Is Xi Jinping a Reformer or a Conservative?

The question of whether Xi Jinping will bring about substantive political reform in China has preoccupied China watchers since the new president assumed power in March. At South China Morning Post, Choi Chi-yuk looks at the ongoing debate over which path Xi will take amidst signs that China’s new leader may be leaning towards the left.

Xi’s rise was initially greeted with optimism among reformists. He was at first named to succeed Hu Jintao as president because he was seen as acceptable to both to both Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin .

[…] Thus, many believe Xi came to power uniquely positioned to jump-start political change. Hopes reached a new high in December, when Xi, just weeks after promotion as party chief, called for enforcing the constitution, a move that many believe would require weakening the party.

[…] In recent months, Xi and the party have seemingly moved further to the left. In a speech to the party’s decision-making Politburo in April, Xi called on party members to toe a “mass line” against excess and extravagance – a term closely associated with the party’s structure under Mao.

The president has even appeared to go out of his way to defend Mao’s legacy, despite periods of famine and political terror.

[…] The president’s remarks on Mao coincided with the release of a directive from the General Office of the Central Committee banning university discussion of seven topics: press freedom, judicial independence, universal values, citizens’ rights, civil society, cronyism and the party’s historical mistakes. The topics are among those most closely associated with political reform. [Source]

Sharing the article on Twitter, Jeffrey Wasserstrom pointed out his own post at the OUP Blog in February, in which he argued that the debate over Xi Jinping’s position on political reform should not be undertaken in a binary reformist versus conservative light.

I thought of this when Reuters ran an assessment of Xi Jinping’s first weeks in power last months that in some venues carried this “chicken or beef” sort of headline: “China’s New Leader: Reformist or Conservative?” Previous Chinese leaders have often turned out to have both reformist and conservative sides. Even Deng Xiaoping, considered the quintessential reformer due to his economic policies, held the line on political liberalization and backed the brutal 1989 crackdown. Mightn’t Xi, too, end up ordering from the reformist and conservative sides of the menu? [Source]


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