Xi Jinping’s “Southern Tour” Reignites Promises of Reform

General Secretary Xi Jinping on his "Southern Tour"

General Secretary Xi Jinping has lost no time in reassuring the world that his Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration will not only persevere with reforms championed by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping but also “initiate new paths.” Shenzhen, the special economic zone (SEZ) that is synonymous with the country’s 34-year-old era of reform and the open door, was the first city that Xi inspected after becoming party chief and Chairman of the Central Military Commission on November 15. While China’s intellectuals generally have responded positively to Xi’s early commitment to economic reform, many doubt whether anything substantial will be accomplished in the more controversial field of political liberalization.

The symbolism of Xi’s five-day visit to Shenzhen, Guangzhou and other Guangdong cities is particularly significant in light of widespread criticism in the foreign press that the seven-man CCP Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) is stacked with conservatives, such as former vice-premier Zhang Dejiang and former Director of the CCP Propaganda Department Liu Yunshan. The Shenzhen SEZ is not only the brainchild of Deng but also that of Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun (1913–2002), the late vice premier who was Guangdong governor and party secretary from 1978 to 1981. A close ally of reformist General Secretary Hu Yaobang’s (1915–1989), Xi Zhongxun not only turned Guangdong into an “experimental zone” for economic reform but also was praised for his tolerant policies toward outspoken intellectuals who criticized Chairman Mao’s excesses during the Cultural Revolution. Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang accompanied  General Secretary Xi when he arrived in Shenzhen on December 7. Xi underscored his personal affiliation with the “ahead-of-the-times” province by paying a brief visit to his 86-year-old mother Qi Xin, who is a long-time Shenzhen resident (Ming Pao, [Hong Kong] December 8, South China Morning Post, December 8). At one stroke, Xi has laid claim to being the successor of the CCP’s reformist wing that was once headed by luminaries such as Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang and Xi Zhongxun.

On the second day of his visit, Xi laid a wreath at the Deng Xiaoping Statue in Lotus Hill Park. “The reform and open-door policy that the party central authorities decided upon [in 1978] was correct,” the 59-year-old supremo told local cadres, “Henceforward, we will continue down this correct path.” Xi added “Not only will we unswervingly take the road that brings wealth to the country and the people but we will also break new ground.” Xi also expressed his wish that Shenzhen and Guangdong would “make an even bigger contribution” to the reform enterprise. As though to underscore his status as Deng’s heir, Xi made it a point to see four long-retired officials who had accompanied the Chief Architect of Reform on his famous “South Tour” (nanxun) in the summer of 1992. They included two former party bosses of Shenzhen, respectively Wu Nansheng, age 90, and Li Hao, age 86, as well as the former party boss of the nearly Zhuhai SEZ Liang Guangda, age 77 and deputy secretary general of the Guangdong Provincial Committee, Chen Kaizhi, age 72 (Shenzhen Special Zone Daily, December 9; Phoenix TV [Hong Kong], December 9; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong] December 9).

On December 9, Xi took part in an economics-focused seminar with Guangdong cadres as well as leading entrepreneurs in the provincial capital of Guangzhou. The discussion centered on how Chinese industry could maintain its momentum in the face of the global financial uncertainties and increasing competition from emerging markets. “We must resolutely and unhesitatingly push forward systematic innovation and technological innovation,” he said, “We must implement the strategy of using innovation to drive development, and push forward structural changes in economic development.” The party chief also repeated pledges made by other leaders such as President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao about “deepening reform, perfecting the systems of the market economy, changing the functions of the government and strengthening rule by law,” which Xi summed up in this way: “The reforms will not stop and the pace of opening up will not slacken” (Xinhua, December 11; China News Service, December 10; People’s Daily, December 10).

While Xi has given Chinese citizens and the global audience no details regarding what innovative measures his administration is due to undertake, he and his PBSC colleagues have at least tried to boost the transparency of the official functions of senior cadres. The Politburo decided during their first meeting on December 4 that top officials including PBSC members should minimize disruptions to the public while performing public duties. “Traffic controls should be decreased,” the Politburo announcement said, “There should be no sealing off of roads under general conditions. Nor should [ordinary people] be barred from places and buildings that [the cadres] are visiting” (People’s Daily, December 4; China News Service, December 4). Shenzhen and Hong Kong papers have reported that many Shenzhen residents were able to wave at, and occasionally even talk to, Xi from surprisingly close distances. Moreover, although it has been standard practice for the official media not to release information about inspection trips made by PBSC members until after their departure, photographs and brief reports of Xi’s Guangdong outing appeared in selected official newspapers and websites not long after his arrival in the southern province (Global Times [Beijing], December 9; Yangtze.com [Nanjing], December 9).

Chinese scholars have given relatively affirmative appraisals to Xi’s nanxun. According to well-regarded historian Zhang Lifan, Xi has departed from the tradition of newly-appointed general secretaries making their first inspection trips to “red revolutionary meccas,” such as the Jinggangshan guerrilla base in inland Jiangxi Province. Zhang noted “Xi’s trip is a gesture of support for the line of reform and the open door.” Hu Xingdou, a scholar at the Beijing Institute of Technology and a noted social critic, said he viewed Xi’s future moves with “guarded optimism.” Professor Hu said “It seems that both Xi Jinping and [premier-in-waiting] Li Keqiang are firm supporters of reform…Yet reform is not that easy because of the constraints imposed by vested interest groups. Just look at the fate of the ambitious reforms introduced by Hu [Jintao] and Wen [Jiabao] in 2003” (Apple Daily, December 9; Hu Xingdou’s Microblog, December 7).

It is also significant that Xi’s nanxun took place in the wake of at least three major post-18th Congress forums on reform that were organized by the Caijing news group, the Hong Kong-registered Bo Yuan Foundation and Beijing-based Reform Journal. Participants included such nationally renowned reformers as Hu Deping, the son of Hu Yaobang; legal scholar Jiang Ping; and veteran economist and government advisor Wu Jinglian. Speaking at one of the conferences, Hu Deping suggested the CCP could not afford to further postpone political liberalization. “The 18th Party Congress has started a good trend [for reform]” he pointed out, “Whether this trend will continue depends on all of us.” Renmin University jurist Jiang Ping, who is often dubbed “the father of China’s legal reform,” urged the new leadership “to immediately build [political] institutions so as to ensure the rule of law in society.” Wu Jinglian, a long-time advocate of free market forces, noted the Xi leadership had taken the first right step by “reinstating the agenda of reform and getting ready the resumption of reform.” Wu pointed out that the administration must speedily “complete the construction of a competitive market economy.” Wu added that in light of the resistance of powerful interest groupings, there also must be far-reaching political and institutional reforms. He quoted Deng’s famous adage: “Economic reform cannot succeed without political reform” (Ifeng.com [Beijing], December 4; Caijing.com.cn [Beijing], November 29; Sohu.com [Beijing], November 29).

There is no evidence that Xi’s nanxun was connected to these forums of the nation’s leading liberal intellectuals. Shortly before the Congress, however, he did seek the advice of progressive officials and scholars such as Hu Deping on the next step of reform. The marathon “airing of views” (biaoti) by the nation’s most prominent public intellectuals also could be interpreted as an effort to lobby the new administration (Ming Pao, October 24; Central News Agency [Taipei], October 23). There are, however, very little signs that significant steps are about to be taken in the area of political reform.

Take, for instances, the treatment of party critics and public intellectuals, which has remained a litmus test of Beijing’s commitment to liberalization. On December 10, more than 100 petitioners and Internet activists gathered outside the UN Office in Beijing to mark International Human Rights Day. They were hustled away quickly by the near-ubiquitous security personnel in the capital. The spouses and relatives of dissidents continue to be subject to frequent harassment and 24-hour surveillance. After Liu Xia, the wife of jailed Nobel Prizewinner Liu Xiaobo, complained last week that she was living under virtual house arrest, 15 Nobel laureates issued a statement calling for the unconditional release of the Liu couple. Late last month, Chen Guangfu—the nephew of world-famous human rights lawyer Cheng Guangcheng—was sentenced to three years in jail for having injured a local official in his Shandong Province hometown. Chen, who arrived in the United States in May after seeking political asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, said in New York that his relative’s imprisonment was in effect a punishment for himself (Cable TV [Hong Kong], December 10; Apple Daily, December 5; Hong Kong Economic Journal, December 2). Nor is it likely that Beijing’s tough tactics toward Tibet and Xinjiang will be relaxed soon. Xinhua reported in early December that a Sichuan-based monk and his nephew were arrested for allegedly instigating the self-immolations of eight Tibetans in the western province. The detained monk, Lorang Konchok, who lives in the predominantly Tibetan county of Aba, was accused of “colluding” with the Dalai Lama’s exiled government (China News Service, December 9, Xinhua, December 9).

Little progress is seen even regarding the relatively limited goal of building viable institutions to curb corruption, which former General Secretary Hu referred to last month as “a matter of life and death for the party and state.” Perhaps to underscore its commitment to nabbing so-called “tigers among corrupt cadres,” the Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission (CDIC)—China’s highest-level graft-busting office that is headed by new PBSC member Wang Qishan—swung into action immediately after the Party Congress by detaining the Deputy Party Secretary of Sichuan Li Chuncheng for alleged “economic crimes.” Moreover, the disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai, who will be put on trial early 2013 for alleged crimes including corruption, is expected to get a hefty jail term. There are, however, few indications that the CDIC is about to put into place regulations and institutions to combat graft. A long-standing proposal that all senior cadres must publicly disclose their assets—as well as those of their spouses and children—has remained on the drawing board (Caijing.com.cn, December 5; Hong Kong Economic Times, December 5; Global Times, November 26). Other measures such as empowering the media to expose the business activities of princelings—the children of senior cadres and party elders—also are unlikely to be adopted.

As legal scholar Jiang Ping noted, the window of opportunity for political reform is getting narrower by the day. Jiang pointed out that the last five years amounted to a “golden juncture” for rolling out real reforms. “Yet it is most disappointing that nothing much was done” by the Hu-Wen administration, Jiang said. He added that the next five years would be critical for the future of reform and the fate of the nation. Jiang warned “If this opportunity is lost again, the future of China will be in very dire straits” (Chinacourt.org [Beijing], December 6; Sina.com [Beijing], November 29). The onus is on Xi and his PBSC colleagues to demonstrate whether they have what it takes to be the worthy successors of the Great Architect of Reform.