Rachel Beitarie and Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Is Xi Jinping a Reformer? It’s Much Too Early to Tell





Rachel Beitarie is a Mid-East born and long-time Beijing-based freelance writer.  She has published extensively in Israeli publications and has also contributed to venues such as Foreign Policy, Circle of Blue, and the China Digital Times.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Professor of Chinese History at UC Irvine, the author of books such as China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2010), and co-editor of the forthcoming Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (to be published in September 2012 by the University of California Press).

Last weekend, Nicholas Kristof wrote in the pages of The New York Times that he feels moderately confident China will experience resurgent economic reform and probably political reform as well under the leadership of recently installed Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Some forecasts about China’s future are easy to dismiss. But Kristof knows the country well and we take his predictions seriously. We don’t, however, find them persuasive. Here’s why:

Kristof’s key argument is that Xi Jinping will turn out to be more deeply committed to a reform agenda than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, and he and his colleagues will move China back onto a path of economic liberalization while also loosening up the political reins. We’d like to share this optimism, but we find it hard to do so. One reason is that, as Ian Johnson’s careful New York Times piece on Xi’s career to date shows, China’s newest top leader doesn’t have a track record of making bold moves. Admittedly, leaders on upward trajectories these days often play it safe, but even within what is a generally risk-averse context, Xi’s actions have been at the cautious end of the spectrum.

The search for clues that Xi is a secret proponent of reform gives us a strange sense of déjà vu. Much of what Kristof is saying now was said about Hu Jintao a decade ago, when he was the new leader about whom we knew very little. And just as Kristof now sees it as a hopeful sign that a progressive figure is likely to be elevated to a high post in Xi’s administration, China’s outgoing premier Wen Jiabao was seen then as someone likely to keep Hu moving in liberalizing directions....




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