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China’s Xi rides high hopes ahead of presidency

March 4, 2013

LUOTUOWAN VILLAGE, China (AP) — China’s fawning state media, jaded social media commentators and even poor corn and cabbage farmers agree: New Communist Party chief Xi Jinping is off to a good start.

“General Secretary Xi doesn’t put on any airs. He talks like an ordinary person,” said 69-year-old farmer Tang Rongbin. The new leader visited Tang’s sparse, dimly lit farmhouse in Luotuowan village in December, bearing gifts of cooking oil, flour and a blanket.

Xi has styled himself as an economic reformer, an iron-fisted graft-buster, a staunch nationalist and a no-frills man-of-the-people — spurring expectations for change. But as he prepares to be appointed to the largely ceremonial role of president, pressure will be growing on him to deliver.

China faces rising public anger over endemic corruption, a burgeoning rich-poor gap and the degradation of the country’s air, soil and waterways. Slower economic growth and territorial disputes, especially with Japan, add to the tension.

Mounting protests over environmental issues, land seizures and high-handed officialdom point to the underlying social discontent. Days before the party conclave that brought Xi to power last year, thousands of protesters in the eastern city of Ningbo faced off against riot police outside government offices, calling on officials to halt a chemical plant expansion.

“I think there has been a revolution of rising expectations,” said Willy Lam, an expert on party politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “People realize they can get away with even demonstrations to make their wills heard.”

Joining the clamor for change this past week were dozens of prominent intellectuals who signed a petition urging the government to ratify an international treaty on protecting human rights and the rule of law. Also, a group of about 100 parents of gays and lesbians urged lawmakers to legalize gay marriage.

The annual session of the national legislature, which opens Tuesday, will complete the once-a-decade handover of power that began in November when Xi and his leadership team assumed the top positions in the Communist Party. At the end of the session, Xi will take the title of president from his predecessor as party leader, Hu Jintao.

Deputies to the National People’s Congress will rubber-stamp appointments of senior officials to the State Council, or Cabinet, to run economic and foreign policies; Xi and other party leaders finalized the personnel changes at a closed-door meeting last week. The No. 2 party leader, Li Keqiang, will become premier, the country’s top economic official.

A separate meeting of the government’s top advisory body held its opening session Sunday, with its chairman promising to support the new leadership.

The meetings of the legislature and the advisers, which will wrap up in mid-March, give the Xi administration a high-profile platform to lay out policies to build the prosperous, strong and fairer society he has talked about in his public appearances.

Xi came to power in the wake of a scandal that exposed infighting and corruption in the highest reaches of the party. Exuding a confidence and ease lacking in the remote, wooden Hu, Xi has seized on the public’s disgust over graft and its hopes for national greatness to rally support for his leadership.

“He certainly took challenges and made them opportunities,” said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “He turned them around into great expectations for him, and great hope.”

Xi visited an early testing ground for the market reforms that have transformed China into the world’s No. 2 economy to align himself with reform in broad terms, though he has given no indication of the changes he wants to make.

He stopped off at Luotuowan, 350 kilometers (200 miles) southwest of Beijing, and other farming villages to show his concern for those struggling to get by. And he has played to nationalist sentiments, taking a hard line against Japan in a long-festering territorial dispute, and touring military units to show his commitment to national defense.

Xi has disappointed some who had hoped for greater political freedom. Though he has espoused the virtues of constitutional government and the rule of law, dissidents continue to be harassed and a crackdown on self-immolation protests in Tibetan areas has only intensified.

It is fighting graft that Xi has made the signature campaign of his first three months — a popular campaign that so far featured more symbolism than action.

He launched a drive to cut out red carpets, motorcades and other official extravagance. State media touted that he preferred simple meals over the usual banquets leaders are given while on inspection tours. He has vowed to target corruption at high and low levels of power — both the “tigers” and the “flies.”

So far, it’s mostly flies that have been swatted. A slew of lower-level officials have been punished after revelations they were keeping mistresses or amassing multiple unaccounted-for properties. Its highest-level victim has been a deputy provincial party chief suspected of influence peddling and dodgy real estate deals.

Many politically minded Chinese aren’t convinced that Xi will take the painful steps needed to root out deeply embedded corruption. Eliminating graft would require an overhaul of the patronage-based political culture and restraining the party’s unchecked power.

“Will it be like the past when there was great determination expressed in speech, but ultimately no effective efforts followed to control corruption?” said Ren Jianming, an anti-corruption expert at prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. “We haven’t seen much in terms of specific measures.”

Some Chinese want the party to allow its anti-corruption watchdogs to operate independently, and to require officials to declare assets publicly. A system in place since 2010 requires some officials to report income, real estate holdings and other wealth to their superiors — not the public — but that has done little to stanch graft. A few areas in Guangdong have recently been named as testing grounds for public asset declaration.

Still, resistance to full disclosure is high within the bureaucracy and perhaps even the leadership. Bloomberg News reported in June last year that Xi’s extended family has amassed assets totaling $376 million, though it said none was traced to Xi himself.

“I believe that Xi should take the lead,” said Wang Yukai, an anti-corruption expert at the Chinese Academy of Governance, which trains provincial and ministerial-level civil servants. “Politburo Standing Committee members also need to declare information about their spouses and children. This will pave the way for future declarations.”

Many experts advocated an asset declaration mechanism when they attended a meeting called by Wang Qishan, the party’s new anti-corruption agency chief, in late November, according to Ren, who was one of the participants. Ren said Wang noted that more research needed to be done but otherwise stayed noncommittal.

“There’s now a lot of public expectation about anti-corruption work, and as the leading cadre in charge of this work, he must remain calm and rational,” Ren observed. “It’s easy to raise public expectations, but if you’re unable to meet them, then you’ll end up disappointing everyone.”


Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gillianwong

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