Xi Jinping at the helm in Beijing, responsibility looms large

November 15, 2012

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

The carefully orchestrated and much awaited leadership transition in Beijing was formally concluded on Thursday with the elevation of Xi Jinping as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China.

Taking over from Hu Jintao, Xi also assumed chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC). This is a significant departure from the 2002 transition when Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin had stayed on as head of the military commission for two years after stepping down as party chief.

The seven-member Politburo Standing Committee was also unveiled, setting at rest speculation about who would occupy the apex of power in Beijing.

As expected, Li Keqiang will be the de facto number two and will replace Premier Wen Jiabao early next year when Xi Jinping becomes president.

The other five members of the standing committee include Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli. The Beijing grapevine has it that there was considerable in-house, closed-door contestation between the various factions about the total number of nominees and the committee’s composition. The number has been restricted to seven and it appears that Jiang Zemin’s preferences have prevailed.

It is averred that Xi Jinping was the choice of the Jiang faction for the top position while Li Keqiang was that of the Hu group. Be that as it may, it may now be inferred that ranks have been closed and a wary consensus arrived at as a new team prepares to steer the complex Chinese ship of state into the next decade.

Complex challenges — both at home and abroad — confront the Beijing leadership and it is instructive that in his final address, Hu cautioned his party — “We cannot take the old road of seclusion and stagnation, nor can we take the ‘wicked way’ of changing our banner.”

The text of Hu Jintao’s speech is currently being disaggregated character by character for its subtle nuances (the word ‘wicked’ for instance has many connotations in Chinese political discourse) and the preliminary response may be discerned in the first public remarks of president-designate Xi Jinping.

Acknowledging the trust of the party and the onerous responsibility devolved upon him and his colleagues in the standing committee, Xi asserted: “We will strive to be worthy of their trust and fulfil our mission.”

Invoking the Communist Party, the people of China including ethnic minorities and the manifest destiny of China, the Xi vision was predictably epic. He referred to “the relay baton passed on to us by history” and assured his interlocutors that his team would strive in “making continued efforts to achieve the great renewal of the Chinese nation, make the Chinese nation stand rock firm in the family of nations, and make even greater contribution to mankind.”

This is laudatory and will find many well-wishers. A tentative textual analysis indicates that the word ‘responsibility’ was used as many as eight times in the Xi speech. In many ways, a wide spectrum of ‘responsibility’ devolves upon the new Beijing management and the integrity with which this will be discharged will be the critical litmus test of how China will deal with its own citizens and the world outside.

While a more detailed semantic analysis is warranted, one reference to a Mao Zedong throwback struck me as being a possible cue about the ideological orientation of the Xi-led Communist Party. Promising to work in a dedicated manner, Xi Jinping reminded his comrades – “One can only work for a limited period of time, but there is no limit to serving the people with dedication. Our responsibility is weightier than Mount Tai, and our road ahead is a long one.”

While the cultural and political symbolism of Mount Tai dates back to the Zhou dynasty and the ‘emperor’ relates to its primacy and pristinely lofty profile — the modern linkage with Mao is not devoid of nuanced import. The Great Helmsman once noted: “To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai, but to work for the fascists and die for the exploiters and oppressors is lighter than a feather.”

Deconstructing the road to be traversed while shouldering Mount Tai, even while avoiding the ‘wicked way’ of changing banners is the dialectical dilemma before the new helmsman in Beijing.

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