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Desperately Seeking Xi Jinping

by Elizabeth C. Economy
January 9, 2013

China's Communist Party chief Xi Jinping looks on during his meeting with U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 27, 2012. China's Communist Party chief Xi Jinping looks on during his meeting with U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 27, 2012. (Wang Zhao/Reuters)


When a noted American columnist wrote recently that he expected Xi Jinping to spur real reform because reform is “in his genes,” I realized just how desperate we had become. In fact, the sound of speculation around Xi has become deafening. Even though he will not formally assume the presidency of China until March, Xi’s every utterance is now being fed into an evolving Xi Jinping narrative. The reality, however, is that we know very little of Xi’s actual policy proclivities save his desire for a more informal and direct style of governance and a Communist Party that is corruption-free.

A review of what Xi has said—not done, because unsurprisingly he actually hasn’t accomplished much of anything since he was named Communist Party General Secretary and president-elect just two months ago—suggests that trying to divine Xi’s inner-most desires is a relatively fruitless exercise. Like all Chinese leaders before him, he is capable of using symbols and slogans to hold out the promise of change, voicing seemingly contradictory views on a single issue, and advancing and then modifying a policy initiative leaving behind substantial confusion in the process.

Symbols and Slogans: Through symbols and slogans, Xi has raised expectations of reform to come and bolstered his reform credentials. When Xi traveled to Guangdong and Shenzhen in mid-December, observers were quick to herald the trip as a sign that Xi was going to advance breakthrough economic reform, akin to that pushed by Deng Xiaoping two decades earlier during his trip south. Xi did announce that there would be “no stop in reform and no stop in opening up,” but understanding what Xi really wants to do and what he can do on the economic reform front must wait for another day.

Xi’s call to implement the constitution has also given rise to some hope among Chinese reformers. However, without actual implementing guidelines, it is difficult to know whether Xi’s call to “persevere in upholding the constitution and the law” and his statement that “the greatness of the constitution lies in the true faith the people have in it,” will bring the type of basic rights protection that reformers are hoping for. Only time will tell.

The Absoluteness of Contradiction: On the foreign policy front, Xi has called for a win-win relationship with China’s neighbors and articulated a desire for China to be an engine of economic growth for the region. At the same time, he has called for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and declared that Beijing is “firm in safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity,” while demonstrating no inclination to negotiate with his neighbors over thorny territorial disputes. Xi’s leadership of the Party’s South China Sea small group since 2011 has been marked not by a “rising tide lifts all boats” but by limiting the navigational freedom of others’ boats. Is change yet to come?

Two steps forward and one step back: Since assuming power, Xi has put forth one bold policy initiative, only to withdraw and modify it immediately. Xi’s top cop Meng Jianzhu, who heads the Party’s political and legal affairs commission, issued a statement indicating that China’s much despised system of re-education through labor, which has allowed citizens to be arrested and held without trial for up to four years, would be ended. That same day, however, Party-supported media replaced “ended” with “reformed,” leaving a not insignificant amount of confusion over what the leadership actually has planned for the policy’s future.

Speculation over Xi Jinping and the new Chinese leadership is understandable: Chinese citizens, as well as the rest of the world, are eager to understand what a Xi Jinping presidency will mean. While such speculation may seem like harmless fun, the danger is that we impute intentions and capabilities to Xi that are not there—leading to misguided expectations, and, even worse, miscalculations. Xi himself has said, “Making empty talk is harmful to the nation, while doing practical jobs can help it thrive.” So let’s stop speculating and predicting what Xi might or might not do, give him a little time to cross the river while feeling the stones, and see where he ends up.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    China,on the whole,is satisfiedwhere she is in the grand scheme of her planned development.No one man has the wish to change anything.
    Reform [ to what ] will come as directed by the whole and not as directed by one man,and I see no changes being offered.
    Land ownership and corruption will continue as is,with the former being the only reform worth while.
    All other policies of cnsequence will remain in place until consideration of a free election appears on the horizon.
    China’s development is on schedule and on course,with the only change being the Traffic Cop………..bob

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    I see no changes in China’s domestic weter/river policy.I’m thinking of the Mekong,theb Irrwassy,the great rivers of India.

    IN see no changes in the sub-Sahara agra/resourse/political policiesm and the odd sortee into S.American and Canada and most countries of the EU.

    And the slow-but-sure increase population of New Zealand [presently 25$ complete.

    Or the action in the South Pacific…..Spraty Islands et al
    If your looking for reforms,look inside China and the peasant ‘movement ‘ which requires no finite solution for several years even though the government must ecognise the peasants before they can equal the US completely
    Oh !……….Xi will visit Washington shortly after Putin torpedoes Iran bob

  • Posted by Thangleader

    A fact the world had been acknowledged by a Chinese arising, a China mainland and somewhere the Chinese people living and working.

    Xi Jinping is a new elected leader of Party Communist of China, will cover whatever for his country in next 10 years. A definition by China-side is the world consists of China and the rest of world (!?). Especially, the word China (or Zhongguo) is considered as a “nest”, a “cellule” of the world. So the Chinese has some reasons to be honor and trust what they are showing now.

    Xi Jinping becomes a leader of China after a series of troubles, conflicts, complicated and coincidental scenario from and/or behind the involved players in China’ scene and is in process of showing the value of loyal heir from his mentors (predecessors) who still alive as Jiang Zeming…

    One of priority during his mandatory period, Mr. Xi must do the coverage or map off almost of South China Sea (or East Sea of Vietnam or West sea of Philippines). We call it as “great game” and prolongation of old policies from the leaders as Mao Zedong; Dang Xiaoping; Jiang Zeming … over the sea problem; other “core interest” according to China-side.

    Re leader Xi Jinping, born in 1953 (the Serpent), this man will make the choice by himself rather than more active when necessary. With 60 years old, Mr. Xi will implement whatever well designed previously, especially the South Sea enlargement and moving the reform by unexpected vectors.

    A “super star” arising and version “X” of an impossible mission for scroll back whatever began? We wouldn’t wait longtime for the ray of light with special attention.

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    I fumbled about last night but did outline,in a backward manner,the main function of Xi.

    Xi\s legacy will be that of LBJ.Strong domestic policy and will not be called on for foreign policy input.

    He will increase the education of the farm worker and organise the masses ,left behind,to prepare for general free elections.All of which is necessary to catch up with the USA.

    I cannot see Xi lead the Chinese to land ownership but orherwise he will come to be known as the Chinese LBJ bob

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