A Promise to Tackle China’s Problems, but Few Hints of a Shift in Path
By IAN JOHNSON
Published: November 15, 2012
BEIJING — China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, impressed many people with a plain-spoken promise to address problems in the country’s ruling party on Thursday, but his new leadership team offered few clues as to a clear shift in direction.
Read our ongoing coverage of the 18th Party Congress and a series on the implications of the leadership transition for China and the rest of the world.
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Mr. Xi, who formally took over from Hu Jintao as general secretary of the Communist Party on Thursday, was presented to foreign and domestic reporters after a highly scripted party congress intended mainly to laud the work of Mr. Hu and set very broad priorities for Mr. Xi’s tenure.
According to tradition, Mr. Xi appeared onstage the day after the congress ended with other members of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member body that effectively runs China.
Mr. Xi then gave a speech on live television that avoided most of the slogans that characterized Mr. Hu’s recent addresses. In fact, he did not mention Mr. Hu or any of his predecessors, instead calling on the party to fight corruption and promising to continue China’s “rejuvenation.”
“Inside the party, there are many problems that need to be addressed, especially the problems among party members and officials of corruption and taking bribes, being out of touch with the people, undue emphasis on formalities and bureaucracy and other issues,” Mr. Xi said.
He also pledged to improve citizens’ lives, including offering “better schooling, more stable jobs, more satisfying incomes, more reliable social security, higher levels of health care, more comfortable housing conditions and a more beautiful environment,” so they can “look forward to their children growing up in better circumstances, finding better work and living in better conditions.”
“People’s striving for a better life is the goal we are struggling for,” he added.
Reflecting his upbringing as the son of a high-ranking official in Beijing, Mr. Xi spoke in clear Mandarin Chinese, making him one of the first modern Chinese leaders whose speech does not bear the heavy accents of an upbringing in one of China’s provinces.
Mr. Xi takes office with more titular authority than any Chinese leader in history. He will now be the chief of the ruling Communist Party and will take over sooner than expected from Mr. Hu as the chairman of the Central Military Commission, the top overseer of China’s armed forces. Next spring, he will assume the position of state president. Other leaders in the post-Mao era have had more staggered transitions into the top posts.
Even so, Mr. Xi will have to contend with numerous other well-connected princelings, or sons and daughters of influential past leaders, and a factionalized Communist Party that tends to operate by consensus rather than strongman rule. He is unlikely to have the sweeping authority of Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping.
Although Mr. Xi’s appointment has been expected since 2007, when he was essentially named Mr. Hu’s successor, it was the first chance for the Chinese to see him in action. Li Zhong, a retired county leader in Hebei Province who served there at the same time as Mr. Xi in the early 1980s, noted that Mr. Xi had not repeated many of Mr. Hu’s slogans.
“Instead, he stressed the party’s responsibilities to the masses and the heroism of the people, as well as the need to root out corruption in the party,” Mr. Li said. “He was very frank and showed his consideration for the people.”
His speech was also widely discussed on China’s social media sites, which largely reflect an educated urban population.
He Bing of the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing wrote on the Weibo microblog, “He speaks with a human touch.”
Others were more critical.
“I read Xi’s speech,” Jian Heng, a guest professor at Shantou University in Guangdong Province, wrote on Weibo. “He mentioned the word ‘party’ 20 times; ‘people’ appeared 19 times; ‘responsibility’ was said 10 times and ‘problems’ 3 times. Didn’t use anything related to law. No ‘law,’ no ‘constitution,’ no ‘rule of law’ nor ‘democracy,’ no ‘freedom.’ ”
No one can know for sure whether Mr. Xi favors fundamental political changes of that kind — he has given no clear indication that he does. What is clear is that his fellow members of the Standing Committee are longtime party veterans whose track records provide no evidence of a strong impulse to change the way China is governed, and whose ages mean they will probably have relatively short careers in the country’s top ruling body.
Mr. Xi is 59 and his No. 2, Li Keqiang, who is expected to take control of the bureaucratic apparatus of government as prime minister next spring, is 57. But the other five members are all in their mid-60s. Under the party’s internal rules, that means they are all likely to retire at the next party congress in five years. Given the intensely consuming task of negotiating top leadership slots among competing factions, finding suitable replacements for these five could take up much of Mr. Xi’s time and political capital.
The other members of the Standing Committee are Zhang Dejiang, 65; Liu Yunshan, 65; Wang Qishan, 64; Yu Zhengsheng, 67; and Zhang Gaoli, 65.
“This is quite a mediocre lineup, and we’ll have to wait and see what they do,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a Beijing-based lawyer who often handles human rights cases. “The way of Chinese politics means that their past performances don’t show what they’ll do in the future.”
Another problem is that the leadership reflects the strong hand of Mr. Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Although Mr. Jiang, 86, retired a decade ago, he has close ties with at least four of the seven members. That means he was able to override Mr. Hu and place his people in top slots even though he has no formal position in the party.
“The bad news from looking at the political system is that it really seems to have thrown a wrench in our understanding of institutionalization,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who specializes in Chinese politics. “This whole institutional idea that people retire and then don’t play much of a role seems to have been pretty well demolished.”
Mr. Xi did keep one tradition, however. Like Mr. Hu, who gave almost no interviews to foreign reporters during his 10 years in office, Mr. Xi left without taking any questions from the scores of waiting journalists.