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China

Xi Jinping's policies are still unknown

He's been party leader since November. Now Xi Jinping is to be anointed head of state by China's National People's Congress - but it's still not clear where he stands on the issues.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

In March of every year, the National People's Congress - China's parliament that generally unanimously ratifies the decisions of the Communist Party of China - convenes. This time, there's a special task awaiting the nearly 3,000 delegates: They must approve a change of leadership at the very top of the country.

Top positions within the party were already assigned during the 18th party convention last November. It now remains for the Chinese parliament to officially elect the new head of the party, Xi Jinping, as president of the state. Besides that, individual positions within the government - called the the state council - also require the delegates' symbolic assent.

Behind closed doors

Deputies at the fourth session of the 11th National Peoples Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

The National People's Congress is considered to be a rubber-stamp parliament

It's one of the peculiarities of the political system in China that the presidential candidate doesn't need to run an election campaign. He is, after all, not elected by the people, rather chosen instead by the previously hand-picked delegates of the People's Congress. China's communist party makes all its personnel decisions behind closed doors.

Xi therefore didn't have to tell the public what kind of politics he stands for, and what positions he has towards China's diverse problem areas. As a result, very little is known about the 59-year-old.

In 2008, Xi was elected vice president. Ever since then, he has been seen as the designated successor of Hu Jintao, who is now stepping down from his political offices. Despite that, it was not Xi, but his wife who is already known to the Chinese public: Peng Liyuan is a well-known folk singer.

Symbolic politics

Even China-watchers like Tübingen's Günter Schubert have found it difficult to determine from Xi's appearances in recent months what to expect from China's new party leader and head of state.

"He has tried to note in several public speeches over the last few months that China needs a new reform process, new reforms in the economic sector. But that is still in the realm of the symbolic and has not brought forth any concrete policy," Schubert said in an interview with DW.

Xi has apparently put the battle against corruption high on the agenda. In fact, during the last quarter, several dozen high-ranking officials - including as high as a provincial deputy party leader - have lost their positions. Such campaigns, however, had been carried out under the previous leadership on a regular basis; even the rhetoric is similar.

Xi is simultaneously trying to cultivate an image of modesty and take action against governmental waste, such as at official banquets. He is demonstratively content with "four dishes and a soup," something like a main menu with three side dishes plus a soup in Western cuisine.

The public is angry about the mountains of expensive specialties with which party bosses frequently fill their bellies at state expense. Fittingly, Xi let himself be filmed when he simply ate from a hotel buffet. Heidelberg-based China expert Christian Goebel suggests this is a sign of a more conservative policies. "He wants to return - maybe not to revolutionary times, but to a time when the party members were supported by their idealism," Goebel told DW.

Hu Jintao behind a podium covered in flowers

Hu Jintao is the outgoing head of state

Closeness to the military

Xi's clear attempts to become closer to the military also suggests a more conservative direction, Göbel said. The Chinese army is subordinate to the party rather than the state. As head of the Central Military Commission, Xi is its supreme commander. As part of consolidating his power, the new party leader systematically visited bases of the different branches of the military across the country, personally receiving the military's oath of loyalty.

In a symbolic act, Xi undertook a "journey to the south," following the path of the architect of China's reform and opening policy, Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997. During the trip, Xi laid a wreath before Deng's statue and gave a speech, the content of which has only recently become known thanks to Beijing journalist Gao Yu.

In his speech, Xi held up the collapse of the Soviet Union as a cautionary tale for China's Communist Party. In the USSR, the Communist Party lost its ideals and beliefs, he warned. He was particularly critical of how the unity of party and military was abandoned in the Soviet Union. When times became tough, this left the party defenseless - something that Xi said must never happen in China.

Moscow will be the first destination of China's new president. For Schubert, Russia's importance for China lies in a secure energy supply. In addition to this, "there is, of course, a strategic partnership, which is always held up against a Western alliance." He called the trip a symbol and a signal to the West that "China is able to look elsewhere than just to the West."

Xi Jinping looks on as a wreath of flowers is offered to a bronze statue of China's late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping on Lianhua hill in Shenzhen.

Xi has sought to consolidate his power with the military

Smooth, but shopworn

In terms of presentation, Xi does better than his wooden predecessors with his relatively easygoing and confident manner. But that's far from enough to make him a reformer.

"If someone like Xi Jinping - and this applies to every party leader and each member of the Politburo - has come so far, he has had a very, very long slog behind him," Göbel said. "And this shows that he can adapt well to the system, knows the rules, and knows how to survive in the system," - which is also why he is not expected to make any serious change of course.

Schubert added that it would be necessary to wait and see "to what extent it is really possible to deviate from what his predecessor has done for 10 years."

It is therefore not surprising that in his "journey to the south" speech, Xi Jinping apparently emphasized that "only socialism can save China. Only economic reform and opening up can develop China, develop socialism, develop Marxism." Which doesn't sound like much of a political change of course.

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