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Barely a month after becoming party secretary, Xi Jinping has been busy showing who’s in charge. He has stepped up a crackdown on corruption, ordered officials to cut down on pomp and ceremony, called for improved relations with the rest of the world, and pushed for a stronger military. On his first official trip outside Beijing, Xi, who should assume the presidency in March, visited the freewheeling province of Guangdong, where he met with entrepreneurs and called for speedier economic reform. There he evoked the vision of paramount leader Deng Xiao-ping, who launched China’s opening to the world some 30 years ago and who traveled to Guangdong in 1992 to energize reforms.
After a decade of relative stasis under outgoing leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, many China watchers are surprised and encouraged by Xi’s boldness. “For Xi to do so much so quickly is quite unprecedented. In the one-party system everyone is supposed to give the feeling that all is continuity and passing the baton. It is almost impolite to make changes too quickly,” says Robert Lawrence Kuhn, author of How China’s Leaders Think.
Reining in corruption seems to be the top goal. “Corruption could kill the party and ruin the country,” Xi warned top leaders in a meeting on Nov. 18, reported the official English-language China Daily. Under Xi’s watch, state media are encouraging whistle-blowers to use the Internet to report graft. The government has announced a trial program in Guangdong that will require officials and their families to report their assets regularly. Xi also has ordered the investigation of a senior provincial official in Sichuan suspected of financial improprieties. “The government is placing a lot more officials under scrutiny now,” says David Kelly, research director at China Policy, a Beijing-based research and advisory company. “But the question is not just whether individual officials are corrupt. It is an endemic problem.” He cites as an example the practice of government positions being sold, a problem highlighted in a recent report by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
Xi’s order that officials should limit the lavish displays that usually accompany their public appearances is meant to show that the leadership is more in tune with the people. “You can give an edict like this, and there will be visible changes immediately,” says Kuhn. “The hope is that people will see them and that will give the leaders street cred so they can continue working on harder things.” Xi has also mandated that government meetings be shorter and that “empty talk”—jargon-laden and long-winded speeches—be avoided, according to a commentary by the official Xinhua News Agency on the new rules.
Xi is more comfortable than Hu in dealing with his foreign counterparts, says Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He exudes confidence,” says Paal, who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In a December meeting with foreign scholars working in China, Xi stressed the need for closer relations with the world, saying no country “can go it alone or outshine others in today’s complex global economy,” Xinhua reported.
Xi’s strong ties with an assertive military (his father was a venerated revolutionary guerrilla, and Xi once served as an assistant to an important defense official) could create friction with Asia and the U.S. Since becoming head of the central military commission, a post he assumed when he became party secretary, Xi has met with top brass and promoted to full general the commander of the Second Artillery Corps, which is responsible for China’s nuclear arsenal. “The People’s Liberation Army has been ordered to build a powerful missile force,” reported Xinhua on Dec. 5.
Any of Xi’s efforts to stamp out corruption or weaken the clout of state-owned enterprises are likely to run up against well-entrenched business elites. These include the so-called princelings, the offspring of senior leaders. “Of course Xi wants to send a message saying ‘I will follow Deng Xiaoping’s reform,’ ” says Bo Zhiyue, a professor and senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore. “But that in itself doesn’t mean anything.” Bo cites Premier Wen Jiabao as an official who stressed the importance of reform but accomplished little. “In China, being a reformer is politically correct. Everyone is a reformer because they have to be.”
The bottom line: Even before assuming the presidency, Xi Jinping has signaled he’ll be aggressive about reforms.