Xi Jinping takes China's reins. Will he promote political reform?

Xi Jinping, the new leader of the Communist Party, is considered to be reform-minded, but the party's new leadership team is dominated by change-wary conservatives.

Vincent Yu/AP
Xi Jinping stepped into China's top leadership role Thursday, becoming Communist Party General Secretary as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

There has been much talk in recent weeks – in the official Chinese media and on the tongues of top leaders – of the need for political reform in China.

However, there were few signs on Thursday that such words will mean much in reality anytime soon, as a new leadership team dominated by aging conservatives took over the reins.

As expected, Xi Jinping is the new head of the ruling Communist Party, seconded by the only other member of the last Politburo Standing Committee to be staying on, Li Keqiang. Both are in their 50s, and have reputations as cautious reformers.

But the five new members of the group that effectively rules China are all nearly a decade older than them, and most are seen as wary of change. 

“This is a very bad lineup and certainly dampens any hope of political reform,” says Zhang Jian, a professor of politics at Peking University. “I don’t expect much in the way of change from these men.”

China’s new rulers emerged from the Communist Party’s 18th Congress that ended Wednesday. They introduced themselves Thursday morning to the Chinese and international press, filing onto a stage in the Great Hall of the People and bowing in turn as Mr. Xi called their names. Mr. Li, appearing more relaxed than his colleagues, waved and smiled to the massed TV cameras, more like a Western politician. (Read more about who's who here)

In a brief speech notable for its almost casual delivery, Xi signaled what may become his policy priorities. “Our people … wish to have a better education, more stable jobs, greater social security, better medical and health care, improved housing conditions, and a better environment,” he said. “To meet their desire for a happy life is our mission.”

Not once did he mention economic growth, which has been a mantra of previous Chinese administrations, and a goal to be achieved at all costs, for three decades.

Looking forward to ... reform?

The new Chinese leader, who will become national president in March, made no bones about problems within his party, among which he mentioned “corruption, being divorced from the people, going through formalities, and bureaucratism.”

How successful Xi will be in tackling such problems, however, is uncertain, say some critics. “I believe Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have strong reform genes in their blood, and they will not be constrained by former leaders’ conservatism,” says Chen Ziming, a Beijing-based political analyst who was jailed for several years for his role in the Tiananmen uprising in 1989. “But they are surrounded by old men who do not meet peoples’ demands for more democracy or more reform.”

Notable by their absence from the new lineup are two younger reputed reformers, Li Yuanchao, who heads the party’s Organization Department, and Wang Yang, party boss in the southern province of Guangdong.

Flanking Xi and Li instead, were five men in their 60s, all but one of whom will be too old to stand for re-election at the next party Congress in five years’ time, according to party rules that prevent the election of anyone over the age of 70. In order of seniority, they were Zhang Dejiang, a tough party fixer, Yu Zhengsheng, head of the party in Shanghai, Liu Yunshan, the party’s head censor, Wang Qishan, a veteran economic policymaker, and Zhang Gaoli, party boss in the port of Tianjin.

“These are people who have been solid local officials and members of the Politburo for some time. It’s more a continuity team than anything else,” says Sidney Rittenberg, once Mao Zedong’s interpreter and a close observer of Communist Party affairs. (Read more about Sidney Rittenberg and his relationship with Mao here)

“You’ll probably see them acting quite capably on economic reform,” adds Li Cheng, an expert on Chinese leadership issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “But you cannot expect this team to push for political reform, which will make economic changes harder.”

Since four members of the new Standing Committee will likely be forced to retire in 2017, that might offer an opportunity for younger and more modern leaders to take top jobs in five years’ time, Professor Zhang points out. “But by failing to bring young men in now, they will have wasted five years,” he worries.

One novelty and a first

The new Standing Committee does introduce one novelty to the rarefied ranks of China’s top leaders: For the first time, a majority of them will have undergone the formative experience of having been “sent down” to the countryside as youths during the Cultural Revolution.

“That might have some sort of impact” on the party’s sensitivity to the problems faced by those left behind by China’s economic miracle, most of whom are farmers, says Michel Bonnin, a China expert at the School for Advanced Social Science Studies in Paris.

“When people like Xi speak of being close to the people, as he did in his speech today, that is more than just a formality, it means something to them,” Professor Bonnin suggests.

China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition may not have brought a new generation to dominance, as some reformists had hoped, but it did mark the second peaceful and orderly handover of power in China’s modern history. 

It also marked the first time that an outgoing leader surrendered all of his powers to his successor. Departing party leader Hu Jintao gave up his chairmanship of the party’s Central Military Commission, and Xi took over the post, becoming commander in chief of the armed forces. 

Ten years ago, outgoing party boss Jiang Zemin held onto the powerful military job for two years into Mr. Hu’s term of office.

Seemingly confident of his authority, Xi made a brief and unusually jargon-free speech on Thursday, in marked contrast to the notoriously wooden style of his predecessor, Hu.

“There was something less robotic, more human about him,” says Bonnin. “There could be a change of style in the leadership. But that does not necessarily mean that there will be any deep or radical changes of policy.” (Read more about who's who in the new leadership lineup here)

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