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.