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Xi attempts communist makeover to repair image

The Washington Post

Just three weeks after taking over as his country’s top leader, Xi Jinping is trying to give Chinese communism a more common touch.

Out are the tedious discourses laden with Marxist-Leninist cliches and clunky references to “Deng Xiaoping thought” and “the Three Represents.” In are short, punchy statements marked by plain language and an informal style.

Xi signaled the change at a news conference Nov. 15, his first as the Communist Party’s general secretary, when his brief prepared remarks stood in sharp contrast to the lengthy, theory-heavy statement of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, when he took the top job in 2002. Among the differences: Xi introduced his fellow Standing Committee members as “my colleagues,” whereas Hu used the old revolutionary term “comrades.”

The more down-to-earth style, which is already affecting the way meetings are run, has now been codified in a set of eight new rules. “Official meetings should be shorter and to the point,” one of them reads, “with no empty rhetoric and rigmarole.”

The change also appears directed at the state-run media, which have long inclined to exhaustive, jargon-ridden coverage of even the most mundane activities of senior officials. Reporting on the activities of Politburo members “should be decided by its newsworthiness and should be kept as simple and clear as possible,” another new rule stipulates.

Also targeted are familiar ostentatious displays by officials, whether at home or abroad, that have become a source of derision among the public. Foreign trips will also be reduced to those absolutely necessary.

Meanwhile, top-level meetings involving official motorcades should be curtailed in the traffic-congested capital, the new rules say, and during inspection tours in the provinces, “extravagant measures are strictly forbidden” and “visits should be made as simple as possible” with “no welcome banner, no red carpet, no floral arrangement or grand receptions.”

The new guidelines were greeted positively, judging by reactions in Wednesday’s newspapers and on Weibo microblog sites.

A People’s Daily weibo report on the development was re-tweeted some 5,700 times within three hours of being posted, according to Xinhua news agency.

The new style is already being felt — or heard — in official meetings.

On Nov. 21, Li Keqiang, China’s second-ranked official and next premier-in-waiting, hosted a conference on agrarian reform. When local leaders began to read their statements as per standard practice, Li interrupted them, according to CCTV and a separate account by Xinhua.

“I’ve read all the reports,” he said. “You don’t need to read them again.” Li then peppered the attendees with specific questions on issues not covered in the written reports.

On Nov. 30, Wang Qishan, the new Standing Committee member in charge of party discipline, held a meeting with anticorruption experts that left at least one participant with “a brand-new and fresh impression.”

First, said professor Ren Jianming, Wang chaired the meeting himself, a task that an underling would have taken on in the past. Then, Ren noted, “Wang asked us to say whatever was on our minds and not just read the notes.” Finally, “he gave us time to exchange opinions.”

Wang himself spoke without notes or jargon, Ren said, and told the group that he was introducing the more open, free-flowing meeting style at the specific behest of Xi.

The new leader has already put the new style on display in public, favoring a casual look and sprinkling his official statements with everyday rhetoric.

During a U.S. tour in February, when he was vice president, Xi appeared tieless at a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game and included an advertising jingle and a line from a pop song in speeches.

While touring an exhibition in Beijing last week in an open-collared shirt and casual zippered jacket with several of his new Standing Committee colleagues, Xi gave a speech on renewing “the Chinese dream,” warning that “making empty talk is harmful to the nation.”

To some outside observers, the changes represent an effort to repair the Communist Party’s battered public image.

“It’s encouraging to see these kinds of measures,” said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington, adding the leadership appears determined to restore public confidence. “We should give them credit. This is not superficial.”

The state-controlled media seemed to agree Wednesday.

“These are not hollow slogans,” the China Daily newspaper said in its lead editorial. “They point directly at problems that estrange officialdom from the public.”