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Beijing’s new face

Xi Jinping had a casual style on his world tour. Will his policies be different?

Written by Harsh V. Pant |
February 27, 2012 3:50:40 am

Xi Jinping had a casual style on his world tour. Will his policies be different?

This is a year of political transitions in major world capitals,engendering a sense of global anxiety when large parts of the world are facing instability,with no consensus on remedies. It is the Chinese political landscape,however,that continues to generate greater apprehensions primarily because of the opacity surrounding the process of coming leadership changes. The transition in 2012 will signify the transfer of power and authority from the fourth to the fifth generation of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. The CCP,under an onslaught for lacking accountability and becoming corrupt,has over the last decade tried to modernise itself by introducing some semblance of “intra-party democracy”. The CCP is hoping that this would be enough to stave off demands for broader political reforms.

The growth in the Chinese economy has been as remarkable as it has been contentious with the socio-economic cleavages becoming more potent than ever. One of the most modern economies of the world continues to be run by a largely centralised system derivative of Soviet-style political governance. The issue of political reform will be the most significant challenge for the next generation of Chinese leaders,and it is not entirely clear if they are prepared to take it head on. The new leadership will have to make the CCP more receptive to rapid social changes so that growing social instability does not get out of hand. Though it has been suggested that the latest transition is a much more institutionalised process than in the past,there is a growing debate in and outside China about the implications of the coming leadership handover to a new generation most of whom were born after the Chinese Revolution.

A decade ago,China’s then-Vice President Hu Jintao had visited Washington to get acquainted with the rigours of high politics. Last week,it was the turn of the heir apparent,Vice President Xi Jinping,to come out to the US and the world at large. Xi is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao in the fall,but the transition is likely to be a bit more contentious than usual. There have been attacks on officials considered children of the CCP aristocracy and Xi is one of them. Xi’s predecessors have fuelled unease by appearing to maintain a distance between themselves and ordinary Chinese citizens.

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Xi’s global tour has allowed him not only to present himself to the outside world but also to make an impression on the ordinary Chinese back home. His casual style marks him apart from his more sedate predecessor and this has gone down well with the rapidly changing Chinese populace. This was an image-building exercise and Xi came across as a poised diplomat not averse to reaching out to the wider American public. He charmed the schoolchildren in California by talking about swimming,basketball and Mission Impossible. He charmed the American hinterland by visiting a farm in Iowa. Xi seems to be getting a far greater exposure than any other Chinese leader at this stage and,significantly,he appears to be at ease in this spotlight.

On substantive issues,stock phrases were used such as “a sound and stable China-US relationship is crucial for both countries” and “we should handle economic differences through coordination based on equality,mutual benefit,mutual understanding and mutual accommodation.” But,as in the past,Xi made it clear the two nations must respect each other’s “core interests”. While welcoming the US playing a constructive role in promoting the peace,stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific,Xi underlined the US would have to “respect the interests and concerns of countries in the region,including China.”

From the US,Xi headed to Ireland,a curious choice by any measure,where he advised a crisis-ravaged nation not to “talk down” its economy and urged the Irish to trade and invest more in China. Ireland is one of the handful of nations to run a trade surplus with China. Xi’s third and final stop was Turkey where the two nations signed a three-year currency swap deal worth $1.6 billion to enable bilateral trade in local currencies. Sino-Turkish trade is expected to cross $100 billion by 2020. China has also evinced a keen interest in the Turkish energy sector with an eye to the four nuclear reactors Ankara plans to build.

So overall,the world tour of Xi Jinping seems to have succeeded in introducing the new leader and,if nothing else,in piquing the world’s interest in this new entity who will wield enormous power in the coming years. With this trip,where Xi has shown he can tackle China’s most important bilateral relationship,the CCP has showcased its unity in managing seamlessly the coming transition. The next decade will be a crucial one for both China and the world as a new generation of Chinese leadership assumes office. While Xi’s world tour has certainly acquainted him with the world,it is still too early to tell if his policies will be different,in any significant measure,from his predecessor’s.

The writer teaches at King’s College,London

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