Tackling graft is Xi Jinping's priority

Pragmatic incoming president must address internal problems to consolidate his position by choosing right people for the clean-up

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2012, 7:07am

After enduring 10 years of empty talk and speeches full of slogans typical of the leaders in the era of President Hu Jintao, it has been refreshing to see China's new leaders displaying positive changes in the leadership style.

Sifting through the speeches by both Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang since they came to power little more than two weeks ago, has reflected their more pragmatic and common-touch style.

Many mainlanders are even enamoured with Xi's clear yet booming Beijing accent, especially compared to the accented sounds of Hu.

Xi, who took over as the party chief and the head of the armed forces earlier this month, is to replace Hu as the president in March. While Li, who is now the second highest ranking Communist Party official, will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao .

In his maiden speech as the party chief and in subsequent speeches, Xi wasted no time in acknowledging many "pressing problems" and vowing to tackle corruption, which could doom the party and the state.

Meanwhile, Li was also unusually blunt when he told a meeting last week that China's era of double-digit growth was over and that reform was the only way forward.

But many mainlanders and overseas analysts remain deeply sceptical. Their main argument is that China's hybrid of state capitalism and one-party dictatorial rule has provided perfect opportunities for the elites to make money for themselves and why would Xi bother to change that. Even if he wants changes, can he overcome the resistance from powerful interest groups, including those political families?

Indeed, over the past two decades, mainland leaders have called for more efforts to fight corruption every year, but it has only been getting worse.

But there are compelling arguments that Xi can muster the political wisdom and courage to tackle corruption and other pressing issues.

First, there appears to be consensus within the party leadership that a harder crackdown on corruption is urgently needed to soothe widespread social discontent and restore the party's credibility. The party's legitimacy took a severe beating after the scandal involving Bo Xilai, once a political rising star, and serious allegations over the wealth of Wen's family and even of Xi's family.

Until recently there had been never so much speculation about the family wealth of top mainland officials in a society where leaders were shamelessly praised for sacrificing their own well-being to serve the people.

Party insiders have suggested that the mainland leadership is soon to release detailed measures to govern the conduct of high-ranking officials and their family members.

Second, recent history has suggested that the party leadership tends to react with strong and positive measures when it is backed into a corner with no easy way out. Deng Xiaoping adopted a policy of reform and opening up after the country's economy was on the brink of collapse following the disastrous 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, and again renewed the reform drive in the early 1990s after the economy was once again plunged into the doldrums by a bloody crackdown on student demonstrations in 1989.

Former president Jiang Zemin overcame fierce party resistance and led China to join the World Trade Organisation after the mainland economy needed a renewed push.

Now China is going through a similar patch - the economy is slowing and engines of growth like exports and government investment are sputtering - and needs serious economic and political reforms.

Thirdly, the anti-corruption drive will give Xi the added benefit of being able to promote his own allies to replace the fallen corrupt officials -helping him to consolidate his power.

Finally, the leadership's surprise decision to tap Vice-Premier Wang Qishan , well known for his problem-solving skills in economic affairs, to head the anti-corruption task force also reflects the determination to tackle corruption, not least because Wang's political ranking is now higher than that of Zhang Gaoli, who is to become the executive vice-premier in March. Traditionally, the executive vice-premier's political ranking is higher than that of the anti-corruption chief.

But as one cynical saying doing the rounds goes, the state will collapse if the party does not tackle corruption, but the party will collapse if the anti-corruption push is too hard. This will put Wang's political skills to full test.