Almost no one noticed when Xi reportedly told Russian President Vladimir Putin in March that their “personalities” were similar.
But now, six months later, Xi appears to be more of a Putin than a Mikhail Gorbachev, behaving like a leader more interested in consolidating his power and ensuring the survival of an authoritarian system than in adopting significant political reforms.
“The fundamental priority for him is to guarantee the ruling position of the party,” said historian Zhang Lifan. “From the bottom of his heart, Xi Jinping wants to be a strong man. But I am not optimistic. In my understanding, a strong man should be creative. I don’t see any new thoughts.”
Xi was something of an enigma when he took over from Hu Jintao as China’s supreme leader in an eagerly anticipated transfer of power. There was, after all, no election campaign to introduce him to China; instead, his ascent came about as the result of compromises between factions in the Communist Party, reached entirely behind closed doors.
Complicating matters, Xi has sent different messages as he has sought to unify the party behind him. He has promised economic reforms but urged his party colleagues to promote the ideology of Marx and Mao. He has cast himself as a nationalist, determined to restore China to its ancient glories, but his “Chinese dream” seems mostly about achieving middle-class comfort. He has brought new energy to the relationship with the United States while simultaneously cozying up to Russia.
But the emerging portrait of China’s new leader is of a man who wants to reinvigorate the Communist Party without relinquishing its stranglehold on Chinese politics. He looks set to become a stronger leader than his cautious predecessor, Hu Jintao, but he is no radical reformer, experts say.
Xi’s signature initiative so far has been what he has called a “thorough cleanup” of the party, with cadres told to “take baths” to purify themselves of greed, extravagance, laziness and hedonism, to reconnect with the grass roots and to firmly adhere to Marxist ideology.
A profile in a regional newspaper last month painted a picture of Xi as a “simple, low-profile, amiable and practical” man, who ate steamed buns with ordinary folk when he worked as a local-level party secretary in Hebei province in the early 1980s and used old clothes to patch his worn mattress. It seemed designed to cast Xi as the true successor of Mao, a man connected with the “masses.”
In reality, Xi’s family has been able to accumulate assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a Bloomberg News report. But he is clearly aware that the party’s image has been tarnished by lavish displays of wealth.