China’s new leaders are conservative hardliners: “Reforms will occur slowly” and other realities

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in the forefront
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in the forefront
Image: Getty Images / Feng Li
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Oceans of digital ink have been spilled in the last two days about China’s new leadership. Here is a summary of the main arguments and analyses that are trending online:

The new line up is bad news for political and economic reform. Many commentators note that most new members of the seven strong Politburo Standing Committee, led by Party boss Xi Jinping, are political conservatives who seem likely to prioritize social control over any transition to democracy. Writing in the Wall Street Journal (paywall) Russell Leigh Moses, the dean of academics and faculty at the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, says: “there’s a decidedly conservative cast,” to the new Standing Committee. He adds that because the new leadership excluded candidates that may have “carried  reform much further”, such as Guangzhou Party Chief Wang Yang, ”political restructuring is clearly on hold: Those arguing for an expansion of the Communist Party’s role—from the economy to culture, and a good deal in-between—won their places and the present day.”

On Twitter, economist Nouriel Roubini writes: “seven members of China’s SCP [Politburo Standing Committee] are cautious & conservative. Thus, reforms will occur slowly. Reformers didn’t make it to SCP or given side roles.”

The new leaders see lifting social controls as something scary. Some commentators believe the new leaders are too fearful of an uprising similar to the Arab Spring happening in China to lift controls on traditional and social media or encourage peaceful protest. ”We’re not going to see any political reform because too many people in the system see it as a slippery slope to extinction,” David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told Reuters.”They see it entirely through the prism of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring and the Colour Revolutions in Central Asia, so they’re not going to go there.”

They will probably not push through much-needed economic reforms that challenge the dominance of state-owned enterprises. In the Financial Times, Simon Rabinvitch (paywall) commented: ”Chinese officials and economists have long said the country needs to unlock consumption as a bigger driver of growth, but that is easier said than done. It will require difficult reforms, from freeing up the closely controlled financial system to curbing the overwhelming power of state-owned companies. The new leadership line-up does not appear to be the one likely to push through these difficult reforms.”

That is because the new leaders come from a faction of the Party that is entwined financially with the state enterprises. China’s new top boss Xi Jinping, and three other members of the standing committee, are part of a party faction known as the “princelings.” These are children from families of Chinese Communist revolutionaries or high-ranking officials associated with Jiang, and are often financially entwined with China’s monopolistic state-owned enterprises.  London consultancy Capital Economics also wrote in a note: ”The unveiling of China’s new leadership in the Great Hall of the People today has dented hopes of economic policy reform.” It added: “Disagreement remains on the role the state should play in the economy and on how quickly China needs to change. Vested interests stand in the way.”

The new leaders may also be too gridlocked—or consensus minded—to get anything done. As the Associated Press opines here, the seven new members of China’s highest decision-making body do not have the power to get much done either individually or collectively. Because they have to reach decisions by consensus, National University of Singapore China politics expert Zheng Yongnian tells AP, “They all have to agree, and there are too many checks on each other, so nothing gets done.”  For the Communist Party, charismatic and decisive leaders are a scary reminder of Mao Zedong’s cult of personality, AP explains, which is why the Party favors “capable administrators” over anyone with big ideas.

Chinese netizens, meanwhile,  hope the new leaders are serious about fighting graft and claim China is cursed. China’s internet censors will be closely monitoring Sina Weibo, the nation’s homegrown version of Twitter, for dissent. A search for the name of new Party leader Xi Jinping yielded a lot of tame commentary and the message: “In accordance with laws policies, some search results are not displayed.” Still, a few dissenting whispers slipped through the net.

One Weibo blogger mentioned a part of Xi Jinping’s maiden speech where he promised to battle corruption. ”I hope this isn’t just talk,” the blogger said. It is hard to talk directly on Weibo without being censored, so users often speak in code. Another  blogger signaled she was sad about the possible end of the populism and gradual democratic reform espoused by former President Hu Jintao and  his discredited deputy—Wen Jiabao. “Xi Jinping has taken power” the blogger said, before adding crying emoticons around the words “Grandpa Hu, Ah.”  The nickname indicated she was also talking about Wen, who the Chinese call “Grandpa.” Hu does not have such a nickname.

Twitter is blocked in mainland China, but can be accessed via a virtual private network connection. One Twitter user from the eastern City of Nanjing wrote: “The end of 18 Big [Chinese name for the 18th Congress] stirs up deep feelings. Has China been cursed by the gods to never achieve democracy?”