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Don’t expect big changes from new leadership in China

C.-Cindy-FanC. Cindy Fan is interim vice provost for international studies at UCLA's International Institute, and a professor of geography. She is the author of “China on the Move.” Her op-ed originally appeared in the New York Times on Nov.23, 2012 as part of a series of op-eds about what Xi Jinping's ascension means for China.

Nine days after Americans re-elected President Obama to a second term, China’s latest leadership succession was formalized during its 18th Party Congress when Xi Jinping replaced Hu Jintao as leader of the Communist Party. The processes of selection in the two countries could not have been more different. After grueling campaigns that had started in early 2011 and record-breaking spending estimated at $6 billion, Americans did not know until the evening of Nov. 6 who would be their president for the next four years. On the contrary, Xi did not campaign for even one day. His taking over on Nov. 15 was nothing more than a fait accompli of closed-door negotiations, the result of which was known as early as 2007.
Speaking to reporters and on live television, Xi’s first public speech as general secretary was important for what was said as well as what wasn’t said. Its brevity — 20 minutes compared with Hu’s speech two weeks ago that lasted 100 minutes — was a departure from convention, so was the absence of slogans and reference to any isms and past leaders. In that sense, Xi has already taken a bold step to break from stylistic traditions and open the door to a new form of official communication that is free from ceremonial baggage.
What was said could be summarized by something I'll call the "three p's" — the party, the people and problem-solving. Xi pointed out that corruption was one of the Communist Party’s major problems. The solution, he argued, lied in discipline and strictness. Given the Bo Xilai scandal, which overshadowed Chinese politics this year, it was no surprise that Xi stressed that the party would not tolerate corruption and would instead meet it with severe penalty.
Consistent with a straightforward speaking style, Xi identified people’s well-being — in terms of education, jobs, social protection, healthcare, housing and environment — as the Communist Party’s responsibility. Insofar as all of the above are potentially real sources of unrest, Xi’s speech emphasized the problem-solving function of the party. Clearly, the ability to solve problems, much more than sustaining some sort of ideological leadership, is now the key to the Communist Party’s legitimacy.
Critics of Xi’s speech pointed to the absence of the fourth "p," namely, political reform. Unlike in the United States, where politics is the leading story among the news media, Chinese politics is largely behind the scenes. Any changes remotely resembling political openness are likely to be subtle, gradual and conveyed by symbolisms like a no-frill, problem-oriented speech rather than an explicit declaration of political reform. In that sense, Xi is merely continuing the incrementalism — as opposed to the shock therapy characterizing central and eastern Europe — that marked the transition from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin and from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. A breath of fresh air, it seems; a break from the past, I doubt it.
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