China’s New Leader Takes Full Power in Delicate Balancing Act
By CHRIS BUCKLEY, HONG KONG (NY Times): China’s new Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, completed his formal transition to power on Thursday, assuming the presidency during a parliamentary meeting which has sent signals that his government will try to be more responsive to an impatient public while defending the party’s top-down control.
The National People’s Congress anointed Mr. Xi as president four months after he was appointed as Communist Party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission, giving him all three offices – party, army and state – through which he is likely to wield power for the next decade.
There was never any doubt that compliant delegates to the annual party-run parliament would overwhelmingly endorse Mr. Xi for president. They also voted in his ally Li Yuanchao as vice president. Among the 2,956 delegates who cast valid ballots in the grandiose Great Hall of the People, one contrary soul voted against Mr. Xi, while three abstained.
Now Mr. Xi faces rival expectations of how he will apply the power in his hands – expectations that he has kindled. Since succeeding Hu Jintao as party leader in November, he has used meetings, speeches and visits to a frenetic coastal city and a dirt-poor village to signal he wants some economic liberalization, more room for citizens to criticize the government, and a crackdown on the official corruption that has increasingly infuriated Chinese citizens.
Yet Mr. Xi has also rejected any turn to Western-inspired political liberalization and demanded utter loyalty from officials and the military.
“I think that he’s attracted to the idea of a kind of enlightened dictatorship, or neo-authoritarianism. He rejects fundamental political reform, but he wants a cleaner, more efficient government that is closer to the public,” said Li Weidong, a former magazine editor in Beijing who is a prominent commentator on politics.
“I think in the end it will be difficult for them to avoid issues of political reform, because otherwise it will be impossible to eradicate corruption,” Mr. Li said. “Relying on personal authority and party indoctrination and traditions won’t solve the problems they face.”
Meeting parliament delegates this week and last, Mr. Xi repeated vows to counter slowing economy growth by encouraging consumer spending and pulling down barriers to farmers migrating to towns and cities. He told People’s Liberation Army delegates that a strong, absolutely loyal military is essential to his “China dream” of patriotic revival.
He also has shown a lighter public touch than his predecessor Mr. Hu, a stiffly disciplined politician. After an uproar this week over thousands of pig carcasses floating down a river near Shanghai, state media highlighted Mr. Xi’s earlier comments on water pollution.
“The standard that Internet users apply for lake water quality is whether the mayor dares to jump in and swim,” Mr. Xi told officials from near pollution-plagued Lake Tai in eastern China, according to a state media report.
Mr. Xi, 59, is the son of a Communist Party official who served under Mao Zedong and became a supporter of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to curtail party controls and nurture markets. Vice President Li is also the “princeling” son of a senior cadre.
Many party insiders thought that Mr. Li was destined for a place on the elite, seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, but he was left out of the lineup announced in November. However, Mr. Li’s new post will keep him close to Mr. Xi, and he could still climb into the Standing Committee at a party congress in 2017.
Before the parliament session ends on Sunday, it will also appoint Li Keqiang as prime minister on Friday, succeeding Wen Jiabao, and install new deputy prime ministers, ministers and other senior officials.
“They are all the sons of the party,” said Yao Jianfu, a retired party official and researcher in Beijing.
“For them, there’s no conflict between defending their own power and developing a capitalist economy in China,” he said, adding Mr. Xi “will have lean more to the left in politics than he can lean to right in economic policy, otherwise he won’t be able to stabilize his place on the emperor’s throne.”
Outwardly, at least, Mr. Xi has accumulated the levers of power more smoothly than his recent predecessors. Mr. Hu waited for almost two years between becoming party leader in late 2002 and taking the Central Military Commission chairmanship from Jiang Zemin, who remained a constraint on Mr. Hu. Mr. Jiang was long overshadowed by Deng Xiaoping, the aged patriarch who installed him and at one time threatened to remove him.
But analysts and former officials said Mr. Xi and his comrades face other, no less forbidding obstacles to their vows of change: the array of powerful political families, state-owned conglomerates and ordinary urban residents who fear that change could threaten their interests.
“The talk of reform is genuine. There is absolutely an understanding by the new leadership that they cannot carry on in the way that they have,” said Jennifer Richmond, who analyses China for Stratfor, a company based in Austin, Tex., that offers advice on political and security affairs.
“But so many of those that got rich off the old system are a part of the system, and the changes they make will affect them,” she said. “The ultimate fear is loss of party power, and that’s just unacceptable whether you’re a conservative or a reformer.”
The parliament offered signs of the obstacles that any ambitious change will face. A reorganization of government ministries and agencies approved by delegates turned out to be much less thorough than what political insiders and analysts said was proposed several months ago. The powers of the National Development and Reform Commission, which many pro-market economists see as a hurdle to real reform, remained untouched.”
“When they start to diminish the power of the NDRC, that’s when I think that this is genuine,” said Ms. Richmond.Shi Zhihong, a senior advisor to the Chinese leadership, this week told a Hong Kong newspaper, the Wen Wei Po, that Mr. Xi and his colleagues are working on a “blueprint” for economic and social policy changes that will be presented to a party meeting, probably late this year. But Mr. Xi has stressed that none of the changes he has in mind are intended to undermine the party’s hold on power.
In comments to officials that have not been openly published, Mr. Xi has warned against confusing his idea of reform with Western-inspired democratization.
“Some people define reform as reforming in the direction of Western universal values and a Western political system, otherwise it’s not reform,” Mr. Xi said in a copy of his comments that has circulated among officials. “This is stealthily switching one idea for another, and it distorts for what reform is for us.”