China's Xi rides high hopes ahead of presidency

By Gillian Wong

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 3 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

He stopped off at Luotuowan, 350 kilometers (200 miles) southwest of Beijing, and other farming villages to show his concern for those struggling to get by. And he has played to nationalist sentiments, taking a hard line against Japan in a long-festering territorial dispute, and touring military units to show his commitment to national defense.

Xi has disappointed some who had hoped for greater political freedom. Though he has espoused the virtues of constitutional government and the rule of law, dissidents continue to be harassed, and a crackdown on self-immolation protests in Tibetan areas has only intensified.

It is fighting graft that Xi has made the signature campaign of his first three months — a popular campaign that so far featured more symbolism than action.

He launched a drive to cut out red carpets, motorcades and other official extravagance. State media touted that he preferred simple meals over the usual banquets leaders are given while on inspection tours. He has vowed to target corruption at high and low levels of power — both the "tigers" and the "flies."

So far, it's mostly flies that have been swatted. A slew of lower-level officials have been punished after revelations they were keeping mistresses or amassing multiple unaccounted-for properties. Its highest-level victim has been a deputy provincial party chief suspected of influence peddling and dodgy real estate deals.

Many politically minded Chinese aren't convinced that Xi will take the painful steps needed to root out deeply embedded corruption. Eliminating graft would require an overhaul of the patronage-based political culture and restraining the party's unchecked power.

"Will it be like the past when there was great determination expressed in speech, but ultimately no effective efforts followed to control corruption?" said Ren Jianming, an anti-corruption expert at prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. "We haven't seen much in terms of specific measures."

Some Chinese want the party to allow its anti-corruption watchdogs to operate independently, and to require officials to declare assets publicly. A system in place since 2010 requires some officials to report income, real estate holdings and other wealth to their superiors — not the public — but that has done little to stanch graft. A few areas in Guangdong have recently been named as testing grounds for public asset declaration.

Still, resistance to full disclosure is high within the bureaucracy and perhaps even the leadership. Bloomberg News reported in June last year that Xi's extended family has amassed assets totaling $376 million, though it said none was traced to Xi himself.

"I believe that Xi should take the lead," said Wang Yukai, an anti-corruption expert at the Chinese Academy of Governance, which trains provincial and ministerial-level civil servants. "Politburo Standing Committee members also need to declare information about their spouses and children. This will pave the way for future declarations."

Many experts advocated an asset declaration mechanism when they attended a meeting called by Wang Qishan, the party's new anti-corruption agency chief, in late November, according to Ren, who was one of the participants. Ren said Wang noted that more research needed to be done but otherwise stayed noncommittal.

"There's now a lot of public expectation about anti-corruption work, and as the leading cadre in charge of this work, he must remain calm and rational," Ren observed. "It's easy to raise public expectations, but if you're unable to meet them, then you'll end up disappointing everyone."

Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gillianwong

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