Xi gets off to good start in first 100 days but drastic reforms are unlikely

New leader lights his fires in first 100 days, but will the overriding desire for stability throw water on the flames?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 5:43am

According to a popular Chinese saying, "new leaders should burn three fires" to establish their authority and demonstrate they are getting off to a new start.

It is a much more colourful idiom than its Western equivalent that "a new broom sweeps clean".

China's new leader Xi Jinping has certainly lit up enough "fires" to generate exciting chatter at home and abroad about himself, his new administration and the future direction of the mainland economy since he officially took over the reins of the Communist Party on November 15.

Last Friday marked the 100th day of his new leadership, and judging from reactions at home and abroad, Xi has got off to a good start.

Through his public speeches and meetings, Xi has tried to mould himself as a reformist to carry the baton of the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping as someone who is willing to crack down on corruption and official excess, while also coming across as a down-to-earth person who can relate easily with ordinary mainlanders.

Xi lit his first fire on the day he became party chief by promising to fight corruption. In subsequent speeches and meetings, he adopted an unusually tough tone on the urgency of fighting graft, saying that the mainland leadership would deal with the corrupt "tigers and flies" at the same time.

This has greatly spurred mainland internet users to use social media to expose scandalous behaviour by corrupt officials, ranging from extramarital affairs caught on videos to uncovering hard evidence of apparatchiks owning dozens of properties.

Such online sleuthery has led to the sackings and arrests of a number of mostly junior-ranked officials.

In December, Xi also launched a campaign against official pomp and excess, which again produced initial results.

According to the Ministry of Commerce, high-end restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai where officials frittered away taxpayers' money on wining and dining reported 30 to 40 per cent falls in revenues during the Chinese New Year holidays.

Xi's second fire was aimed at burnishing his credentials as a reformist. On his first official trip outside Beijing, he flew to Guangdong where he retraced Deng's footsteps to call for bolder economic reforms.

He also raised hopes that the mainland would step up efforts to push for rule of law by signalling his new leadership planned to scrap the controversial 56-year-old re-education-through-labour system that had enabled police to lock up people for three years without trial.

Xi and the other new leaders also showed more willingness to embrace social media than the earlier generation of leaders as a number of microblogs have been allowed to report on their movements and post their family photos.

It goes without saying that Xi's fires have ignited hopes at home and abroad that he would undertake not only drastic economic reforms but also political restructuring very soon.

But that is unlikely. While Xi may have indicated that he intended to be a reformer, his first priority must be to consolidate his power so that he is confident of tackling the more difficult reforms.

Second, the leadership's obsession with maintaining social stability also means that new reforms are unlikely to be drastic.

Recent media reports that central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan looks set to stay on for one or two more years despite reaching the mandatory retirement age show that the new leaders place great emphasis on policy stability and continuity as long as economic uncertainties persist on the mainland and overseas.

Even Xi's tough stance on corruption carried a caveat. Just as his tough words raised hopes among analysts and state media of more reforms, including a long-delayed measure to compel officials to declare their family assets, Wang Qishan , the country's top anti-graft official, tried to play down expectations.

He said that his agency would pursue the policy of treating the symptoms first by investigating and punishing the corrupt officials.

As for finding a permanent cure by introducing effective anti-corruption measures, that will have to wait.