Newly appointed Chinese leader Xi Jinping addresses 'foreign experts' at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in December 2012 (pictuire: AFP Photo/Ed Jones)
On November 15 2012, when Xi Jinping stepped into the Great East Room of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People as the Chinese Communist Party’s new leader, it was no surprise.
The surprises have come in the intervening 16 months, as Xi has revealed himself to the world as something much more than Hu Jintao, the robotic technocrat who preceded him.
To understand what is happening in China right now, which direction the country is taking and how this will affect ordinary Chinese people, it is first important to understand Xi and the Party he runs.
In a very short time, Xi has emerged as China’s most powerful leader since his father’s old friend Deng Xiaoping. He is a complex man who is prepared to both embrace the world and to fight it and, with his glamorous superstar wife – folk singer Peng Liyuan – on his arm, he is someone who has taken his place as China’s first genuinely able, salesmanlike politician.
Not bad for someone that many had dismissed as owing his position to his family and as something of an amiable plodder.
It started almost the minute he and his new Team China had taken their designated positions on the stage, all carefully numbered 1 through 7, with crosses marking the spots upon which they should all stand.
Xi, who has an amiable, slightly rumpled air, approached the lectern and began to speak. Out came not the expected nigh-incomprehensible Partyspeak that resembles nothing quite as much as a direct lift from George Orwell’s 1984 but regular words and phrases.
“Our people have an ardent love for life. They wish to have better education, more stable jobs, more income, greater social security, better medical and health care, improved housing conditions and a better environment,” Xi said.
“They want their children to have sound growth, have good jobs and lead a more enjoyable life. To meet their desire for a happy life is our mission. It is only hard work that creates all happiness in the world.”
Maybe here, thought the assembled media including many foreign correspondents like myself, was a man who may take the Party in a new, better direction. As he hinted at fresh economic reforms, many hoped that political reform – and freedom – would be the natural sequel.
But Xi was not speaking to the foreign media; he was speaking to the Chinese people. He realized that the Party had lost its way and was struggling for legitimacy.
“The problems among our party members and cadres of corruption, taking bribes, being out of touch with the people, must be addressed with great effort,” he said
The Party has delivered on its promises of making people wealthier – apart for the 500 million or so rural poor who still live on US$2 a day or less. But the gap between China’s wealthy and its poor is widening ever further and can be seen writ large on the average Beijing street, where a yellow Ferrari overtakes a bicycle laden sky high with flattened cardboard boxes.
True to his word Xi almost immediately kicked off what is transpiring as the Party’s biggest ever anti-corruption campaign; a campaign which also serves as a way of taking out internal enemies in an organization where pretty much everyone is seen as being on the take. However Xi himself, like Hu before him, is seen as relatively clean.
Following his impressive debut, Xi made his first trip outside Beijing to Shenzhen to pay homage to the city’s founder, China’s great economic reformer Deng Xiaoping. It was a sign to the outside world that economic reforms that had taken second place to social stability in the previous decades, would once again be at the forefront of the Party’s agenda.
Observers were even more cheered. He may be, they began to think. The One. Xi then proceeded to deal swiftly with his nemesis and one-time compadre and fellow “princeling” Bo Xilai, the former Party leader in the western metropolis who had – to put it simply – started a neo-Maoist revival. Bo was jailed for life and Xi appeared to have dealt with the left wing of the Party that would threaten his reforms.
In reality the CCP, which has about 90 million members, is much more complex and layered. Like any political organization, it is riven with factions and interest groups. These often intersect and overlap. Allegiances can change according to self-interest. It is the only party in a country of 1.3 million people containing 31 provinces and municipalities, many bigger than Germany, with often vastly different economies and interests to protect.
There are also interests that have coalesced around certain industry groups which are often controlled by one or a series of long standing Party families.
Long-time China watcher and former Beijing-based correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, John Garnaut has described it as being similar in structure to the mafia.
To understand this, we need to go back a bit. Xi had been anointed as the next General Secretary of the Party – its top position and, by dint of China’s one party dictatorship, the country’s top dog in 1997 when he was named vice president, ahead of his only rival Li Keqiang.
At the time, that was a surprise. Li had been handpicked by then leader Hu Jintao but Xi had more powerful backers, the unseen former leaders such as former Secretary General Jiang Zemin, former Premier Li Peng as well as a range of retired senior officials and generals from the People’s Liberation Army.
Xi was handed the job, insiders say, because he would better protect the interests of the families.
Xi himself comes from one of those families. His father Xi Zhongcun was the revolutionary general regarded as having saved the famous Long March, and therefore the Party itself.
Xi may be an economic reformer – and this is in his blood too, as his father was charged by Deng with kickstarting Shenzhen when he was rehabilitated in 1980 – but he also believed in the primacy of the party.
“Our party will always be the firm leadership core of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” he said in November 2012.
It’s generally seen that it takes new leaders of the Party a year or so to consolidate their power within the organization, which is why the meeting of the Party’s’ Central Committee – its 200 or so top officials – one year after Xi was named Party chief, is the most important in the organization’s five-year cycle of leadership. Known as the Third Plenum it is traditionally when the new leader lays out his agenda.
Last November Xi did not disappoint those hoping for more economic reforms, sketching out a string of often far reaching changes, aimed at boosting market in China’s economy.
So far, so good? Not so fast.
Side by side with Xi’s plans for economic reforms have been a double-edged program aimed at projecting the Party’s power externally and internally.
China has continued its push into its nearby maritime waters beyond internationally accepted borders
Inside the country, the crackdown on dissenters, never far from the surface in China, has intensified. Lawyers and activist continue to be thrown in jail. There had been no let-up on the cruel house arrests of various campaigners for religious, legal and civil rights. Outspoken professors have been fired from prominent universities and the media – both domestic and international – has come under fresh pressure.
Chinese editors have been sacked and a growing number of foreign journalists refused visas – including two from The New York Times - reversing a decades long trend of loosening up controls on the press.
So it seems Xi is very much his father’s son. A military tough man who is intent on the party’s continued dominance, no matter what the cost to those who question its authority inside China, and an economic reformer who believes a greater role for the market will keep China on track to its goal of dragging millions upon millions of its citizens out of desperate poverty.
But 2014 is not 1980. The money genie is out of the bottle in China, with wealth and increasing numbers of people being educated overseas.
The big question that is unlikely to be answered for some years is whether it is possible to further open up China’s economy while at the same time restricting freedom of expression. That’s some tightrope act Xi is attempting.