In the four and half months since his installation as China’s new leader, Mr. Xi Jinping has been talking about reviving the country’s economic reform almost incessantly. Although his branding campaign is generally considered successful and Mr. Xi appears to be enjoying a honeymoon period with the Chinese public, much remains unknown about what he means by reform. In particular, whether Mr. Xi’s reform agenda includes much-needed political reform (real democratizing reform, not just administrative window-dressing) is a hotly debated topic.
An astute politician, Mr. Xi himself has said little in public about the substance of his reform. However, what he reportedly said at a gathering of local officials in Guangdong in January suggests that he was not contemplating a dramatic overall of China’s political system. According to leaked notes, Mr. Xi reflected on the collapse of the Soviet Union in his remarks to these officials. The fact that Mr. Xi should dwell on a two-decade old historical subject is illuminating in itself. A reasonable guess is that he might be thinking about the same challenges that faced the leaders of the late Soviet Union. But what he said about the causes of the Soviet collapse was even more revealing, if not disconcerting. The loss of ideological commitment to communism, Mr. Xi allegedly warned his audience, was the root cause of the rapid demise of the Soviet regime. As a result, there was not “one real man” in the entire Soviet Union, Mr. Xi further pointed out, who would stand up to defend the teetering communist edifice.
Of course, one could read many things into such alleged remarks. To be fair to Mr. Xi, without knowing the specific context in which such remarks were delivered, there is a real risk of distorting his message. However, should these remarks be genuine, they should trouble those who expected Mr. Xi to re-balance China’s reform strategy by reintroducing political reform to constrain the power of the ruling party and the bureaucracy.
We don’t have to look very hard for other signs that China’s new leadership will be extremely cautious about, if not averse to, political reform. Mr. Yu Zhengsheng, ranked number four on the Politburo Standing Committee (the Communist Party’s top decision-making body), declared in his acceptance speech after being appointed the chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Council (a ceremonial advisory body) in mid-March that China “would never copy the Western model,” effectively dispelling any doubts about the political direction of the new leadership team.
It seems that the door to greater political openness has also been closed on the people of Hong Kong in recent days. Hong Kong is scheduled to elect its chief executive directly and competitively in 2017, but a senior Chinese official, Mr. Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the law committee of the National People’s Congress, dashed such hopes when he said, in an internal seminar, that Beijing has the final say on whether or not to appoint such a leader, even if he is democratically elected.