China's new leader: harbinger of reform or another conservative?

Thu Jan 10, 2013 6:02pm EST
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By Terril Yue Jones and Benjamin Kang Lim

BEIJING (Reuters) - When Xi Jinping became the new leader of China's Communist Party two months ago, hopes were high for reform in the giant nation. But despite what appears to be sensitive handling of a strike by journalists and a challenge to Beijing's tight control of the press, signs of change seem tentative.

Xi's commitment to reform, or lack of it, will come into sharper focus over the next few months, in particular after he officially assumes the presidency in March at a session of the National People's Congress, the country's rubber-stamp parliament.

Among the key signposts that analysts say could give Chinese citizens and global investors a sense of the new government's commitment to change: whether the resolution of a standoff at a prominent newspaper leads to an easing of press restrictions; whether the government moves quickly to address the rights of China's migrant workers; and whether Xi follows through on ending the country's notorious "re-education through labor" camps.

Xi himself has fanned expectations of change with rhetoric about "national rejuvenation," vows to crack down on corruption and a down-to-earth public style that stands in contrast to the remote, forbidding demeanor of his predecessors.

From a trip to Guangdong province akin to Deng Xiaoping's famous "southern tour" in 1992 - which re-ignited China's economic opening - to a speech calling for the rule of law in mid-December on the 30th anniversary of China's constitution, Xi has kindled hopes that he might pursue a broad swath of reforms -- economic, legal and political.

"It is evident that the new leaders want to get things done and have done things differently from previous administrations," said a source with close ties to the leaders.

But to date, for all the ostensible desire for change, Xi and the new leaders have precious little to show for it. China has one of the most regimented political systems in the world, and the writ of the Communist Party remains supreme.

At the November party congress in which Xi and his team were officially unveiled, there was talk of reform. But maintaining stability was the over-arching theme.   Continued...

China's then Vice-President Xi Jinping stands during a trade agreement ceremony between the two countries at Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland in this February 19, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/David Moir/Files