New leadership's words and actions raise expectations for genuine reform

Though his leadership will not be formalised until March, expectations for change are high

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 4:04am

Is Xi Jinping a reformist? That is the million-dollar question investors and analysts have been asking about China's new leader since he came to power as the chief of the Communist Party two months ago.

While it is too early to say just where he stands, there have been tentative, but encouraging signs that Xi and the other new leaders have not only pledged their commitment to reform, but also matched their words with actions by showing a willingness to take on some of the country's most intransigent issues.

It is worth noting that the new leadership transition has not been completed, as Xi will have to wait until March to assume the presidency at an annual session of the National People's Congress.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a new leader usually waits until the transition is complete to flex his muscles and consolidate his authority with significant moves. Since the day he came to power, Xi has fanned hopes of change, vowing to step up reforms and crack down on corruption, as well as project a down-to-earth image, which stands in sharp contrast to the remote style of his predecessors.

During a trip outside Beijing last month, he visited Shenzhen, where his rhetoric on reform drew comparisons to late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's famous southern tour in 1992, when he was credited with restarting the mainland's reform drive that had stalled following the government's bloody crackdown on student demonstrations in 1989.

Xi's vow to tackle corruption, which he warned could doom the party and the state, has emboldened mainland internet users to expose corrupt deals and sex escapades of mainland officials almost daily, leading to sackings and detentions.

The soft-handed approach to resolve an unusual strike this month at the Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou, one of the mainland's most liberal newspapers, has been another tentative sign of the new Chinese leadership's pragmatism. More importantly, Xi's willingness to take on key reforms, at such an early stage of leadership, has also impressed many analysts.

First, the central government has proposed a two-year trial to let private businesses provide domestic mobile services, breaking a stranglehold by state-owned carriers.

This is the first concrete measure to help the private sector break into lucrative strategic industries, including telecoms, which are currently restricted to state-owned firms.

The announcement stands in sharp contrast to the empty talk over the past 10 years that was typical of the regime under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao , who talked about eliminating barriers to the private sector while never implementing concrete measures to achieve it.

A more significant announcement came a week ago when security tsar Meng Jianzhu promised to "halt" the notorious system of re-education through labour this year. The system, introduced 55 years ago and has enabled police to lock up offenders without trial, had become the most potent symbol of Beijing's lack of progress in legal reform. Meng's decree followed Xi's speech supporting the rule of law, on the 30th anniversary of the constitution last month.

Activists, though, urged caution partly because the announcement avoided using the word "abolish".

But it is difficult to imagine authorities not following through on the pledge. Some analysts said Meng remained vague on the issue possibly because abolishing the system required final approval from the NPC session in March.

But the abolition of the system, even if realised, would be just one step forward. For Xi to establish his reformist credentials by promoting the rule of law, he needs to tackle the hukou system of household registration that determines a person's residency - and entitlements - to a specific area. It is a great source of social discontent, especially among migrant workers, and a major hurdle to the country's urbanisation drive.

Xi can also ride the momentum by abolishing the petitioning system, and instead allowing petitioners to take their grievances to the law courts rather than various government offices. Currently, many petitioners end up in jails as inmates of the system of re-education through labour.