Incoming Chinese president Xi Jinping has a “democratic style” that will allow him to lay the groundwork for much-needed political and economic reforms, one of only a handful of Americans to join the Chinese Communist Party said on Monday.
Sidney Rittenberg came to China in 1945 as an idealistic young US soldier and got swept up in the Communist revolution, eventually becoming a translator for the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong.
As such, Rittenberg, 91, has had a uniquely close-up view of many of China’s most dramatic events.
He told reporters he believed Xi would find it hard to push through significant changes due to embedded vested interests.
Rittenberg, who now lives in the United States, tells of going into the Chinese countryside with Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, to meet the rural poor when Rittenberg was a mid-level party cadre.
“His father back in the Yan’an days was one of my closest friends,” Rittenberg said in an interview in a teahouse in Beijing, referring to the Communists’ northern stronghold in Shaanxi province. “And in seeing him, I hope some of the father rubbed off on him.
“I think there’s some reason that it did from some interviews he’s given,” he said, adding that Xi Zhongxun was the “most democratic-minded of the old party leadership”.
Xi Jinping, 59, is expected to formally take over as party leader on Thursday, when President Hu Jintao transfers power at the end of a week-long congress in Beijing.
Xi will inherit a slowing economy and demands from inside and outside the party to tackle problems that reformists see as threats to both growth and social stability – such as a yawning wealth gap, limited political freedom and corruption.
When Xi was governor in coastal Fujian province in 2002, Rittenberg wrote to him asking him to help his son, who was working as a consultant. One of the son’s American clients was about to lose money on a big commercial deal, Rittenberg said.
Xi declined to meet with the chief of one of the companies, saying “it wasn’t proper for him to get involved in commercial deals”. But eventually Xi helped reach a solution.
“I had the impression from the experience that he’s very positive on business and creating favourable conditions for foreign business as well,” he said.
Though he has not met Xi, Rittenberg believes his personality could make him a harbinger of change, citing accounts from people who have worked with Xi closely in Zhejiang, where Xi worked previously as party boss.
“They all say the same thing. One: he’s very approachable, he’s easy to work with, he has a personally democratic style,” Rittenberg said. “He’s never cracked down on people he doesn’t like or his opponents.”
But Rittenberg is more guarded about whether Xi can actually enact reforms as he has to rule by consensus among the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top decision-making body.
“The question is: how much is he actually going to be able to do?” Rittenberg said. “Because he’s not going to be a dominant leader like Deng or Mao that can just work his will. He’s going to have to get a majority in the leading team. I don’t know how good he’s going to be in doing that.”
Former leader Deng Xiaoping died in 1997.
Xi’s push for political and economic reforms will be mired in bickering, with vested interests reluctant to give up power, Rittenberg said. That will make it difficult for Xi to implement changes.
“The pressure against real reform, plus the ordinary inertia (from) people in office to not rock the boat, is formidable,” Rittenberg said. “My guess is that we probably won’t see any earth-shattering changes under the new team, but we will see some incremental steps forward.”
Rittenberg has been through highs and lows in China. He was jailed for a total of 16 years on two occasions on false charges of spying – once because Stalin had told Mao that Rittenberg was a spy and once, because he had “quarrelled with Jiang Qing”, Mao’s wife.
Rittenberg, who quit the party formally in 1980, said the downfall of politician Bo Xilai, once seen as a candidate for the top rung of party leadership, could prompt change.
“I think the scandal was a good thing because it focuses on ... why did this man accumulate that kind of power and do such horrible things? How do we know it’s not going on elsewhere? What safeguards are they going to put in?”
Bo has been expelled from the party and faces possible charges of corruption and abuse of power. His wife has been jailed for murdering a British businessman in a scandal that has rocked the country.
“Where I think some people have gotten it wrong is that taking down Bo Xilai did not show a crisis in leadership or a challenge to their succession,” Rittenberg said. “On the contrary, they have been divided on what to do about him for years. Taking him down showed they reached consensus.”