New Administration Installed. Now What?

With the new administration now firmly installed in Zhongnanhai, expectations are high that President Xi Jinping will follow up on his rhetoric to implement substantive reforms to combat corruption, a pervasive wealth gap, and environmental destruction. The Diplomat describes the political environment the new leadership is entering and profiles the seven men at the top of the Party hierarchy now tasked with finding solutions to China’s myriad problems:

Not unlike Deng’s return to power, China’s new leaders, largely ‘princelings’ whose formative experience was the Cultural Revolution– in which many of them first participated in and soon became victims of—take the reins of power at a time when China is facing enormous challenges. Compared with their nine predecessors, the seven men who now serve atop the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) are older, less-scientific, more conservative, and heavily weighted towards the Shanghai faction in China’s elite politics that is often associated with former President Jiang Zemin, who boldly reasserted himself into Communist Party decision-making in the months preceding the unveiling of the PSC members. Additionally, the PSC’s first-among-equals, Xi Jinping, appears to be far more charismatic than the man he replaces, a much welcome change for China followers both inside and outside the country.

The new leadership faces a host of pressing challenges, including: an increasingly politically conscious and activist public, armed with far more information than their parents thanks to new social media platforms; a slowing economy suffering from growing debt, weak global demand, official corruption, low domestic consumption, rising labor costs, and over centralization that is largely the result of too-big-to-fail but too-politically-powerful to easily break-up State-Owned Enterprises (SEO); and increasingly strained relationships with China’s neighbors and the United States.

For the Sydney Morning Herald, John Garnaut reports that Xi is in a strong position to lead the Party to overcome an ideological divide which was thrust into the public spotlight during the purge of Bo Xilai and to implement real change:

The new administration has ”corrected” the party’s course at its ”critical moment of life and death”, said one party stalwart, Hu Muying, at a recent spring festival gathering of children of revolutionary leaders. ”There is hope in the snake year now the party leadership has shown us the content and direction of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

”Deng’s success was, after all, the result of his close relations with so many groups in the leadership and the party rather than any inflexible ideological or intellectual position,” says David Goodman, author of Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Revolution.

He says Xi could have the makings of China’s strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping.

But unlike in Deng’s time, says Goodman, there is no consensus on how to move forward and Xi risks being trapped by the disparate groups that brought him to power.

Premier Li Keqiang has also spoken out in favor of reforms that would address a number of issues generating public anger and threatening the legitimacy of the Party. In a lengthy profile of Li, Caixin looks at how his journey up the ranks from Henan Provincial Governor may influence his leadership now, especially on economic issues:

Now heading the cabinet, Li faces many tough issues, namely that the pace of reforms to public hospitals is slow and welfare housing lacks a national system. There is still no diversified competition in the medical industry. Urbanization, the center of Li’s governance strategy, is still facing old problems regarding land, household registration and social welfare.

More importantly, in today’s China, economic development is increasingly determined by the comprehensive progress of reforms. Many ask how far can an “economic cabinet” go when facing entrenched interests and power structures without political reform.

Some argue that the Chinese market economy, benefitting from 30 years of reform and opening, is finally beginning to take shape and now is the time for action.

It would seem Li agrees. In a recent interview, he told People’s Daily: “Those who refuse to reform may not make mistakes, but they will be blamed for not assuming their historical responsibility.”

But Andrew Nathan of Columbia University cast doubt on Xi and Li’s rhetoric. From ChinaFile:

Why can’t the Party really root out corruption? Excuse me for being simple-minded, but doesn’t an effective attack on corruption require independent prosecutors and courts, and a free press? An authoritarian regime generates temptations for its all-powerful officials at every level to abuse power faster than its internal supervision mechanisms can catch the abusers. And a secret, internal self-policing process is irremediably infected with political and personal favoritism. The opportunity to exercise uninhibited power, or to get in bed with those who do, is one of the chief attractions of the system for its members and supporters—not a threat to its power but actually one of the mechanisms it uses to stay in power.

If the leaders keep saying one thing and doing another, that’s PR, not policy. Some people continue to buy it.

See also a Reuters video which questions whether the new administration is up to the task of reforming the economy:

For more on this topic, see: “Xi Jinping Should Expand Deng Xiaoping’s Reforms” by Zhou Ruijin on ChinaFile, and “China Gets a New Cabinet” from the Wall Street Journal, which looks at changes in government leadership at the ministerial level.