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Xi Jinping

Don't put too much hope in new style of Chinese leadership

Chang Ping says praise for the 'refreshing' style of some of China's top leaders should not raise hopes for progress, because past examples show that similar changes didn't achieve anything positive

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 1:49am

Imagine you were an expert in a particular field, and you were invited to present your ideas to a high- ranking government official called Secretary Wang. You took the assignment seriously and carefully prepared a speech. At the meeting, you were the first to speak, so you started with: "Respected Secretary Wang …" Before you could go on, Secretary Wang cut you off, and asked you to skip the pleasantries and get to the point. He added: "No prepared speeches are allowed in meetings with me. Do learn to think critically."

In this scene, Secretary Wang comes across as a rude bully. "Respected Secretary Wang" is no more than the usual polite greeting, while the categorical ban on reading prepared speeches is high-handed, and the lecturing tone of "learn to think critically" is something one would use with a primary school student.

But because Secretary Wang turned out to be Wang Qishan , this became a different story. It's the start of a new leadership style, Chinese and international media commentators say, and public opinion agrees. Wang is praised. Even the experts at the government meeting called it "refreshing".

A similar thing happened at a recent meeting with Li Keqiang . An official spoke for about two minutes before he was cut off by Li, who said he'd already read the speech and there was no need for the official to repeat it. Media reports said Li expected officials to attend meetings with him armed with more than a speech; they must also be prepared to respond to any questions Li may raise.

This, too, was praised by the media. Clearly at such meetings, a junior official usually reads from printed remarks his secretary has prepared, and no one listening asks any questions. So we could say that Li's insistence that officials stop reading from prepared speeches to take questions discourages laziness.

Except that Li and the other top Chinese leaders are guilty of the same. At the Communist Party congresses, and the National Party Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference meetings every year, state leaders read from prepared remarks while delegates listen. The audience may not raise any issues of importance, but must enthusiastically applaud whatever they hear. The more enthusiastic the clapping, the better.

Let's be clear: this so-called "new style of leadership" is just that - a style. To focus on a change in form is to miss the point. When it comes to ushering in a new style of writing and conducting meetings, who can compare with Mao Zedong ? His "Yanan Talks on Literature and Art" changed the thinking and writing styles of several generations of Chinese.

In 1949, the chairman even outlined the steps officials should take in a speech on the "Work Methods for Party Committees". Mao urged cadres to keep their "speeches, essays or meeting resolutions concise and to the point" and said "meetings should not go on for too long". He was even more demanding than either Wang or Li, and his use of language calling for change was more vivid and clearer.

Addressing officials, Mao said they must "put problems on the table"; "whatever you don't know or don't understand, ask your subordinates first before quickly agreeing or objecting to it"; co-operate and work together, as if "learning to 'play the piano', with all 10 fingers moving"; persevere and have a firm grasp of the key issue or goal from start to end; have "figures on your mind", to analyse problems by paying attention to numbers.

These good guidelines on government working style did nothing to curb his authoritarian inclinations, perhaps even fanned them. Mao became a dictator of our time. Under his rule, tens of millions of people starved to death and hundreds of thousands were killed in armed conflict. His policies weakened the economy, devastated our cultural traditions and human relations, and took the country to the brink of collapse.

It has become fashionable in recent years to focus on leadership styles and the role of the media as a watchdog. When Wang Yang , who is seen by many as the prototypical reformist leader, arrived in Guangdong five years ago to take charge there, he called for people to liberate their thinking.

He also repeatedly stressed the importance of public supervision of government, and even asked the press to stop putting reports about him on the front page. (China's official newspapers prioritises reports of high-ranking officials. The most important officials get front-page treatment, whatever the news value of the report.)

Five years later, a Guangdong media that was known for its feisty reportage has not only not been "liberated", but has almost been silenced. People who are thoroughly fed up with the uncaring face of high-handed bureaucrats will naturally long for a politician with some character. Many today hold out hopes for three in the new Politburo Standing Committee: Xi Jinping , Li Keqiang and Wang Qishan.

Particularly Wang, the new chief of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, whose character reminds people of the strong-minded former premier Zhu Rongji .

Let's recall now how Zhu once reprimanded senior officials and pledged to bravely press on, "whatever lies ahead, whether it is a minefield or a cliff". He endeared himself to the people by acting tough on corruption, declaring that he had "prepared 100 coffins - 99 for corrupt officials and one for myself". But in the end, he did not clean up the corruption in the party; in fact, it got worse.

In a country with no democracy and no press freedom, a politician with a strong personality will pull the wool over the eyes of the people, which allows him to grow even more arrogant. In the end, perhaps his mediocre colleagues will be better for a society that wants progress.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from the Chinese