The Blog of Changes - Duncan Freeman

China Gets Interesting Again

In Europe, the first stage of the transition to China’s leadership at the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress in November was greeted with almost universal disappointment. The disappointment among many media commentators and other analysts was primarily based on the supposed “conservatism” of the new Politburo Standing Committee members, and also the lack of clear reformist policies enunciated at the Party Congress.

True, the lack of clarity in the outcome of Congress itself did not lend itself to immediate certainty as to the policy direction of the new leadership. However, the disappointed reading outside China of the leadership change was largely based on the false assumption that the supposed conservative orientation of the new Politburo members and the policy statements at the Party Congress would actually define the future direction the new leadership would follow.

Since the 18th Party Congress things have been moving apace, at least as far as the new Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is concerned. In a series of statements he has made some of the clearest statements seen in some time from Chinese leaders about the necessity for reform to be pushed forward. He has also undertaken one of the most symbolic acts in many years in making an official trip to Shenzhen, one of the original Special Economic Zones that initiated “reform and opening” under Deng Xiaoping over 30 years ago, and at the same time visiting Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang, whose exclusion from the Politburo Standing Committee, given his reputation as a reformist, led to much disappointment outside China. Xi Jinping in his pronouncements on reform has aligned himself with the idea that just as Deng Xiaoping launched reform in the late 1970s so the process must be relaunched today.

The symbolism as a parallel of Deng Xiaoping’s famous southern tour in 1992 which relaunched reform after a hiatus was not lost in China (the front page of the People’s Daily emphasized the importance of the visit and his paying respects to Deng’s statue, nevertheless the message of following day’s front page following a visit by Xi to a naval base shows that the message of reform is rooted in a belief in the need for a strong China), and for any foreigners not versed in recent Chinese history the official press has been at pains to point it out. The contrast with Hu Jintao’s first visit outside Beijing to Xibaipo, a place of significance to the pre-1949 revolutionary history of the Chinese Communist Party, is stark. Hu felt a need to reach back to the Mao Zedong and revolutionary history to lay the foundation of his legitimacy in the Party. Xi on the other, apparently seeks his in the legacy of Deng Xiaoping and reformist recent past.

Xi’s apparent crusade against the pomp and pleasures of political power in China is symbolic, but also has real effects if it achieves its intention and filters down to all levels of the Party and government and changes the way they behave. His willingness to abandon large motorcades, extended security cordons and the red carpet treatment and the new restrictions on official banquets no doubt desires to remold the public image of the leadership, but also is intended to set an example that is being pushed through all levels of government, to show that the new leadership is starting on a new footing.

Concrete policies on the big issues that face China will still take time to emerge. In China at the moment there are proposals for reform by the dozen from both within and outside the government. Proposals for reform, and not just economic, are being pushed by academics, official and non-official think tanks, government departments and other actors in reports, books, newspaper articles and online in the weibo.

The just-completed annual Economic Work Conference held on December 15-16, which sets the key policy outlines for economic policy each year, has adopted the guidelines for 2013. The conclusions again offered clear statements of the need to push forward with reform and opening of the Chinese economy. The details will become clearer at the National People’s Congress next year when the government leadership transition will complete the new lineup. Much remains unknown, but in the last few weeks Chinese politics and policy have begun to look more interesting than for many years.

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