For its ostensible lack of surprise, the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China may disappoint those waiting for hints of dramatic changes when a new team of leaders takes over. It was indeed beyond some people’s anticipation that, instead of writing Mao Zedong Thought off the CPC Constitution, the party’s report laid so much emphasis on adhering to its chosen path of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
In some ways, even former CPC General Secretary Hu Jintao’s concurrent resignation from the positions of party chief and chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission had been foreshadowed in advance media reports. Not to mention that Xi Jinping, the new CPC leader, has been taken for granted as Hu’s successor-to-be for years. And, noting that people are waiting to see his team’s first move, Xi told the Politburo’s first collective study session that they should start with studying and executing what the CPC National Congress has prescribed.
This boils down to the unmistakable message that the kind of drastic changes that some have fancied will simply not happen. And that the CPC is assuredly comfortable with the incremental approach that has brought the country to where it is today.
But even this has hardly dampened the public enthusiasm Xi has inspired since his first public speech as new CPC chief, which has been perceived broadly as a harbinger of new approaches.
It all began with Xi and his other Politburo Standing Committee colleagues’ first public appearance, where Xi delivered his maiden public speech as the new CPC helmsman.
If the rare public speeches Xi had made prior and scant recounts by those who had worked with him during his years in rural Shanxi contribute to a collage of an amicable regular-guy personality, the remarks he made as the new CPC General Secretary created the impression that he is a no-nonsense leader who knows and cares about how people feel.
The fact that he made no reference to the “isms”, otherwise a must in standard bureaucratic linguistics, and that he addressed the other six members of the new Politburo Standing Committee as “colleagues”, instead of “comrades”, was interpreted as signs of a new style. So were his repeated references to “the people” and mentions of “responsibility” when addressing the press.
His pledge that people’s longings for better lives – better education, more secure jobs, more satisfying incomes, more reliable social security, more sophisticated medical services, more comfortable housing, and finer environment – will be the new leadership’s goal turned out to be a heart-winner. Stressing that common prosperity is a “fundamental principle” of the Chinese brand of socialism, he vowed at the Politburo study session to make sure that all people benefit more from the fruits of development in a fairer manner.
The “many severe challenges” and “many problems in urgent need of solutions” that he enumerated – from corruption to estrangement from the people – point accurately at the most dangerous threats to the CPC.
The warning got even more straightforward at the Politburo study session, during which Xi expounded on the CPC’s latest policy statements. “Be it a political party, or a political power, its future and fate rest ultimately on whether people are for or against it,” he told his audience. “If we alienate from the masses, and lose people’s endorsement and support, (we) will also fail in the end.”
Citing corruption as a “very important” reason for the recent collapse of regimes in some foreign countries, Xi issued the blunt warning that the party and the country will “inevitably perish” if corruption should be allowed to continue worsening. His description of the state of corruption featured the harshest wording ever heard from a top leader – the cases of serious violations occurred inside the party in recent years were “very odious in nature”, “extremely vicious in their political impact”, and “dreadful to the mind”, he said.
That he did not bother to repeat the usual linguistic formula in corruption-related rhetoric, where corruption is carefully portrayed as limited to a very small few, was an impressive break, and this does make his promise of iron fist against violators sound more credible.
By focusing on the outstanding issues of public concern of corruption and people’s livelihoods, with the unpretentious composure and confidence he has displayed from between the lines of his first public speeches, Xi has left a very favorable first impression.
He has displayed some of the most cherished qualities in public expects – honesty and courage to face the truth, the will to make a difference, and a down-to-earth style. Such qualities are essential because running a country of 1.3 billion will never have been as difficult. The Chinese economic locomotive, which has been roaring ahead in high gear for more than 30 years, is slowing down. The days when a regular approach to reform can easily yield impressive outcomes are gone. Vested interests have erected tough barricades against reform initiatives in various fields. On the other hand corruption and other forms of power abuse, as well as the subsequent credibility drain, are challenging the CPC to stop looking away from an emerging legitimacy crisis.
Xi and his colleagues took over at a time when society is increasingly rallying around the consensus that bolder moves are needed to sustain the China miracle. He is enjoying instant popularity in the country because he presented a to-do-list that corresponds well to public expectations. People are in eager and hopeful anticipation of the “qualified answer-sheet” he promised to history and the people.
Hong Kai is a senior political commentator in Beijing