By NICHOLAS KRISTOF
New York Times News Service
BEIJING — Here is my prediction about China: The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer, will be released from prison.
These won’t happen immediately — Xi won’t even be named president until March — and I may be wrong entirely. But my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.
Here’s my case for Xi as a reformer.
First, it’s in his genes. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a pioneer of economic restructuring and publicly denounced the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Xi’s mother chooses to live in Shenzhen, the most capitalist enclave in the country.
Xi is also one of the first Chinese leaders to send a child to the United States as an undergraduate. His daughter is a junior at Harvard, reflecting her parents’ emphasis on learning English and their admiration for American education.
It helps that the bar is low for Xi: he follows President Hu Jintao, who is widely regarded in China as a failure. Even government ministers complain that he squandered his 10 years as leader. Today there is pent-up demand for change.
Hu, who always reads speeches from texts, is a robot who surrounds himself with robots. One such robot aide is Ling Jihua, whose 23-year-old son was driving a Ferrari one night last March with two half-naked women as passengers. The car crashed on a Beijing road, killing the young man and badly injuring the women, one of whom later died.
Ling feared a scandal and reportedly began a cover-up. He went to the morgue, according to the account I got from one Chinese official, and looked at the body — and then coldly denied that it was his son. He continued to work in the following weeks as if nothing had happened. The cover-up failed, and the episode underscored all that was wrong with the old leadership: the flaunting of dubious wealth, the abuse of power and the lack of any heart.
Xi is trying to send a message that he is different. His first act upon becoming Communist Party general secretary in November was to replicate a famous “southern tour” by Deng Xiaoping in 1992 that revived economic reforms. Xi and his team have also startled officials by telling them to stop reading empty speeches at meetings.
Another good sign: I hear that Wang Yang, a reformist who has been the party chief in Guangdong province and is perhaps the single most capable leader in China today, will be named a vice premier in March.
The new leaders would probably prefer to accelerate economic change while minimizing political relaxation, but that is increasingly difficult as China develops an educated, worldly and self-confident middle class. Over the years, most of China’s neighbors — from Taiwan to Mongolia, South Korea to Thailand - have become more democratic, and now even Myanmar is joining the parade. How can mighty China be more backward than Myanmar?
For 25 years, I’ve regularly been visiting my wife’s ancestral village in the Taishan area of southern China. At first, the villagers were semiliterate and isolated, but now their world has been transformed. On this visit, we dropped by a farmhouse where a former peasant was using the Internet to trade stocks on his laptop. His daughter is in college, and he watches Hong Kong television on a big screen.
People like him are ever harder to control or manipulate, and they’re upset by China’s worsening corruption. A couple of decades ago, a friend who is a son of a Politburo member was paid several hundred thousand dollars a year to lend his name to a Chinese company so that it could get cheap land from local governments. These days, the family members of leaders can rake in billions of dollars over time.
The 70 richest delegates to China’s National People’s Congress have a collective net worth of almost $90 billion, Bloomberg News reported. That’s more than 10 times the collective net worth of the entire U.S. Congress.
Granted, there is evidence to counter my optimistic take. Most troubling, the authorities are cracking down on the Internet. That’s a great leap backward, but I am skeptical that it will be sustained. Right now a fascinating test case is unfolding: a senior propaganda official censored a New Year’s message in a major Guangdong newspaper, and now journalists are publicly demanding that he be fired. Stay tuned.
Xi is also more nationalistic than Hu, and I worry that a confrontation with Japan over disputed islands could escalate out of control — in which case all bets are off. Still, the pre-eminent story of our time is the rise of China. For the last decade it has been hobbled by the failed leadership of Hu. I’m betting that in the coming 10 years of Xi’s reign, China will come alive again.