Doubt surrounds China's new leader

Xi Jinping could either be a forerunner for reform or another conservative leader.

Chinese Vice president Xi Jinping was appointed China's new leader at the helm of a revamped top power circle that will face the tricky task of setting the planet's second-largest economy on a new course. Picture: AFP.

BEIJING - When Xi Jinping became the new leader of China's Communist Party two months ago, hopes were high for reform in the giant nation. But despite what appears to be sensitive handling of a strike by journalists and a challenge to Beijing's tight control of the press, signs of change seem tentative.

Xi's commitment to reform, or lack of it, will come into sharper focus over the next few months, in particular after he officially assumes the presidency in March at a session of the National People's Congress, the country's rubber-stamp parliament.

Among the key signposts that analysts say could give Chinese citizens and global investors a sense of the new government's commitment to change: whether the resolution of a standoff at a prominent newspaper leads to an easing of press restrictions; whether the government moves quickly to address the rights of China's migrant workers; and whether Xi follows through on ending the country's notorious "re-education through labour" camps.

Xi himself has fanned expectations of change with rhetoric about "national rejuvenation," vows to crack down on corruption and a down-to-earth public style that stands in contrast to the remote, forbidding demeanour of his predecessors.

From a trip to Guangdong province akin to Deng Xiaoping's famous "southern tour" in 1992 - which re-ignited China's economic opening - to a speech calling for the rule of law in mid-December on the 30th anniversary of China's constitution, Xi has kindled hopes that he might pursue a broad swathe of reforms -- economic, legal and political.

"It is evident that the new leaders want to get things done and have done things differently from previous administrations," said a source with close ties to the leaders.

But to date, for all the ostensible desire for change, Xi and the new leaders have precious little to show for it. China has one of the most regimented political systems in the world, and the writ of the Communist Party remains supreme.

At the November party congress in which Xi and his team were officially unveiled, there was talk of reform. But maintaining stability was the over-arching theme.

Xi's defenders argue that expectations of swift, significant change are premature. His prime minister, Li Keqiang, doesn't officially form a government until the parliament session in March.

For now, ambiguity prevails. "In intellectual debate, both the left and the right, conservatives and liberals, think Xi Jinping will be on their side", says Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution.

"But in half a year, or one year, I think one group will be disappointed."

Sceptics say there are few convincing signs of even impending change.

"There is a scent of this (reform). Everyone has detected the aroma. But if you ask, is there really rain? Is there really wind? I don't think so," said Chen Ziming, an independent political commentator in Beijing.