After Xi Jinping took over as head of China’s Communist Party in December, some liberals dared to hope that change was in store for the world’s most populous nation.
Xi’s father, a veteran party leader, had a reputation for open-mindedness and moderation; Xi quickly embraced the idea of economic reform and even seemed to hint at some loosening of China’s one-party system.
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.
Xi’s second, and related, campaign has been a wide-ranging attempt to battle corruption, to bring down both the “tigers” and the “flies” — the high-ranking and lower-level officials whose actions have undercut the party’s popularity.
Both campaigns reflect party tactics employed since the days of Mao. They are attempts to bolster the party’s legitimacy that are also useful tools to bash Xi’s rivals.
So when corruption investigations were opened into state-owned PetroChina in August, experts saw not only a tough attempt to rein in a powerful vested interest group but also an attack on proteges of former security chief Zhou Yongkang, who had crossed Xi during a factional power struggle last year.
Xi realizes that Chinese people are angry about corruption, but his attempts to address the problem will almost inevitably fall short, experts say.
“There is a pretty hard and deep and wide attempt to look at everybody’s books,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, the founder of a media research firm in Beijing. “But what will inevitably happen is, one, it will be used to pursue vendettas, and two, because they won’t give up press control, because they won’t open up the party to outside scrutiny — because they are not able to address the systemic problems — it won’t be effective.”
But it is the third campaign that has done the most to unsettle liberals — a crackdown launched on dissent and the limited freedoms of speech afforded by social media. Popular bloggers and businessmen have been arrested, and humiliating televised confessions extracted, in ways that carried faint echoes of Mao-era justice.
Instructions have reportedly also been distributed in recent months to officials throughout China banning discussion of “dangerous Western influences” such as universal values, freedom of speech and civil rights.
Journalists say they are being more heavily censored this year than last. University professors say that they have been discouraged from speaking to foreign media and that there is widespread disillusionment within their ranks.
“At least under Hu Jintao we had hope,” said one professor at a major university in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Under Xi, we have no hope.”
Xi is the son of a veteran Communist leader, Xi Zhongxun, who was purged and imprisoned under Mao. Rehabilitated under reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, the elder Xi helped champion the economic liberalization that began in southern China in 1979. But he was sidelined again after he was thought to have opposed the use of force to break up the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
When Xi Jinping traveled to the economic powerhouse of Shenzhen in southern China shortly after taking over the party, the symbolism seemed unmistakable — like Deng and his father, Xi intended to open up China’s still state-dominated economy.
Then, when he declared in February that no organization should be above the rule of law or the constitution, liberals allowed themselves to dream that he might also consider meaningful political reform.
In March, shortly after being named president, Xi visited Russia and compared his character to Putin’s, according to the Kremlin’s Russian-language transcript. At the time, the remark, which did not appear in the English transcript, did not draw attention. Six months later, it rings increasingly true, says Zhang, the historian, who accuses Xi of moving toward a “new authoritarianism.”
Some commentators are inclined to give Xi the benefit of the doubt, arguing that the clampdown on social media might not be his idea but instead the work of a hard-line faction running the powerful Propaganda Department. Others, such as Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University of China, say Xi’s actions are simply tactics.
“There are problems in the party, and Xi wants to concentrate on handling that,” he said. “Cracking down on street protests and the Internet are just showing he doesn’t want more external chaos while he is trying to unify his authority from within.”
Similarly, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, a corporate strategist and adviser to the Chinese government, believes that Xi is merely protecting his left flank as he prepares to undertake significant economic reforms.
“The way to stop reform is to appeal to a nationalistic view, to accuse reformers of bowing down to the West,” he said. “Knowing that, Xi gets out in front of that. Nobody can accuse him of being soft. He has totally buttoned up the entire left.”
Xi’s plans for the economy may become clearer at an important party plenary meeting in November. But even if his recent crackdowns on dissent are largely tactical, it is becoming clear that political change is not in the cards for the foreseeable future.
The twin traumas of the Tiananmen Square protests and the Soviet Union’s collapse produced a collective determination among Communist leaders in China to maintain the party’s monopoly on political power, analysts say.
“The main, single, ferocious idea of the party is that there is not going to be a Chinese Gorbachev,” said James Mann, author of “The China Fantasy,” a book that aims to explode the assumption that economic progress inexorably leads to democracy.
“They are committed to a collective leadership, where nobody can get too far out in front of the others,” he said. “They are not open to restraints on the power of the party.” There was no reason to think Xi wanted to relax the party’s hold on power, Mann added. “And if he did, he wouldn’t be allowed to.”