Will China's Xi Jinping be different?

Xi Jinping led the new members of the Communist Party's new Politburo Standing Committee at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 15 November 2012 Mr Xi is being seen as more relaxed and at ease than previous leader Hu Jintao

As Xi Jinping walked out to be presented as China's new leader, one thing was immediately clear to all of us waiting in the Great Hall of the People. His will be a different style of leadership from that of his predecessor Hu Jintao.

Mr Xi was immediately more relaxed and at ease than the man he had just replaced as general secretary of China's Communist Party. Where Mr Hu often appeared stiff and wooden, Xi Jinping smiled and even apologised for keeping his audience waiting.

If he was nervous or awed by the prospect of ruling over one-fifth of humanity, there was no sign of it. At one point, he even seemed to become a little emotional while he was delivering his speech.

Perhaps it is Xi Jinping's pedigree as a Communist Party "princeling" - his father was a revolutionary hero alongside Mao Zedong and a powerful figure in the party - that means he seems more comfortable in his own skin.

Start Quote

Very few people know about who China's new leader will be, what he thinks - it's very smart for any incoming leader not to show his cards, and he's very smart”

End Quote Minxin Pei Claremont McKenna College

Certainly, Xi Jinping has worked all his life for this moment. Rising through the party, he's been groomed for the top.

'More personality'

And when he spoke, Mr Xi seemed to signal a new tone, too. He was more direct, more plain-speaking, more blunt.

There was still some of the jargon of old, that the party must "continue to liberate our way of thinking... further unleash and develop the productive forces... and steadfastly take the road of prosperity for all".

The content was similar to Hu Jintao's outgoing speech last week. But it still sounded different when Xi Jinping warned "the problems among party members and cadres of corruption, taking bribes, being out of touch with the people, undue emphasis on formalities and bureaucracy must be addressed with great efforts".

Mr Xi tried to show he understands the bread-and-butter issues that most people care about. "Our people... yearn for better education, stable jobs, more satisfactory income, greater social security, improved medical and healthcare," he said.

Bo Zhiyue of the National University in Singapore says Xi Jinping will be a different type of leader.

"He has more personality. He is a regular person. He can work with anyone he meets. He is a very down-to-earth person. He is easy to get along with."

Political personality

But, of course, substance and results will matter more than style. On that score there was no detail, no policy proposal, no idea how he will bring about the changes he talked of.

Paramilitary policemen standing guard in front of the giant portrait of former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, 15 November 2012 A change of power in China is rare, as it happens only once a decade

But if Mr Xi is able to connect with China's people in a way Mr Hu couldn't, that will be important. It may give him more room to carve out a political personality of his own that would give him more authority as leader.

What will matter, then, is what sort of vision he has for China: something we simply don't know.

There is, of course, a temptation to read too much into tiny things. A change of power in China is rare, it happens only once a decade. Every time there are hopes the new leaders will bring change.

A little more than a decade after the trauma of the Tiananmen massacre, when Hu Jintao came to power, he was seen as a possible reformer.

Now, though, as his decade has drawn to a close, his time is widely seen as a missed opportunity and attention has turned to the new generation.

'Very smart'

Xi Jinping has risen to the top by keeping a low profile, says Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College in California.

"Very few people know about who China's new leader will be, what he thinks. It's very smart for any incoming leader not to show his cards, and he's very smart."

And he says the fact that Mr Xi is the first among equals in a new Standing Committee of seven will also make this leadership inherently conservative.

"The new leadership looks in all likelihood to be a carefully balanced coalition, and a carefully balanced coalition is not a structure that is conducive to very decisive policy making," he added.

New members of the Politburo Standing Committee,  15 November 2012 The Politburo Standing Committee now has seven members

The reduction in the Standing Committee from nine to seven men may make it easier to reach consensus and so take some tougher decisions. The past decade is widely seen as one of paralysis. But on that score, we'll have to see.

What we do know from the other six new leaders is that they seem to contain a balance - the product of months of secret negotiations and compromises.

Some are from the supposed Jiang Zemin faction, some from the Hu Jintao faction, some may be conservative-minded and unwilling to pursue reforms, others are more reformist economic managers.

There are "princelings" and those from more humble backgrounds.

The message to take away from this is that compromise and consensus seem to be the order of the day.

It is worth noting that the candidates said to be most in favour of reform, like Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao, did not make it into the final seven. Both are young enough that they could still be elevated to the Standing Committee in 2017.

But it means the final line-up is being seen as relatively conservative, and less inclined towards change.

However the five new members on the Standing Committee are all relatively old. They may all serve only one term and have to retire in five years' time. Xi Jinping and the new number two, Li Keqiang, will be around for 10 years.

So the day in five years' time, when Xi Jinping leads out the members of the next Standing Committee from behind that closed door, may be the day when he really cements his authority as China's leader.

Damian Grammaticas Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Will Jinping be different? How could he be? To rise to the top in a one party dictatorship you must demonstrate that you strictly conform to the party line. The primary goal of the party is to maintain exclusive control over all political power. The concept of the benevolent dictator or dictatorship is dangerously naive. Regardless of the mannerisms ultimtely all dictators must be ruthless in maintaining power or be overthrown by others in the party who are. Any changes will be cosmetic, superficial.Nothing of real substance will change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    It was interesting to note that Xi Jinping oversaw the first public flight China's first stealth fighter during Robert Gate's visit to China in early 2011 while President Hu was kept in the dark. In China whoever commands the military is the real power. Unlike Hu, Xi is backed by the military and it looks like power transfer to Xi has happened some time ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    It's is really interesting that Li Keqiang is now second of the standing politburo committee compare to Wen Jiabao only the third before. And if westerners looks more closely about the list, you will find than Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai are both on the list of Politburo Committee. Considering than both of them were born in 1963, I believe they will replace Xi and Li in the following 10-20 years. And BBC should notice that the Standing Politburo Committee may change in 5 years instead of 10 years. Chinese will have another so-called election in the next 5 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I believe that Mr.Xi will bring about changes in China. The Chinese have different style from western countries' people, especially politicians, who are both a doer and a talker, they always do more than they say.
    Time will prove it, though it may be a long time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    What difference does one sheep or another make? None. Just look at the photo: cookie-cutter clones one of the other. Why do people continue to use the word "reform" in the context of China? Dream on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    11.mafsino: It is a communist party, yet not a communist country. Communism mixed with capitalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    China needs rule of law more than anything else. This new leadership is unlikely to push for any real democratic reform; however I'm hoping they put some real effort in establishing rule of law, even that means tolerating certain degree of corruption. Without rule of law, nobody has any confidence in the system, whether being powerful officials or humble peasants.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Am I the only person living in China who sees the inherent contradictions between a purported 'communist' or 'socialist' country and the massive gap between the rich elite with their Gucci, Lamborginis etc and the majority who cannot afford to buy to have a small car?

    Is it time to redefine the words 'socialist' or 'communist'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    China has no human rights at all!!! Xi's speech is just the repeat of his former "models", that's why he was looking so easy to deliver it!!! You can't miss the lyrics of a song if you play it again and again within a day, can't you??? Let along that's years for chinese officals to be bombarded by such "speech"!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I think all the media, when they report things about other countries, they mostly wanna to show how great there country is by posting unreliable news. People who have thoughts like you guys should really read more report from different aspects and from different countries, then, I am sure there are more lies than truth in most situations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    @7 - are you sure your not thinking of the US ? Corruption, torture (although never on American soil of course) labour exploitation, military sabre rattling, repression of minorities, arbitrary arrests, censorship .....

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Er...surely more than a change of tone is needed.

    How about a change of substance - ending torture, corruption, the harvesting of human organs, labour exploitation, military sabre-rattling, repression of minorities, arbitrary arrests, censorship...?

    Can't envision much change on substance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I hope this new leader understands the Tibetans more, and gives them the freedoms they are calling for as they set themselves on fire. If China's government can learn to appreciate the Tibetans values of compassion and non violence, then the world will be a less threatening, more peaceful place as they continue to rise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    China will continue to slow down, it will just become like America, things will continue to improve but at a much slower rate.

    Improving human rights is the way forward for China to be seen as a super power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    2. MarcusAureliusII
    "Corruption is not an eastern or western problem, a capitalist or communist problem, it's the human condition."

    Well, corruption is like energy - it does not increase or decrease, it just changes its form (and accordingly, its definition).

    "Corruption can be controlled in a democracy"

    It may be as well controlled in a totalitarian regime or just dictatorship (where it may take another form, and be dealt by other methods).. But it cannot be controlled in a chaotic mixture of totalitarian regime and democracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Xi looks more firm, and more confidently to rule in next decade. He could give people some new expectations about the system. If communist party could increase inside-party democracy, absorb more social elites, to turn the black-box system to be an limited elite-democracy, and then strength law system by its single party authority and increased inside-party democracy, Chinese people would support them more than now.
    Xi is a princeling, which might give him more confidence to face and overcome many conflicts directly, while other high officials from grass root tried best to run away and ignore

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Jinping says he wants an end to corruption but for all his education he either doesn't believe or never heard of the saying power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.Corruption is not an eastern or western problem, a capitalist or communist problem, it's the human condition.With an unassailable monopoly on power the Chinese communist party cannot rid itself of corruption, will not be held accountable to the people.Corruption can be controlled in a democracy but not in China.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Xi will be irresistibly tenacious with his leadership with pros china cannot totally accept and cons the west cannot totally deny and by china i mean the wealthy class. He understands what the poor should have had by now and the limits of the corrupt rich so he can't be the head or tail but a wise belly. On the other hand i believe china will be china because neither a complete socialism nor democracy can prevail but being china itself and the west should not expect more or less. The next X years will determine where china's economy really stands and Xi knows his name stands on top of it.


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