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November 15, 2012 3:36 pm
When China was waiting for its new leader on Thursday morning, CCTV, the national broadcaster, passed the time with some propaganda. For nearly an hour before the Communist party’s general secretary led his team out on stage in front of the invited global media, two men in a studio analysed “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in microscopic detail.
Then Xi Jinping made his entrance. In just a few minutes, the man who will lead the world’s most populous nation for the next 10 years laid out his agenda. In short: to make the Chinese nation great again, address the grievances of the people and root out corruption. Socialism was mentioned only once.
“It is the people who have created history, and it is the people who are true heroes. The people are the source of our strength,” Mr Xi said. While Hu Jintao, his predecessor, introduced himself 10 years ago with a concatenation of Communist party ideological inventory, Mr Xi used simple language easily understood by non-party members.
Many observers welcome him as a leader who resembles western-style politicians and hope he will put an end to an era of functionaries. “[After] a decade of the inexpressive wooden style of Hu Jintao, someone actually just having facial expressions is […] revolutionary,” says Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Sydney.
Mr Xi pledged to address issues such as education, healthcare and environmental protection. While more sustainable and balanced growth especially for rural residents had been Mr Hu’s priority goal, analysts said Mr Xi was targeting the middle class, the group which formed the main pillar of support for the party since its economic reforms but is growing more disaffected by the day. “Xi is speaking to the mortgage class,” says Russell Leigh Moses, dean of academics and faculty at the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies.
Mr Xi focused on the new leadership’s responsibility for the Chinese nation and the people. Only then did he turn to the party, and only to highlight the severe challenge of corruption and rampant bureaucracy.
“He does seem to have the personality and political strength to start quickly and out of the box,” says Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on Chinese politics at Boston University.
Analysts believe that with Mr Hu retiring from the Central Military Commission, Mr Xi has a relatively strong mandate to initiate reforms that have stalled during Mr Hu’s second term in office. The party’s decision to reduce the leadership from nine to seven members is also likely to make Mr Xi’s job easier.
Mr Xi will need such increased efficiency as he might not have much time. “It will be very difficult to guarantee continuity in policy over his two terms as five of the seven members of the new leadership will retire after five years,” said Prof Fewsmith.
With the appointment of Wang Qishan, a veteran economic policy maker known for his crisis management skills, to head the party’s internal anti-corruption watchdog and the singling out of corruption by Mr Xi as one of the key issues in his first speech, the leadership has sent a strong signal.
But some analysts are sceptical as personal networks and vested interests have hampered the party’s fight against corruption for many years. “Xi needs to curb the abuses by local officials; they need to do something about the buying and selling of local office,” says Prof Fewsmith. “That’s where the rubber meets the road. I just don’t know that he’ll go there.”
Mr Xi’s family background as the son of one of China’s revolutionary leaders and his personal charisma may be his best chance to battle ingrained reform inertia.
Although his speech made no reference to Marxism or the teachings of Mao Zedong, Mr Xi included some references that went down well with left-leaning party members who have been alienated since the leadership’s purge of Bo Xilai, the flamboyant former party secretary of Chongqing who pitched for a top job with Maoist revival policies.
In his speech, Mr Xi pledged to “unwaveringly pursue common prosperity”, a principle coined by Mao which many leftists complain has been abandoned since Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s market reforms, ruled that some should be allowed to “get rich first”. He also criticised officials’ “divorce from the masses” as one of the party’s greatest problems, another phrase read by leftist intellectuals as a reminder of Mao-era values.
Some believe all this is more than just personal style. “Xi’s public persona has been built up very carefully by releasing more biographic information than we ever had about Hu Jintao,” says Prof Brown. “The move to Xi as a person with a back story matters because the party is trying to make him a human face.”
Additional reporting by Leslie Hook, Sarah Mishkin and Zhao Tianqi
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