China's Xi Amasses Power to Tackle Grim Challenges

By Gillian Wong 4 March 2014

BEIJING — Xi Jinping looks more powerful than any Chinese leader in recent decades as his government prepares to deliver its first one-year report card Wednesday, but a deadly weekend slashing spree by alleged separatists was a reminder of the serious challenges facing his administration.

In recent weeks, Xi has put himself in charge of three policy-setting panels: a new top-level party committee focused on steering state security, a panel on driving sweeping economic reforms, and another on cybersecurity. Meanwhile, he has burnished his populist image with unannounced public strolls to mix with ordinary folks and provide photos ops.

The moves come as Xi tries to better position the Communist Party to respond to grave challenges that test his leadership. Key among them is escalating ethnic unrest in the far west that spread to a southern city on Saturday in an attack that killed 29 people. The party also needs to tackle entrenched obstacles to tough economic reforms, slowing growth and rising territorial tensions with neighbors.

When the annual session of the largely rubberstamp legislature opens this week, the administration is expected to sum up its response to these and other challenges, and outline next steps. Premier Li Keqiang delivers the administration’s work report to the National People’s Congress on Wednesday.

Only a little over a year in office, Xi is already seen as having consolidated more power than his predecessors. His leadership roles in the three policy-setting panels give him influence over police, intelligence and military operations, the reform effort and Internet controls.

He’s also waged an expansive anti-corruption campaign that has felled high-level officials around the country, winning him kudos from the public.

“Xi Jinping is a man in a bit of a hurry who really wants to do something,” said Steve Tsang, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham. “The general secretary of the party is using the party to take control and deliver.”

Xi’s moves make him a more aggressive leader than his predecessor Hu Jintao, regarded as bland and increasingly weak toward the end of his decade in power while stymied by factional infighting. Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, also was regarded as merely a “first among equals” in the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power.

As head of the state security committee, Xi will be better placed to command law enforcement agencies in responding to emergencies such as those involving a simmering anti-Chinese rebellion among the Turkic-speaking Uighur (pronounced WEE’-gur) ethnic minority in Xinjiang. Tensions spread to Kunming, a city more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) southeast of the region, on Saturday when assailants went on a slashing rampage at a train station.

Few details about the committee have been released other than that it is headed by Xi, with the country’s No. 2 and No. 3 leaders as his deputies, making it a law enforcement coordination super-agency with unprecedented powers.

“On the one hand the events in Kunming show that the current security apparatus was not doing its job properly. At the same time, Xi Jinping could use this as a justification to convince the NPC of the need to set up this monster organization,” Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Even as he amasses power, Xi has also been tirelessly fashioning himself as a man of the people — a challenge for someone who as the offspring of the party’s revolutionary elite enjoys “princeling” status.

He visited a subway control room in Beijing last week and called on factory workers, one of whom was moved to tears. He strolled along traditional alleyways and chatted with residents in their living rooms, asking them afterward if they wanted “a group photo.”

“I grew up near here, so today I’m here to see the old neighborhood,” Xi said.

Last month, he put on padded winter military fatigues and braved frigid temperatures and deep snow to shake hands with army troops patrolling China’s border with Mongolia.

Hu Xingdou, a political economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said Xi’s appearances generate enthusiastic coverage by Chinese state media not because Xi is trying to build a personality cult, but simply because he’s much more congenial than his predecessors.

“It is clear that Xi wants a certain kind of authority, otherwise it will be difficult for him to get his policies carried out,” Hu said.

Experts said Xi’s confidence is unlikely to change the basic way China is ruled — by a collective leadership. Their consensus-based decision-making at the highest levels has been seen as the best way to prevent a party chief from becoming a dictator.

“Certainly, he has the guts to do some things that some other leaders, collective leaders, would not do,” said Cheng Li, aChina expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

“But the goal is not to change the nature of the collective leadership and return to strong man politics, it only makes him able to be quite bold and tough and try to get things done,” Li said.

Among things the party needs to tackle: curb corruption, push market reforms and clean up polluted waterways and choking smog.

In November, the party released a sweeping reform plan to rejuvenate the state-dominated economy. The blueprint for the coming decade also pledged legal, social and other improvements, such as giving more property rights to farmers and curbing the use of torture to extract confessions.

Xi has acknowledged the difficulties.

“In facing problems that have already appeared or might appear in the reform process, difficulties must be overcome one by one, problems must be solved one after another,” he said at a reform panel meeting in January.

“Have both the courage to make a move as well as be adept at responding to moves, so as to be ‘swift and steady.’”