Written by Zhengxu Wang.

Soon, Xi Jinping and the rest of the Central Politburo Standing Committee will have occupied China’s top leadership positions for one year. This anniversary of sorts marks an opportune time to appraise the opening performances of Party leader Xi Jinping and State Councilor Premier Li Keqiang.

From the outset the new leadership duo hit the ground running. Compared to their predecessors Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who took over the reins in late 2002, Xi and Li have enjoyed an environment that is much more conducive to exerting authority. With the retirement of the Hu-Wen leadership team, the transition of power was far more complete and clear-cut than ten years previously. This allowed the new leaders to take a series of actions that demonstrated their commitment to delivering results.

On the economic front, Li has been far more decisive than Wen in his first year. He has marked out the direction of the policy changes that are to follow in the next few years. The signals from both Li and Xi have been unmistakably reformist, including the setting up of a free trade zone in Shanghai, efforts to clean up China’s chaotic credit market, and rescinding of a series of government approval requirements.

A few months into Hu and Wen’s tenure, the SARS epidemic broke out. The two leaders were thrust into responding to one of the biggest public health crises in recent years. There have been crises early in the Xi-Li leadership too: bird flu, dead pigs clogging up Shanghai’s rivers and an earthquake in Sichuan. Although serious incidents, they are small compared to SARS. In that sense, Xi and Li have enjoyed more luck than their predecessors. However they have also handled their own setbacks efficiently, contributing to their quick consolidation of power.

During the last two years of the Hu-Wen era, China’s foreign relations soured on several fronts, most notably with their neighbours over long-running disputes involving the Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea. Xi reacted by rolling out a carefully crafted diplomatic offensive in an attempt to reverse the damage to China’s regional and global image. He quickly strengthened China’s relationships in Africa, Russia, Central Asia, and Latin America, including Brazil and a strikingly early visit to Central America. Around the same time, Li’s visits to South Asia and Europe bolstered China’s standing in those regions. China subsequently signed a Free Trade Agreement with Switzerland, a major Western developed economy. Most likely as a result of these moves, the US began to feel under pressure to repair its fractious relationship with China. This resulted in an informal meeting between Xi and President Barack Obama in California, which was hastily shoehorned into the itinerary of Xi’s Central America tour. Sino-US relations are now considerably more stable.

Neighbourly relations have improved too, with Xi and Li visiting a number of ASEAN countries. And just last week, Xi held a high-profile meeting on China’s relationship with neighbouring countries, injecting a strong sense of direction to China’s foreign policy work.

Upon taking up the leadership mantle, Hu and Wen were highly constrained by several factors, the most notable being the retention of the military leadership post by the then outgoing leader Jiang Zemin. Since Xi and Li have come up against fewer such obstacles, they have achieved a lot in a short space of time. The steps taken by Xi Jinping in foreign affairs certainly speak to his quicker and firmer grip on that policy area, but his ability to crack down on several high-level corruption cases, including one involving a ministerial-level official, is also striking.

Xi has also displayed his commitment to reinforcing the Party’s ability to rule. This is probably the right thing to do given the challenges in governance the country is facing. Regardless of political persuasions, it is difficult to argue against the notion that the Party still represents a necessary institution for China to achieve its developmental and governmental goals.

There are other possible areas for institution building, such as reform of the legal system, but this is a colossal task and the Party leadership does not yet seem ready for the challenge. But in trying to fix problems within the Party, such as corruption and the rising challenges of disunity and ideological confusion, Xi Jinping is surely too old-fashioned. Much of his thinking and approaches to Party and state building, such as the tightening of the media environment, provoke whispers of a Maoist revival. The on-going ‘mass-line’ campaign, which aims to reconnect Party officials with the people and shun all forms of decadence and excess, harks back to the tactics of endless study sessions imposed during the Mao Zedong period.

It is hardly surprising. Xi was a product of that system and therefore his perspectives on Party and state building are closely defined by the Maoist era in which he was educated. The same can be said for his views on democracy and political reform. The past year has witnessed controversies surrounding the Party’s attacks on “universal values” and “constitutionalism”. These concepts and ideas are in fact in line with at least some of the Party’s ideological and political commitments. But the Party propaganda machine has treated them as Western conspiracies against China, apparently fearing an open discussion of these concepts will threaten the Party’s hold on to power. These events have led to people questioning Xi’s real position on political openness. And many in the Chinese intellectual and business classes were disappointed by this perceived shift to the left of China’s political spectrum.

Looking forward, at the Party Plenum that is opening on November 9, Xi and Li will look to draw up a roadmap for economic reform. With that, the real business will begin. In areas such as breaking up the state sector’s monopoly in the banking and finance, energy, telecommunication, and other industries, transforming the taxation system to ensure a good balance between the central and local states, establishing transparency in government processes, and removing local government from its dependence on land sales and gigantic infrastructure projects, and many other areas, challenges will be mountainous. And it is in these areas that the performance of Xi, Li, and the CCP leadership team they represent, will be graded, and recorded in the history books of future generations.

Zhengxu Wang is Associate Professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. This piece originally appeared in the SCMP on Nov 8 under the title “Driving Forward”.

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