Xi Jinping

Jury still out on whether China's leader Xi Jinping is a reformer

A year after taking over as head of the Communist Party, China's leader has left both liberals and conservatives disappointed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 6:14am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 8:42am

When President Xi Jinping steps onto a podium to deliver a much-anticipated speech at a key party plenum on Saturday, observers will keenly await an answer to a question that has lingered for a year:

Is the new Communist Party chief a reformist or not?

A year ago Xi was installed as chief of the ruling party in the once-in-a-decade succession of power. People from across the political spectrum eagerly hoped that the new leader would take up their various agendas.

Liberals hoped that Xi would herald in a new era of political liberation following two decades of change focused almost entirely on economic development. They based those hopes on Xi's parentage. His father, Xi Zhongxun, a party chief who emerged from years of purges to liberalise the economy in the coastal provinces, helped China become an economic superpower in three decades.

Conservatives believed that Xi - the princeling son of a revolutionary leader, born into the party's aristocracy - would revive some socialist principles to atone for the wrongs committed in the name of capitalist development.

A year later hopes on each side have withered, if not entirely vanished. Liberals and conservatives have become increasingly critical of their new leader. Xi's string of high-profile decisions over the past year has raised more questions than answers about his governing philosophy.

"All his efforts appear to be to consolidate power rather than [setting] ideology or a political agenda," says Zhang Lifan, a political affairs analyst, formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"As Xi's honeymoon progressed, the initial deluge of optimism slowed to a trickle. Many watchers of the Chinese leadership became dispirited by the lack of substantive progress toward much-needed political reform," says Cheng Li, who is the director of research at the Brookings Institution's John Thornton China Centre.

Liberals were buoyed during the first several months of Xi's rule. The new Communist Party general secretary engineered a number of rapid changes, differentiating himself in style from his predecessors. Hearing Xi's speeches during a high-profile tour of southern China, the birthplace of modern China's economic reforms, many liberals hoped that party rule would become more liberal. Xi urged greater respect for China's often-ignored constitution, signalled limited judicial reform and launched a high-profile attack on extravagant spending by officials.

In one speech, Xi emphasised that "all citizens are equal before the law", that "freedom should be guaranteed" and that "no one should be allowed to be above the constitution". This was interpreted by some as his manifesto, ushering in a new era.

Xi has long been known for his market-friendly approach to economic development, for domestic and foreign businesses alike. Many observers believed that with his experience leading Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai - three economically advanced regions - Xi was well prepared to steer the world's second largest economy into a new era amid worldwide economic unease.

He beefed up an anti-corruption campaign, catching a handful of powerful officials and ended the worst political scandal in decades by signalling his approval for a life sentence to corrupt former Politburo member Bo Xilai.

"Clearly Xi's agendas include the so-called 'China Dream' and his apparent resolution to crack down on corruption," says Jingdong Yuan, a professor of political science at the University of Sydney. But Yuan says it remains to be seen if Bo's recent conviction deters corruption among officials. "Without fundamentally doing something at the root causes, nothing's guaranteed," he says.

Before liberals could celebrate, Xi quickly showed himself to be a stalwart protector of the Communist regime, more than his two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Clearly he would not become the Mikhail Gorbachev of China, with his own version of glasnost.

After taking the presidency from Hu in March to add to his head of the party position, Xi appeared to take a turn to the left, reviving many Mao-era slogans, tactics and policies.

He controls the flow of information from his administration and has unabashedly allowed critics of the regime to be rounded up.

He has called for ideological indoctrination in schools and has told party cadres that "revolutionary history is the best nutrition for Communists".

Xi also embarked on a "rectification" campaign to root out corruption and a Maoist "mass line" campaign to purify ideology among officials. Earlier this year he issued a circular to academics, ordering them not to speak about seven sensitive issues.

Xi recently distributed "Document 9" to the party's elite, describing the threat of Western democratic ideals and human-rights advocacy to Chinese communist ideology. On August 19, he gave his most overtly leftist speech, issuing a call to arms about the country's unruly internet culture, ordering the Communist Party's propaganda machine to build "a strong army" to "seize the ground of new media".

Xiaoyu Pu, a professor of political science with the University of Nevada in the US, says Xi has been sending mixed signals about his long-term vision.

"Xi relies upon some traditional approaches to strengthen the Communist Party rule, especially combining the Maoist-style movement with populist and nationalist elements," Pu says. However, Pu pointed out that Xi also seems to want to tackle some major problems and continue with reforms.

"Thus, it is unclear if the current left turn is Xi's tactical retreat or it actually reflects his long-term vision," Pu says.

Xi's recent direction has upset many liberal intellectuals who had hoped his rise might curb, if not replace, one-party authoritarian rule with an independent judiciary and constitutionalism.

If Xi is a reformer, they ask, why are some leading advocates of political change and openness being harassed and detained? Is Xi being pushed by extreme conservatives in the party to play a delicate balancing act?

Some liberals also say that Xi's pro-Maoist remarks have effectively quashed all hopes that the new leader would make a clean break from the legacy of Mao. "Liberals have been upset by Xi's keen interest favouring superficial party controls and propaganda over substantive political and judicial reform," says Zhang, who is also a party historian.

Li Weidong, a commentator and former president of China Reform magazine, says Xi is building a "red empire" of "state socialism" that can rival the United States in 2021 when the ruling Communist Party celebrates its centennial birthday.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said Xi was apparently adopting some Maoist methods he believes are still effective in preserving the party's power.

"From what I can see, Xi is steadily making progress and is consolidating his position, for which the anti-corruption drives have been employed to both win over public support to the party central and to weaken those in authority inside the party who are not deemed as loyal to Xi and his core group," Tsang says.

Zhiqun Zhu, the MacArthur Chair of East Asian Politics, at Bucknell University in the US state of Pennsylvania, says Xi may realise that the strongman-type of leadership has ended in China. Consensus-building and collective leadership are what define today's policymaking.

"So Xi's personal role will not be as influential as many people think,'' Zhu says. "Xi will have to deal with different factions within the party and try to achieve some balance or compromise in making major decisions."

Xi's predecessors discovered that economic reforms were easier to pursue than razing the country's government.

But Xi faces challenges that his predecessors did not. He "must be aware that in this age of IT and mass movements, propaganda would be hard," Yuan of the University of Sydney said.

"Nonetheless, the tensions within Xi's politically conservative, economically liberal approach to governing mirror those confronted by his predecessors, who always seemed to take one step forward economically while taking a step backward politically," says Li from the Brookings Institution.

"Xi now confronts this same reality, yet he also faces deeper and rougher political waters than any Chinese leader since Mao, with the very survival of the party-state resting in his hands," he says.