Is Xi really making a difference? – Ian Johnson

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Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson

Compared to his predecessor Hu Jintao, China seems on the move under president Xi Jinping. But is he really. Journalist Ian Johnson wonders in the New York Review of Books after three years of Xi rule whether under the cosmetic moves, so much is changing.

Ian Johnson:

But rather than significant innovation, Xi’s overriding goal seems to be preserving the ossified system he inherited when he came to power in 2012. Fundamentally this means state control over most of the economy and society. The state dominates the most important industrial sectors, especially heavy industry and natural resources. The state controls political life and permits no meaningful dissent. The state guides social life. It allows non-governmental organizations but only as providers of services, not as advocates of social change. The idea of a vibrant, critical civil society is unacceptable. As technological innovations arise, for example in social media, free zones may appear, but the state will do everything in its power to close these down.

From the time of his first major appointment in 1982, Xi has worked as a politically savvy organization man. His goal has been to recreate the early years of Communist rule in the early to mid-1950s when his father was part of the ruling elite. Back then, according to official mythology, the party was clean and officials were upright, and the populace was content. Returning to this imagined past means strengthening, not weakening party control.

If we briefly survey Xi’s actions over the past three years, we can see this as the primary goal of his reforms. Most obvious and probably the most disappointing for optimists is the economy. A year after Xi took power, he unveiled an economic reform plan that some heralded as the most ambitious since Deng first announced economic liberalization in the late 1970s.

But three years on, most of Xi’s changes—such as incremental bank rate liberalizations or opening the stock market a bit wider to foreign investors—can more properly be viewed as technocratic tinkering. It’s true that a lot of small repairs can lead to an overhaul, but only if the changes are part of a broader plan with a clear goal. There has been no indication that such a plan exists—at least not one that would lead to a more open economy.

More in the New York Review of Books.

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Anti-corruption is one of the features Xi Jinping has put firmly on the political agenda. Ian Johnson discusses its impact on foreign firms.