China's Xi rides high hopes ahead of presidency

By Gillian Wong

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 3 2013 12:34 p.m. MST

In this photo taken Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, farmers perform a dance as part of local Spring Festival celebrations in Luotuowan village in northern China's Hebei province. New Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited the village in December 2012 as part of efforts to style himself as a no-frills man-of-the-people. Xi has also presented himself as an economic reformer and an iron-fisted graft-buster, spurring expectations for change, but as he prepares to be appointed president, pressure will be growing on him to deliver.

Gillian Wong, Associated Press

LUOTUOWAN VILLAGE, China — China's fawning state media, jaded social media commentators and even poor corn and cabbage farmers agree: New Communist Party chief Xi Jinping is off to a good start.

"General Secretary Xi doesn't put on any airs. He talks like an ordinary person," said 69-year-old farmer Tang Rongbin. The new leader visited Tang's sparse, dimly lit farmhouse in Luotuowan village in December, bearing gifts of cooking oil, flour and a blanket.

Xi has styled himself as an economic reformer, an iron-fisted graft-buster, a staunch nationalist and a no-frills man-of-the-people — spurring expectations for change. But as he prepares to be appointed to the largely ceremonial role of president, pressure will be growing on him to deliver.

China faces rising public anger over endemic corruption, a burgeoning rich-poor gap and the degradation of the country's air, soil and waterways. Slower economic growth and territorial disputes, especially with Japan, add to the tension.

Mounting protests over environmental issues, land seizures and high-handed officialdom point to the underlying social discontent. Days before the party conclave that brought Xi to power last year, thousands of protesters in the eastern city of Ningbo faced off against riot police outside government offices, calling on officials to halt a chemical plant expansion.

"I think there has been a revolution of rising expectations," said Willy Lam, an expert on party politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "People realize they can get away with even demonstrations to make their wills heard."

Joining the clamor for change this past week were dozens of prominent intellectuals who signed a petition urging the government to ratify an international treaty on protecting human rights and the rule of law. Also, a group of about 100 parents of gays and lesbians urged lawmakers to legalize gay marriage.

The annual session of the national legislature, which opens Tuesday, will complete the once-a-decade handover of power that began in November when Xi and his leadership team assumed the top positions in the Communist Party. At the end of the session, Xi will take the title of president from his predecessor as party leader, Hu Jintao.

Deputies to the National People's Congress will rubber-stamp appointments of senior officials to the State Council, or Cabinet, to run economic and foreign policies; Xi and other party leaders finalized the personnel changes at a closed-door meeting last week. The No. 2 party leader, Li Keqiang, will become premier, the country's top economic official.

A separate meeting of the government's top advisory body held its opening session Sunday, with its chairman promising to support the new leadership.

The meetings of the legislature and the advisers, which will wrap up in mid-March, give the Xi administration a high-profile platform to lay out policies to build the prosperous, strong and fairer society he has talked about in his public appearances.

Xi came to power in the wake of a scandal that exposed infighting and corruption in the highest reaches of the party. Exuding a confidence and ease lacking in the remote, wooden Hu, Xi has seized on the public's disgust over graft and its hopes for national greatness to rally support for his leadership.

"He certainly took challenges and made them opportunities," said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "He turned them around into great expectations for him, and great hope."

Xi visited an early testing ground for the market reforms that have transformed China into the world's No. 2 economy to align himself with reform in broad terms, though he has given no indication of the changes he wants to make.

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