The new boss is now in charge in China, and with good reason people expect to see Xi Jinping’s leadership produce some changes. After all, unlike his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, Xi is starting his time in power as China’s undisputed paramount leader: simultaneously the top man in the state, the Party, and the military.
Xi Jinping wants to dream big and to measure himself against the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) most dominant figures. But leader Xi’s first changes are new rules on speech and deportment.
‘Talk Like a Person’
Only in communist China is it necessary to tell an official to “talk like a person,” as Xi has instructed his cadres. From now on Party officials are expected to give up reading from a long script or delivering a rehearsed speech that cites Party doctrine and is full of the Party’s mind-numbing jargon. Instead, officials are expected to speak in relatively plain Chinese, in a more personable way, and more briefly.
Without a free press and an independent judiciary, though, fighting corruption is a losing battle.
The change has won Xi a lot of applause. Who knew? People don’t want to listen to cadres drone on without end in a way no one can understand.
Xi has also set down eight new rules for the Politburo—the top 25 Party leaders—that seemed to be aimed at bringing this high-flying group down to earth. A sample of Xi’s new orders follows.
All Politburo members are required to take a field trip to learn the true situation in the country. On their trip, they are not allowed to be received with a red carpet, an organized welcome ceremony, or an extravagant banquet.
National conferences and grand events will be strictly controlled and reduced. Without authorization, Politburo members should not attend ceremonies to which they have been invited. At such events, meetings should be shorter and without any empty speeches.
Briefs and reports without substance should not be produced and propagated.
When Politburo members visit foreign countries, the number of delegates has to be strictly controlled. At the airport, the mobilization of Chinese students, visiting scholars, and local Chinese to form a welcoming party is prohibited.
Security should not interrupt traffic, block roads, or shut down services.
Only when necessary should news outlets report on the activities of Politburo members, and then at minimum length and airtime.
Without arrangements coordinated by the Party, individual members should not publish books or speeches and should not give letters of congratulations, autographs, or citations for publicity.
Members have to strictly follow rules on housing, transportation, and living standards.
Critics expect these rules to have little impact. They are vague, and very few people or organizations have any way to monitor the top 25 most powerful people in the nation.
Under China’s current political system, self-examination and discipline have proven to be useless at providing restraint—an appeal to moral character can’t ensure the new rules will be obeyed. Moreover, the solution is not new rules but a new system. If China had a free press, free elections, and an independent judiciary, these rules would not be necessary.
In the past, whenever rules such as Xi just issued were trotted out in official documents and speeches, the situation was really out of control.
Xi Jinping wants to dream big and to measure himself against the Chinese Communist Party’s most dominant figures.
Xi wants everyone to pursue what he calls the China dream, the renaissance of a great China.
Xi’s first public appearance after assuming power was to take all the members of the Standing Committee of Politburo—the seven men who run the CCP—to visit an exhibition titled The Grand Road of Chinese Renaissances.
The exhibit documents how previous CCP leaders contributed to the renaissance of a great China. During the visit, Xi made special tribute to Mao Zedong by reciting a poem by Mao. He did the same several times later in other important occasions to show how fond he was of Mao’s ideas and spirit.
Of course, the exhibit made no mention of the catastrophes and massacres Mao and Deng unleashed on the Chinese people in the name of pursuing the leaders’ dreams.
Xi’s dream elicited a response. China’s most respectable newspaper, Guangdong Province’s Southern Weekly, wrote a New Year’s editorial calling for rule by constitution as the dream of China. The editorial pointed out the basic fact about the Chinese regime: The power of the CCP is above that of the constitution; the rule of law is therefore impossible.
The Guangdong Party’s propaganda czar rewrote the editorial. When the newspaper protested official censorship on its microblog, the paper lost control of it. This in turn has evoked more protests, a strike by the staff of Southern Weekly, and sympathy from media outlets around the country.
The growing turmoil has tested the meaning of what Xi Jinping said. Xi’s dream, like Mao and Deng’s before him, is not necessarily a dream that most Chinese share.
While Xi clearly worships Mao as a ruler of China, he made his first trip following the route of Deng Xiaoping on his famous southern tour to Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. That tour was Deng’s reassertion of his economic policies after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Xi Jinping visited Deng’s memorial and highly praised Deng’s contribution to China’s economic reforms. On his visit, Xi followed his own rules. He brought his daughter and wife but very few officials along with him and kept a low profile during his visit, with a minimum of media coverage.
Interestingly, Xi declared during and after his visit that Deng’s aphorism of “crossing the river by touching the stones” is still the formula for the success of reform in China. This saying means there are no existing rules to follow. The leader chooses whatever works to his and the Party’s advantage.
In the name of creating a communist society, Mao’s almost three decades of rule took wealth and power from the Chinese people and gave it to the CCP.
Deng’s era successfully kept power tightly in the Party but distributed the majority of the wealth to the well-connected families and their friends. Of course, people who work for those who control the wealth benefit as well under the name of building a socialist society with Chinese characteristics.
Xi has been given the name of “reformer,” but in talking about reform, Xi talks about punishing corrupt officials and making administrative reforms. He has been silent about political reform.
Without a free press and an independent judiciary, though, fighting corruption is a losing battle. Instead of political reform, what the Chinese people are seeing is stricter control of the Internet and censorship of the press.
Mao and Deng stand for two opposite approaches. Mao formed farming collectives; Deng broke them up, letting individuals farm their own plots. Mao ordered backyard steel furnaces be made; Deng opened China up to foreign investment and large-scale economic projects.
Xi seems to have found a way to reconcile between the different “renaissances” Mao and Deng each brought to the Party. Speaking to the 300 top leaders of China, Xi Jinping stated that Mao’s first 30 years and Deng’s second 30 years are continuous efforts by the Chinese people pursuing socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Xi also claimed the first and the second 30 years of communist rule are not contradictory to each other. Obviously, neither Mao nor Deng would agree with him if they were alive today.
This periodization of the Chinese regime into two eras conveniently erases the terms of Xi’s immediate predecessors—Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. They are treated as extensions of the Deng era. Xi appears as the ruler of his own era.
Xi’s autonomy in his history of the CCP allows him to determine his own stance to the two giants, Mao and Deng. Xi can decide to use Mao’s thoughts and Deng’s theories in whatever way suits him best.
Apparently, Xi is hoping to use Mao to fight anyone who challenges the power of the communist regime or calls for political reform, while using Deng to push for economic and administrative reforms.
Xi figures he needs both Mao and Deng to deal with the crisis his regime is in right now, and he knows he is neither.
Michael Young, a Chinese-American writer based in Washington, D.C., writes on China and the Sino-U.S. relationship.
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