Xi giving an inspirational speech televised live on the day of the leadership's unveiling. He abandoned slogans and instead vowed to fight corruption while promising good jobs and better lives for Chinese people.
As one traditional Chinese saying goes, a hero is nothing but a product of his time. In his time, Xi will need strong leadership to fulfil his promises.