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China’s New Emperor Xi Jinping

China’s New Emperor Xi Jinping

The reform agenda will decide his future

On March 17, National People’s Congress of China reappointed Xi Jinping as China’s president with no limit on the number of terms he can serve. The NPC also appointed former top graft-buster and a close Xi ally Wang Qishan to the formerly ceremonial post of vice president. Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, was given the right to continue in office indefinitely after the legislature scrapped term limits for the president and vice president only a week earlier. Throned as a lifetime president, Mr Xi is now expected to expand his long-running campaign against corruption within the party to include all state employees through the creation of a new National Supervisory Commission. He will also continue his ambition to implement a foreign policy and policies to upgrade the slowing economy.

The abolition of the two-term limit on China’s presidency caused a seismic shock across the world and sparked a global debate on the revival of strongman politics in the world’s second-largest economy. The issue has also dominated coverage of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, which concluded a two-week session in march.

The argument in support of the audacious move by Xi Jinping, the president, is basically that “everything must change so that everything can stay the same”. In other words, it is the offer of a safe pair of hands to push forward much discussed and delayed economic reforms to fulfil Mr Xi’s goal of “national rejuvenation”.

While the dizzying pace of Mr Xi’s changes have kept analysts busy trying to work out what kind of China he wants to lead, observers should be aware that the full effects of his new profile will take time to emerge. Nevertheless, some strands are becoming clearer.

Judging by the results of this conclave, Mr Xi’s policy agenda continues to be marked by multiple distinct elements. Ideological repression, institutional reshuffles and great power ambitions internationally coexist with an ongoing campaign against corruption within the Party.

But looking ahead, two benchmarks are likely to be used to assess Mr Xi’s record in comparison to that of his predecessors; Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, both former Communist party leaders.

First, it will be the economy on which Mr Xi’s reputation endures or falls. China’s eventual economic transformation from low-cost manufacturing to an innovative technology power remains at the top of Mr Xi’s priorities.

In this area, the direction of Mr Xi’s economic governance is not likely to change despite the term limits being lifted. He continues to stress “mitigating major financial risks” and “state-owned enterprises reform”; two intertwined elements he largely failed to deliver during his first five-year tenure under a policy called “supply side reform”.

The likely appointments of Liu He as vice-premier and a new governor of the central bank will provide the driving force within Mr Xi’s administration for economic restructuring for the better. Both of them will have their reputations determined by the successful implementation of this agenda.

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