Wait for President Xi Jinping to pick a path as a reformer or a conservative
Amid a lurch to the left, debate intensifies over which direction the president will take either as a reformer or one on a more conservative path
Will President Xi Jinping turn out to be a reformer in the vein of Taiwan's Chiang Ching-kuo? Or will he walk a more conservative path, becoming a leader in the mould of Communist Party helmsman Mao Zedong ?
The question has preoccupied China watchers everywhere since Xi completed his ascent to the posts of president and party chief in March amid soaring hopes for political change. The debate has only intensified after a series of actions to consolidate power and limit dissent under Xi that some say smack of Maoism.
"The prospect for political reform is doom and gloom," former People's Daily deputy editor Zhou Ruijin , recently told a gathering of fellow liberal-leaning intellectuals in Shanghai. "We have to wait until the day when those returnees who have lived and studied in Europe or America come to power."
For many in the mainland's liberal circles, whether Xi intends to put China on the road to political reform - like Chiang, who ushered in democracy as Taiwan's president in the late 1980s - is a question of great urgency.
Many believe the president has a small window of opportunity to enact serious political change in his first five-year term, before a successor is chosen. Some worry that further inaction could, in the face of a slowing economy, lead to mass unrest that may potentially topple the party.
Xi's rise was initially greeted with optimism among reformists. He was at first named to succeed Hu Jintao as president because he was seen as acceptable to both to both Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin .
He was also the "princeling" son of revolutionary Xi Zhongxu - a political ally of liberal-minded former party chief Hu Yaobang .
Thus, many believe Xi came to power uniquely positioned to jump-start political change. Hopes reached a new high in December, when Xi, just weeks after promotion as party chief, called for enforcing the constitution, a move that many believe would require weakening the party.
"To fully implement the constitution there needs to be the sole task and the basic work in building a socialist nation ruled by law," Xi said in a speech to mark the constitution's 30th anniversary.
As Xi took power, Beijing-based political analyst Chen Ziming told the South China Morning Post that some members of the new party chief's family envisioned him becoming the mainland version of Chiang, who, as the son of longtime Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, lifted martial law, allowed political parties and freed newspapers publishing on Taiwan in 1987.
Now, however, Chen is pessimistic about the prospects for such dramatic change. "Xi appears to be steering the country to a left-leaning approach, without any solid political reform," he said.
In particular, Chen cited Xi's remarks in Shenzhen in December in which he argued that the three decades before and three decades after Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms were mutually compatible.
In recent months, Xi and the party have seemingly moved further to the left. In a speech to the party's decision-making Politburo in April, Xi called on party members to toe a "mass line" against excess and extravagance - a term closely associated with the party's structure under Mao.
The president has even appeared to go out of his way to defend Mao's legacy, despite periods of famine and political terror.
"Had Deng Xiaoping completely repudiated Mao Zedong in 1981, would our party have been able to survive?" Xi told the decision-making Politburo, according to a May editorial in the Guangming Daily. "Would the socialist system have been able to survive in our country? No, they would not have been able to survive, and that would have led to chaos in China."
Just last week, Xi made a visit to Xibaipo - the People's Liberation Army headquarters at the end of the civil war. Xi reminded party members of Mao's so-called "six nos", which barred officials from such matters as hosting birthday parties and exchanging presents. Xi's predecessors have rarely mentioned Mao's name, even though his portrait adorns banknotes and looms over Tiananmen Square.
The president's remarks on Mao coincided with the release of a directive from the General Office of the Central Committee banning university discussion of seven topics: press freedom, judicial independence, universal values, citizens' rights, civil society, cronyism and the party's historical mistakes. The topics are among those most closely associated with political reform.
In addition, the Education Ministry and the party's Central Organisation Department also jointly issued 16 advisories, further tightening the ideological control over university lecturers.
A source at one of the mainland's most prestigious universities said almost no one at the school changed their behaviour, but many were concerned they would face the consequences.
"[The directives are] no different than the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads," the source said. "One had better be ready to be penalised for its sake some day, but nobody can tell when exactly it will come."
The leftward lurch has puzzled pundits. Some blame Xi's propaganda tsar, Liu Yunshan , for pushing the campus directives.
"I don't think Xi would do such a stupid thing," said Li Datong , who was removed as an editor of China Youth Daily in 2006 after openly challenging the censorship regime.
"Xi wouldn't need to do that to consolidate his power," Li continued. "The succession process for Xi was way more smoother for Xi than his predecessors and he's now in complete control."
Others argue that Liu is being made a scapegoat, as he would not dare act against the wishes of the party boss.
"I tend to believe that all these measures carry Xi's endorsement," said Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong.
"Because some of the officials may try to introduce these measures without his prior approval or knowledge at the beginning, but by now he should have ample opportunities to go against these measures."
Others are withholding judgment. Some will wait for what Xi says at the third plenary session of the party's 18th central committee in Beijing this autumn.
Mao Yushi , a prominent liberal economist who has been a target of increasing Maoist criticism in recent months, said the long-anticipated trial of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai would provide a key yardstick to judge Xi's commitment to reform.
Before his downfall on accusations of corruption and covering up his wife's murder of a British businessman, Bo had been admired by party conservatives for his attempts to revive revolutionary songs and other Mao-era nostalgia. Bo's trial has not been set, even though charges against him were detailed in September.
Cheng, of Chinese University, said any push for meaningful political reform would face strong opposition from within the party and would first require a serious overhaul of public institutions and legal mechanisms.
"I don't want to rule out the possibility that Xi may choose to introduce genuine political reform after he consolidates power in two or three years," he said. "But at the same time, one has to be realistic that the resistance against reform comes from vested interest groups which remain extremely strong."