BEIJING – China’s Xi Jinping took over as Communist chief one year ago to calls for economic reform and faint hopes of greater political tolerance — but has focused instead on consolidating power, burnishing nationalist credentials and stifling dissent.
When Xi strode into Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Nov. 15, 2012, after being anointed in a five-yearly congress, his relaxed demeanor and open admission of problems such as party corruption hinted at the possibility of change.
But since that day, a signature of his tenure has been “the absolutely crucial importance of maintaining the absolute leadership of the Chinese Communist Party — in other words, the system will not change,” said Kenneth Lieberthal from the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
“He spent the last year amalgamating the leverage he needs — or that he hopes to have — within the system and teeing up the themes,” he said, including “making the party a more disciplined and respected organization.”
Nearly a century after its founding, the organization has ballooned from an ideological hard core to the world’s largest political party.
Many of its 85 million cadres are drawn less by Mao Zedong Thought than the benefits of membership of the ruling elite.
In a high-profile campaign, Xi vowed to crack down on rampant graft among both high-ranking “tigers” and low-level “flies.”
He has presided over the jailing for life of fallen party princeling Bo Xilai and mounted a parallel austerity drive.
The new general secretary has been “genuinely alarmed” by the “deterioration” of the institution, suggested Lieberthal.
“To try to rule through a one-party system where the party itself lacks esprit and is thoroughly corrupt is a formula for failure.”
In an apparent appeal to its history, Xi has revived practices such as “self-criticism sessions” — supervising one in Hebei province in September — while invoking the Maoist “mass line” concept of bringing the party closer to the people.
But the anti-corruption campaign has yet to involve systematic reforms that might upset powerful vested interests.
Bao Tong, a former secretary to the party’s top decision-making body turned dissident, called the effort less a genuine crackdown than a weapon to silence opponents.
“Our system is run on corruption,” he said. “If I beat 10 tigers, 100 more will come out. If I hit 100 flies, 1,000 come out. Why do they want political power? They want it in order to be corrupt.”
The campaign’s real message to party members amounted to: “If you don’t listen to me, I’ll label you as corrupt,” Bao said.
Xi — who met Barack Obama in California earlier this year — has championed a strong nationalist identity with his “Chinese Dream” catchphrase and assertive stances on territorial disputes with neighbors, particularly historic rival Japan.
Such moves may shield him from accusations of weakness among the military and public, said Scott Kennedy, a Beijing-based Chinese politics professor with the University of Indiana.
The slogan’s message is “that he supports China becoming powerful, Chinese being wealthy, that China takes its place among the rest of the world’s leaders,” he said. It is “totally undefined but it sounds very patriotic.”
Under Xi’s watch authorities have also cracked down on dissenting voices and public conversation, with police detaining an unknown number of activists — some after they called for the disclosure of officials’ assets as an anti-graft measure.
The media remain strictly censored, while high-profile bloggers and other Internet users have been warned to watch what they say.
Anyone posting social media messages that are forwarded more than 500 times or viewed over 5,000 times and later deemed “slanderous” could face three years’ jail, the Supreme Court said in September.
“There’s a long laundry list of people who have been intimidated,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert at Hong Kong Baptist University. “A lot of people thought he would be reformist but he’s opted for a very conservative drive.”
By contrast, Xi and other leaders have repeatedly pledged to reform China’s economy, whose growth is key to providing prosperity for the people.
For his first trip as party chief, he chose Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, a hub for China’s drastic “reform and opening” economic liberalization launched more than three decades earlier by Deng Xiaoping.
The country enjoyed years of breakneck growth as a result but now faces mounting pressures to restructure economically.
Xi often references Deng but at a key plenum this week — previously a venue for announcing big economic reforms — the final communique was ambivalent about future changes.
He may still be trying to steer the competing factions within the organization.
“I think what Xi Jinping is trying to do in adopting a more conservative drive is keep the party together,” Cabestan said. “They all did that,” he said, referring to previous Chinese leaders — “adapting the Communist Party to a new environment but keeping it in the driver’s seat.”