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Smiling face but the same old iron fist

Sunday, 18 November 2012 - 1:34pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

Jonathan Fenby on the daunting challenges ahead as China embarks on the Xi Jinping era.

When Xi Jinping, China's new leader, appeared in public for the first time after being appointed on Thursday, the last major world power ruled by a Communist Party gained a new, human face.

In contrast to his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who always seemed to be reciting an officially approved text, the stocky, 59-year-old Xi seemed to speak with genuine personal feeling of what needs to be done in this nation of 1.3 billion people.

He talked of people's desire for a better life, for better jobs, education and health care - and for less pollution. He flashed his chubby smile unlike the ever dour Hu. His slightly bear-like stance contrasted with the ramrod backs of the Communist Party elite standing with him on the stage in the cavernous Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

There was even an impromptu element in an unexplained hour's delay in starting this final event of the week-long Communist Party Congress which has installed the country's new leadership. Some observers with long memories of the old Soviet Union compared it to the early appearance of Mikhail Gorbachev as he sought to move the USSR towards a more relaxed and responsible system. But any comparison with Gorbachev would be an anathema to Xi and his colleagues - Gorbachev is a dirty name in China as the man who relaxed the party's grip and brought disaster down upon it.

Therein lies the basic paradox as China moves into the Xi Jinping era.

On the one hand, its leaders acknowledge the major challenges facing them but, on the other, they are extremely reluctant to alter the power structure or the reliance on economic growth that have produced many of these problems.

They fear political reform would bring the whole edifice tumbling down, Gorbachev style. They stress party unity above all, particularly since the drama surrounding the fall of the maverick politician, Bo Xilai, after the mysterious death of the British businessman Neil Heywood in his south-western fiefdom of Chongqing - but whose real sin was to have challenged the consensus machine that runs the People's Republic.

The bureaucracy and powerful vested interests, especially in the huge state sector of the economy, oppose reform that could affect their privileged positions. Popular protests, some 150,000 a year, have been met by an expansion of spending on state security, now larger than the military budget. Media are tightly controlled and censors patrol the internet.

While individual liberties have greatly increased, anybody who tries to organise political opposition is likely to end up in jail. Xi may smile for the cameras but this remains an iron-fisted regime which has control in all forms at its heart.

Yet, outside the serried ranks of delegates in the Great Hall of the People last week, everyday life went on in a way that takes as little account as possible of the ruling autocracy. Rather than Communism or Confucianism, the "ism" that rules in today's China is materialism. Having had a terrible 30 years under Mao, the Chinese have grasped the opportunities of market-led economic reform with both hands.

Their consumption has become a major force in driving the world economy.

They see life in down-to-earth terms of material betterment, epitomised by the young woman who said on a television dating show that she would "rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle".

Economic growth has changed society radically. Social media runs rings round the censors. Corruption and poorly enforced safety standards, notably for food, have bred widespread cynicism and distrust.

When a magazine reporter asked primary school children what they wanted to be when they grew up, most said they dreamed of becoming rich business people, pop idols or sports stars. But one six year-old replied that she wanted to be an official. "What kind of official?" the journalist asked. "A corrupt official because they have all the nice things," came the reply.

Chinese leaders may extol the riches of their country's culture and civilisation but they often send their children to study abroad - Xi's daughter is at Harvard under a pseudonym and Bo's son also studied there after Harrow and Oxford.

The disjunction between the opaque, hermetically-sealed one-party system and this rapidly evolving society is the main challenge for the regime. For all his apparent normality on Thursday, Xi's steady rise through the ranks of the provincial bureaucracy to power at the centre as Communist Party general secretary is symptomatic of how things actually work in China.

This is not the meritocracy that China enthusiasts proclaim as being superior to messy Western democracy. You only move up the ladder in China if you belong to the party, and that covers only six per cent of the population. How you rise certainly depends on your performance, but also on your contacts.

Friends describe Xi, the son of a revolutionary general, as "supremely pragmatic and a realist" and also as "exceptionally ambitious".

What was the key to his rise to the top? He is a man with whom the various interest groups on the Chinese totem pole feel comfortable, the consensus choice in a regime that has evolved from the wild adventurism of the Mao era into a management system that happens to be running a country of 1.3 billion people rather than a big company.

We know something of his personal life. He likes American war films because the good guys win. He exercises by swimming. His first marriage broke down and his second wife, Peng Liyuan, is a highly popular folk singer, who is a major-general in the army entertainment corps but who retreated from the limelight as her husband rose.

She says she picked him for his "inner qualities", and describes him as frugal, hard working and down to earth.

Having followed a conventional route to the top within the party bureaucracy, Xi is unlikely to go off message. Though he is now the top man in an autocratic system, the dictatorship which rules China is that of the Communist Party and its state, not that of an individual - and the party state is a complex animal.

The jigsaw of powers encompasses the political machine, reaching down from the leadership compound beside the imperial Forbidden City in Beijing to every village in the land.

All companies of any size have a communist cell which has to approve important decisions. The bosses of big state enterprises, who have on their desks a "red telephone" connecting them to party officials, are as powerful as ministers. The party runs its own discipline commission, which can pick up people at will and hold them for six months without charge in a secret location.

The national military force is called the People's Liberation Army (PLA) but is, in fact, a tool of the party - the chairman of its supervisory commission is the communist general secretary and powerful political commissars ensure it is kept in line.

But the power structure can no longer simply assert its will, as it did under Mao and in the massacre of hundreds of protesters and ordinary citizens in Beijing on June 4, 1989, when the regime used the PLA against its own people around Tiananmen Square.

China's people are no longer marching to the beat of a single party drum - not to mention the dozens of Tibetan monks who have burned themselves to death this year to show their rejection of Chinese rule.

So Xi has a tricky task ahead of him at home while abroad he has to work out how to deal with Beijing's scratchy relationship with Washington under the second Obama administration and faces an array of disputes with other East Asian states, including Japan. The new leadership's main concern is domestic, yet China's growth inspires shock and awe, leading some to see it ruling the world.

Never have so many people been pulled out of absolute poverty in such a short space of time. But behind that achievement lie the problems Xi pointed to on Thursday - and many more he did not identify.

The economy, though still growing much faster than in the West, is slowing down and needs rebalancing towards consumption and away from infrastructure, property and exports - a tricky process when the population has grown accustomed to runaway expansion.

The country's unique system of bureaucratic capitalism and a command economy has staved off the bad consequences that orthodox economics has repeatedly forecast. But that has come at a high price for its citizens.

For them the powerbroking at the congress was irrelevant. Growing wealth, albeit unevenly distributed, has spawned a new society which the regime is hard put to contain.

Xi will need his popular touch in the years to come; his problem is that, as a child of the system, he is likely to be unwilling, and probably ill-equipped, to steer the country's further evolution to the fairer, more relaxed society that would provide the safety valves needed to avoid the upheavals which have marked so much of China's turbulent history.

Jonathan Fenby is author of Tiger Head, Snake Tails; China Today


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