The Chinese Party Congress Wrap-Up: 3 Surprises

Xi Jinping's affable, plainspoken demeanor is the big story of the power transition.

A security guard watches new Communist Party General Secretay Xi Jinping speak on a screen. (Reuters)

The "Great Unveiling" of the new Chinese leadership took place as expected on November 15, and the post-mortem judgment was virtually unanimous that the final line-up reflected a "conservative" leadership stacked with more sexagenarians than what many had hoped. And as such, hopes of fundamental reforms have been dashed for now (see here, here, and here). Although the conservative vs. reformer framework always struck me as a false dichotomy, I will leave the elaboration of that subject for another time. Instead, I think the conclusion of the party congress contained three surprises, and left many questions, that are worth pondering.

Surprise 1: Jiang Zemin's return. Even though "retired" President Jiang was reportedly terminally ill several years ago, he re-inserted himself vigorously into the personnel decisions at the 11th hour. The spritely 86-year-old hardly appeared like someone who had been on his death bed, charging around the Chinese capital with a mission. Indeed, at least three of the seven members on the 18th Politburo Standing Committee turned out to be Jiang's proteges, while outgoing President Hu Jintao was only able to get one true protege, Li Keqiang, into the ruling body.

I assume now that the transition is complete, Jiang will again fade into the shadows, having accomplished what was likely his political swan song. Jiang's high-profile outing, and his ostensible success in reprising his role as a powerful patron of top personnel, seem to reinforce the prevailing view that Hu has been a weak leader. Or at the very least, he wasn't as capable politically to maneuver around the institutional interests or Jiang's continued hold on aspects of political power to achieve his objectives. Some have even interpreted Hu's reign as merely riding the wave of policy dividends and economic inertia that Deng Xiaoping and then Jiang Zemin had already unleashed.

Surprise 2: The "Hu legacy." Speculation was rife that Hu would maintain his grip on the Chinese military just as Jiang did after he formally stepped down. Yet Hu ceded the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) to new President Xi Jinping immediately, a move that took many by surprise.

One explanation for Hu simultaneously relinquishing his posts at the party and the military is that he had already stuffed the CMC with enough allies that he felt less compelled to stay. Yet this would contradict the "Hu is weak" argument if he had enough clout to influence PLA personnel decisions. Might Hu's unexpected action be a subtle revenge move against Jiang? That is, Hu's clean break can be viewed as an attempt to institutionalize the transition process, in direct contrast to Jiang's arbitrary interpretation of procedural norms and conventions by willfully extending his longevity in the seat of power and repeated interventions in personnel. In fact, as John Garnaut reports in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The security officials wanted to know about the origins of Ji [Pomin]'s animosity towards Jiang and Ji did not let them down. In Ji's view, Jiang had made China virtually ungovernable by refusing to cede full authority to his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2002.

He told me -- perhaps with some bravado -- he spent three hours lecturing his captors on how Jiang had derailed China's efforts to institutionalise its leadership successions and had paralysed China's political process, while they dutifully took notes.

Even Xi weighed in to commend Hu for his action, portraying the outgoing chairman's decision as putting the country's interets first. Hu may have been a weak politician, but he may have made a strong political statement against his predecessor and salvaged some of his legacy.

Surprise 3: Xi's likeability. Xi's first outing as the new face of China was widely applauded as positive. Perhaps it was the baritone voice or the body language suggesting a man more comfortable in his own skin, I was struck by the positive reception to Xi both within China and among foreign observers who watched. To be fair, it didn't take much for Xi to exceed what were already abysmal expectations from a public accustomed to Hu's colorlessness for a decade. Xi didn't need soaring rhetoric to impress -- moving from a robot to a human was sufficiently distinctive. What's more, Xi's capable command of proper Mandarin, unlike Hu's Anhui-dialect laced Mandarin, did not escape notice among Chinese netizens -- many of whom are of the generation in which standard Mandarin became the social norm. Without even trying, Xi projected an image, by virtue of his Mandarin skills, of a politician who is cross-generational.

Yet there seemed to be more than simply the contrast between the new leader and the one of yesteryear that impressed the Chinese public. Many noticed that not only did Xi begin his inaugural speech with an apology for the leadership's tardiness (they were 45 minutes late arriving on stage), he also specifically thanked journalists for their hard work. Whether sincere or not, in an environment in which journalists and the Communist Party do not have the best of relationships -- since the latter relishes obstructing the work of the former -- Xi's comments was a kind gesture at the very least. Even more, his speech was not larded with turgid party-speak that usually obfuscates more than it clarifies -- the Deng Xiaoping theory, three represents, and scientific outlook development that Hu was so fond of never appeared in Xi's address. Chinese weibo users clearly noticed too. Courtesy of Helen Gao again, here's a particularly popular insta-assessment from a Chinese writer Yang Hengjun:

杨恒均的微博: 评习总讲话:一,使用了一些不常在这种场合使用的语气词,亲切;二,一上来就说"让大家久等",并抱歉,三,多次提到带领党与人民、中华民族,国家、共同富裕之路,一次提到"特色",牛!四,讲话强调了从严治党。五,"人民"出现频率超高,远高于"党"。六,强调中外互相了解,并作为结束语。

(Quick translation: Assessing President Xi's speech: one, used language and diction uncommon in these occasions, appeared endearing; two, immediately apologized to everyone for being late; three, mentioned leading the party and Chinese people, Chinese nation and state toward the path of co-prosperity, only mentioned "chinese characteristics" once, badass! four, emphasized strictly dealing with party discipline and corruption; five, the word "people" appeared many more times than "party"; six, stressed mutual understanding between China and the world in conclusion.)

Indeed, segments of his speech even echoed recognizable elements in a stump speech during a U.S. election, particularly as he ticked off what Chinese people want: education, stable job, good income, reliable social security, better health-care services ... and to have a better life for ourselves and our children. Nowhere was economic growth mentioned. Another Chinese netizen with the weibo handle "pretending to be in New York" agreed with Xi's characterization:


(Quick translation: Actually most people don't have outsized expectations. They simply want a normal life -- a window can be rolled down normally in a taxi, a webpage can be opened normally, can buy a normal kitchen knife without being subject to real-name registration, eating at a normal restaurant without having to worry about "gutter oil", can buy a house through a normal process, can breath normal air ... today I heard a basically normal speech, and so there is some hope for giving normality a shot.)

In fact, when comparing Xi's speech from that of Hu 10 years ago (right column below), the annotated version above pointed out differences. Clearly, Xi had omitted virtually all theoretical jargon that appeared in the third paragraph of the Hu speech, instead refocusing on people and alluding to the party's internal problems.

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Without a doubt, Xi's first public appearance instantaneously boosted his likeability -- that perennially important trait U.S. presidential aspirants assiduously develop. It is of course easy to dismiss all of this as style over substance. But I wouldn't underestimate just how much Xi's likeability will matter to his domestic constituency in terms of governance and how the image of China may change under the princeling president who one could conceivably have a beer with.