The Xi Jinping Difference

Jiang Weiping on why Xi Jinping will likely prove to be a bigger reformer than his predecessors.
By: /
December 3, 2012
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The newly elected Standing Committee of the Politburo has received much media attention in China and abroad. Many people have expressed their disappointment over the fact that a big proportion of the committee is comprised of conservative members of the party. I, however, have my own view on the matter.

The centralized nature of the Chinese political system means that the general secretary of the party is in charge of both political and military power – hence, the general secretary’s personality is important. Examining Xi Jinping, there is no doubt that he is a different kind of leader from his predecessors. His father was tormented during the Cultural Revolution, and he himself was a “sent-down youth.” Xi was not directly appointed by any political power broker, but was instead chosen through small-scale elections within the party. Thus, he sits as a compromise of power struggles between different factions. His political records show that he is not a bad choice after all, he has a likable personality, and his partner – Premier Li Keqiang – has a vision and knowledge that will be very helpful to his work.

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I believe that the ambiguous message presented at the 18th Party Congress will not, in the end, tie Xi down. When it comes to the unpredictability of political affairs in China, it is not really up to him to carry out reforms, but at this moment, changes are unavoidable. Reform is the party’s lifeline, and counter-reform efforts will lead the party to an end. As he makes his first move as the new leader, just like that first leaf of autumn to fall, the small things he does now foreshadow greater changes to come.

According to a Nov. 19 report from the Xinhua News Agency, “The Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee has appointed Meng Jianzhu as secretary of its Commission for Political and Legal Affairs, replacing Zhou Yongkang.” This means that the highest ranks of the party admitted the failure of the oppressive policies under Zhou Yongkang. What Xi Jinping needs to do right now is to emulate Da Yu, the legendary Chinese king who built canals to divert floodwater rather than simply stopping it with walls: Xi needs to come up with workable solutions to social conflicts rather than simply oppressing them.

The new Politburo Standing Committee appears to have learned its lessons from the Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun incident, and has reduced the number of members from nine to seven. This is an act that signals directional change in political policy. They want to relieve the bondage of redundant emphasis on ideology, as well as the tendency to put violent crackdowns before other effective solutions.

In times of transition, the most sensitive crowd of people must be those intellectuals residing in the capital. They can sense change faster than the rest of the country. Thus, on Nov. 16, Li Rui (party elder) and more than 100 other more liberal-minded individuals gathered for a conference organized by the scholarly magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu and Peking University Law School in Beijing’s Asian Games Village. It was co-hosted by Zhang Qianfan and Wu Sigong, and more than 10 members of the media were present to report the conference. This was a strong political signal, and one that could only be released without the interference of Zhou Yongkang.

Almost at the same time as the conference, some 20 renowned activists and dissidents from Hong Kong and Mainland China gathered in Beijing to celebrate the 80th birthday of Bao Tong. (Bao, who was the personal assistant to the former Communist Party general secretary and premier Zhao Ziyang, was jailed because of the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989.) One report said that while Nov. 5 was Bao Tong’s birthday, the celebration had to be rescheduled since it coincided with the 18th Party Congress. Although police and national security personnel were present and the event was under surveillance, no one intervened or caused any trouble. This is one more good signal.

Bao told the Voice of America that friends who showed up included Jiang Yanyong (the physician who publicized Beijing’s cover-up of the SARS epidemic), Yang Jisheng (formerly a senior journalist at Xinhua News Agency and the deputy chief of the Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine), Chen Ziming (a dissident scholar known for his activism during the Tiananmen incident), Cao Siyuan (a constitutionalism scholar), Yao Jianfu (Zhao Ziyang’s close friend and a former researcher at the Rural Development Research Center of the State Council), and Dai Huang (a former Xinhua News Agency senior reporter). This was a very rare occasion where all of these people were able to come together; the symbolic value goes beyond just a mere birthday celebration.

The centralized political system in China means that no high-ranking member of the party, even if he is a severely conservative member, is able to act without acknowledging Xi Jinping’s view. Everyone knows that Xi is not someone who likes to use political movements as a way to oppress rivals, and he dislikes those so-called “speech crimes,” or “literary inquisitions,” even more. Thus, as Chen Ziming, who was present at Bao’s celebration, said, everyone knows that the new leadership as a whole is conservative leaning, but most are not pessimistic, because they don’t think the conservatives will have too much influence over Xi Jinping. Reform is largely up to Xi. If he truly desires change, it won’t matter whether there are two conservatives or 19 – no one will be able stop him. I think Chen Ziming’s words represent a truly insightful reflection on the nature of the political system in China.

Zhang Dejiang, who replaced Bo Xilai as party chief of Chongqing in March, knows Xi Jinping’s style of doing things. Thus, right after he got back to Chongqing, he pushed the court to speed up the reviewing of cases involving injustices left by Bo Xilai, starting with the dismissal of 091 Special Unit, which was responsible for the execution of Chongqing’s so called "changhong dahei" or "singing red, fighting corruption" movement, from the Shapingba District Police on Nov. 15. Zhang also allowed private enterprises that had been branded as illegal without trials, such as exiled Chongqing businessman Li Jun’s, to properly operate again. Then, on Nov. 19, Ren Jianyu, the young Chinese government official jailed for his criticism of Bo Xilai, was released from labour camp. Ren’s release is different from other jailed critics: The significance of his release lies in the fact that he wrote and re-blogged more than 100 messages criticizing the highest ranks of the party, as well as the socialist system – messages that have long been banned by the Chinese government.

As party chief of Chongqing after Bo’s fall, Zhang Dejiang could have made these changes before the 18th Party Congress, but the party blueprint for the 18th Congress had not yet been finalized. Because he had his eye on a position in the Standing Committee, he was careful, and unwilling to take any risk. Now that he has been granted a position on the Standing Committee, not only can Ren Jianyu get his freedom back, but the unconstitutional system of punishment known as “re-education through labour” will also be reviewed. Very soon, the Communist Party will redress Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang, Tiananmen Square, and many victims of the Chongqing crackdown. When these events take place, China will return to the Hu Yaobang era.

On Oct. 10, 2012, Ren Jianyu sued the Chongqing Re-education Through Labour Committee for engaging in unlawful detentions. One day before, on Oct. 9, China published the “White Paper” on legal-system reform. Southern Weekly reported that the State Council Information Office held a news conference on the same day, in which the spokesman for a government committee on judicial reform, Jiang Wei, admitted that problems regarding the regulation and determination process exist, and acknowledged the consensus for reform. But he also pointed out that, “The socialist judicial system is a new type in the world and there’s no ready example to follow. Our understanding about the socialist judicial system will deepen with practice, and the reform can only proceed gradually.” This whole case started out as a local issue in Chongqing, and now it has national attention. If Ren Jianyu indeed did not violate the law or regulation, then shouldn’t Liu Xiaobo, who was also jailed for his “speech crime,” get released?

Of course, political reform is never easy. While Zhang Dejiang leaves Chongqing and Sun Zhengcai takes over as party chief, Chongqing’s Intermediate People’s Court disappointingly dismissed Ren Jianyu’s lawsuit on account of the fact that Ren missed the deadline for appeal. This is an absurd claim because even if Ren had wanted to appeal, he could not have gotten his case heard while Bo Xilai was still managing Chongqing.

If the deadline policy is to be followed, then more than 20,000 victims of “re-education through labour” resulting from Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun’s crackdown will have lost their opportunity to make things right. This also doesn’t explain why some cases were redressed. If we look at history, we see that many cases that were redressed would not have been if the so-called deadline policy had been followed. Furthermore, according to regulation, an appeal has to be made with the original ruling documents. But many people, including Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, never even got their original documents. The original documents for my own ruling were confiscated by the Dalian Police, who were sent by Bo Xilai, in 2003. I believe that many victims of the Chongqing crackdown have had similar experiences.

The decision made by Chongqing’s Intermediate People’s Court shows that even though the leaders of the country have changed, the system remains the same. Xi Jinping might have ideas of reform, but there is a long way to go on the grassroots level. The Chongqing we see today and will see in the future reflects the system as a whole.

It is unlikely that Xi Jinping and the new generation of Chinese leaders will change the political system in any fundamental way. That said, I still believe that Xi will likely learn from Hu Yaobang, being more tolerant and inclusive of dissidents and actually protecting their freedom of speech as it is written in the constitution. This approach will provoke opposition within the conservative faction of the party, but with Jiang Zemin getting older and less influential, and Hu Jintao set to fully retire, Xi Jinping is now the captain of the Chinese ship. The direction up until now – the so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – is no longer enough to maintain a stable China. I do not know where the shore is, but there are only two directions for China: One is to make different factions within the Communist Party more public and lawful, turning the façade of one-party unity into more visible competition and allowing appropriate whistle-blowers. Another is to open up for multi-party election like the Republic of China did, giving the choice back to its citizens. Whichever direction China takes, I would advocate for gradual progress rather than massive change, because a gradual process will require people to sacrifice less.