With his trip to Shenzhen and other places in southern China, Xi Jinping, the new leader of China's Communist Party, has all but declared himself to be a reformer in the vein of Deng Xiaoping.
Chinese politics is always full of signs, symbols, and suggestions. After a year characterized by a confusing mix of “signs of reform” and “signs that reformists are losing,” it is easy to wonder if these signs are real or just Rorschach Tests for China analysts? Xi Jinping's weekend visit to Shenzhen is the first one in a long time for which the answer is absolutely clear: This is the real deal.
By traveling to Shenzhen, the birthplace of China's market economy, for his first trip outside of Beijing since assuming party leadership, Xi is conjuring up the legacy of Deng Xiaoping and placing himself firmly on the side of reformists. Deng Xiaoping traveled to Shenzhen as part of his famous 1992 Southern Tour that aimed to rally provincial support for pushing ahead with reforms as a means of balancing the power of hardliners in Beijing who had enjoyed a resurgence following Tiananmen Square. It was also the place Prime Minister Wen Jiabao chose in 2010 to call for political reforms in a speech, formally marking the 30th Anniversary of the Special Economic Zone, which took him well outside the mainstream of the Chinese leadership.
Hu Jintao, by contrast, began his term with a visit to Xibaipo, the site of Mao Zedong's last headquarters before the conquest of Beijing.
Although Xi's speech did not go beyond bromides about the importance of “continuing the road of reform and opening” – a theme raised often enough by Hu – he underscored the comparison to Deng by placing flowers at the Lotus Hill statute of Deng (the main site for honoring the former leader, whose ashes were scattered there). Honoring him is, again, not in itself departure from Hu's term, but Xi has chosen to make this his first trip, knowing full well that his every move is being heavily scrutinized for clues to his opinions on economic reform.
Furthermore, as The Shanghaiist notes, while in Shenzhen Xi also planted a banyan tree, the same kind of tree Deng planted in a different Shenzhen park during his own southern tour. Also notable is that Xi chose to tour both state-owned and private businesses in Shenzhen during his time there.
Xi’s trip has therefore elicited a lot of excitement in China, with even the mainstream official media outlets finding ways to capture the spirit of reform. On Monday, for example, Xinhua carried a story that, while note suggesting the significance of Xi's trip itself, did report on the foreign media’s coverage of its significance under the headline: “Foreign media: Xi's Shenzhen trip announces determination to reform” (Chinese). What followed was a long article quoting newspapers from the U.S., Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, all predicting reform and comparing Xi's weekend to Deng’s southern tour.
The People's Daily got in the act on Tuesday with “Xi Jinping's Guangdong trip attracts expectations of reform” (Chinese,) a similar compilation of foreign media reports including a remarkable quote from the Daily Beast: “By Saturday evening local time, Xi’s tour had still not been reported in China’s official media (though information was circulating online); experts said this could mean that officials were carefully editing material from the trip to ensure that Xi’s message was delivered to the public in the desired way.” In other words, the People's Daily covered the Daily Beast's coverage of the People's Daily's failure to cover a story. By Wednesday morning, there were dozens of similar stories under headlines like “American newspapers track Xi's Guangdong trip: A signal economic reform to be unleashed” (Chinese).
There is a danger in overstating the significance of Xi’s trip, however. For all the signs being sent, Xi's trip is, still, just a signal – we know very little about what Xi considers reform to be, and how much power he will have to implement his vision.