Will China’s leaders reform? I have no idea

On Thursday, the Chinese Communist Party announced the seven people who would lead the country for the next five or ten years. Helmed by Chairman Xi Jinping, they’re a mysterious bunch — the world knows very little about what they think and how they will act. But still, their ascension is very significant, and whether ...

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46531_aaaaaaa156435467.jpg
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 15: Members of the new Politburo Standing Committee Xi Jinping (Front) delivers a speech as (L-R) Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng and Wang Qishan standing at the Great Hall of the People on November 15, 2012 in Beijing, China. China's ruling Communist Party today revealed the new Politburo Standing Committee after its 18th congress. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the Chinese Communist Party announced the seven people who would lead the country for the next five or ten years. Helmed by Chairman Xi Jinping, they're a mysterious bunch -- the world knows very little about what they think and how they will act. But still, their ascension is very significant, and whether or not they decide to institute "political reform" (i.e., liberalize the party) will help determine where China goes over the next decade.

As usual, this has caused a dilemma for western newspapers: Extremely important event + extreme surfeit of information = vague headlines.

On Thursday, the Chinese Communist Party announced the seven people who would lead the country for the next five or ten years. Helmed by Chairman Xi Jinping, they’re a mysterious bunch — the world knows very little about what they think and how they will act. But still, their ascension is very significant, and whether or not they decide to institute "political reform" (i.e., liberalize the party) will help determine where China goes over the next decade.

As usual, this has caused a dilemma for western newspapers: Extremely important event + extreme surfeit of information = vague headlines.

"China’s new leadership team not expected to push drastic reform" and "Don’t expect reform from China’s new leaders" the Washington Post wrote on Thursday.

The Financial Times seemed slightly more optimistic the Friday headline, "Chinese transition leaves many questions". The subtitle was, "Change of leadership prompts reform speculation."

Granted this vagueness is better than baseless predictions, but it’s still worth noting again just how in the dark we are about elite politics in China.

Xi is slightly less than a mystery than his predecessor. Ten years ago Hu Jintao took power amid widespread bafflement about the man or his policies.  Articles in respected media outlets in 2002 expressed bafflement at the "faceless apparatchik" set to run the world’s most populous country. Hu turned out to be fairly conservative, though that took a few years to be apparent. (In the meantime, there were headlines like that of the New York Times July 2003: "China’s Leader Gives No Sign of Changes to Come".)

The most accurate prediction about Hu that I’ve seen comes from a Nov. 15, 2002 article in The New York Times:

”People think Hu will fulfill their own dreams,” said Wu Guoguang, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. ”The liberals see a reformer; the conservatives see a hard-liner. Sooner or later he will have to make some choices, and people will see his real colors. But it may take years for that to happen.”

It’s a comment worth remembering when guessing about what direction Xi will take China in his early days in office. 

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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