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Xi Jinping must show that he can deliver the ‘China Dream’

Monday 17 June 2013

By David Pilling

Even if the leader does embrace an economic overhaul, don’t expect political reform to follow

Xi Jinping eats simple food, shuns “formalist” party dogma and takes his wife abroad with him on trips. In case anyone could possibly doubt that China’s new president is a man of the people, he was even reported to have recently hailed a taxi. Last week a website approved by the State Council Information Office carried a story with a too-good-to-be-true quote from a Beijing cabby who was supposed to have been flagged down by the leader-in-disguise. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like General Secretary Xi?” he is said to have asked unsuspectingly – presumably in Beijing’s equivalent of a Cockney accent.

The story was later officially declared a fake, too improbable even for a leader whose style is palpably more human than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who made R2-D2 in Star Wars look like a thing of flesh and blood. Mr Xi may confine himself to official limousines, but his style is refreshingly different. He has tapped into public outrage at the lavishly corrupt lives of party hacks, banning banquets in a campaign captured in the slogan “one soup, four dishes”. Instead of moaning on about the “three represents” or the “scientific outlook on development” – the less than fetching catchphrases of his predecessors – he talks in almost American terms about “the China Dream”.

As China’s economy slows after three decades of breakneck growth, few doubt that it stands on the threshold of wrenching change. With Mr Xi overseeing that transition, it is of vital concern whether his change of style heralds a change of substance. In short, is Mr Xi a closet reformer? And, even if he is, in an age of collective leadership and ossified vested interests, will he be able to act on his convictions?

Scholars who have been watching China for years caution that we should not read too much into his public persona. Wen Jiabao, who recently stepped down as premier, loved to be seen with coalminers, peasants and disaster victims. Yet Mr Wen and Mr Hu oversaw a period of almost robber-baron-style capitalism and a widening of the wealth gap, although they did attempt to nurture a social welfare system and to improve conditions in the countryside. David Zweig, chair professor of social sciences at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says much of Mr Xi’s glad-handing is mere campaigning. In China, he says, leaders are “elected” first and have to run for office after.

Still, the way leaders conduct themselves can be significant. One only has to think of Mikhail Gorbachev or Deng Xiaoping – who also projected a down-to-earth persona – to see that style can be a declaration of intent. Orville Schell of the Asia Society says Mr Xi is difficult to read. But his guess is that he has depth and conviction, partly stemming from his experiences working on the land during the Cultural Revolution. His stints running Fujian and Zhejiang, two dynamic provinces, are said to have made him more sympathetic to the private sector. Optimists also hope that the influence of his father, a political moderate, has rubbed off.

Even if he does have “reformist” instincts, it is not clear he will be able to act on them. “I’m afraid we’re not in the era of the ‘big leader’ any more,” says Mr Schell, who believes today’s party chief has less leeway than Deng and – thankfully – Mao Zedong. Mr Xi is hemmed in by a seven-man standing committee that looks far from enlightened, containing as it does a seasoned propagandist and a North Korean-trained economist. For the first time since 1949, China’s leader has not one but two former party chiefs, Mr Hu and Jiang Zemin, watching over his shoulder.

Still, Mr Xi has some independent power. He has been given all three top jobs – party secretary, president and chairman of the central military commission – and is a princeling from a family with top revolutionary credentials. According to Bloomberg, his relatives have amassed huge wealth, which could make him less likely to attack vested interests than optimists hope.

Even if, hypothetically, Mr Xi were preparing for radical reform, we probably would not know it yet. Mr Jiang took eight years before he and his premier, Zhu Rongji, were able to launch sweeping economic changes in 1997. It could be years before Mr Xi consolidates his power.

So what, if anything, is to be learnt from his first five months in office? His crackdown on corruption has gone further than many imagined, though more “flies” have been swatted than “tigers” bagged. Mr Xi has also brandished his patriotic credentials. The China Dream entails restoring national pride, but his tough stance on, say, territorial integrity could also provide cover for domestic reform.

Perhaps the most far-reaching change so far mooted is the urbanisation strategy being handled by Li Keqiang, the premier. That could involve giving hukou urban residency permits to up to 220m migrant workers and allowing farmers to sell land at market prices. Empowering a whole new class of consumers could have a huge impact on the entire economy, from banks to state-owned enterprises.

One reason to bet that Mr Xi will eventually embrace radical economic reform is that he probably has to. Mr Hu had the luxury of driving the existing economic model forward. Now almost everyone, both inside and outside China, agrees that the economy needs to change fundamentally.

Even if Mr Xi does embrace an economic overhaul, though, don’t expect political reform to follow. The whole point of repairing China’s economic juggernaut is to save the Communist party, not to bury it.

david.pilling@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.

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