China

China's Xi Jinping: What has he achieved in his first year?

File photo: Xi Jinping, 7 February 2014 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Xi Jinping has consolidated his power in his first year as president

Xi Jinping's visit to Beijing's Sijiqing retirement home last December was meant to be a routine inspection yielding pleasant photo opportunities.

Staying for less than an hour, China's president admired the library and dining room before pausing in the choir room to join in the chorus of an old communist anthem.

But ever since news of Mr Xi's brief visit surfaced, the retirement home functions more like a tourist attraction.

For weeks the phone has been ringing non-stop, says the home's office employee Zhang Wenna - everyone is eager to trace the new "Xi Jinping Circuit".

"We take visitors on the presidential route," she explains. "There are many requests to see the same rooms he visited and the same people he met."

Almost 7,000 people will walk through the retirement home's halls this year. The waiting list has been capped at 5,000 people.

Let's call it the Xi effect. When the most powerful man in China visits a location, its popularity tends to surge afterwards.

Immediately after his visit to the home, Chairman Xi stopped at a roadside dumpling restaurant for a seemingly impromptu lunch.

Since then, the "Chairman Xi Set Meal", featuring dumplings and pork intestine stew, has become a best seller. A Beijing travel company has made the restaurant a stop on its city tours.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The dumpling restaurant where Xi Jinping ate has become a tourist attraction

'Three fireworks'

Before Xi Jinping came to power, some questioned whether he would be able to rule effectively. At the time, the Communist Party appeared to be paralysed by infighting.

But that did not hinder Xi Jinping. He seized his position at the top of China's ruling Communist Party with gusto.

In a year, the confident Mr Xi has made remarkable strides. He is sitting at the forefront of the country's most ambitious economic and social reform plan in decades.

China also has a new vision in the form of Mr Xi's "China dream", the idea that Chinese citizens can attain national glory if they work as a collective. A campaign to eliminate government waste and bureaucracy makes daily headlines.

But not all President Xi's changes are positive. Media and internet censorship has tightened dramatically under his watch. And other hoped-for changes, for example a complete overhaul of the national one-child policy and the use of labour camps, appear to have stalled.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The team of men running China- the powerful Standing Committee

Mr Xi's assertive foreign policy has spread mistrust among China's neighbours, particularly states involved in territorial disputes in the South and East China seas.

Nonetheless, the push for change has been relentless.

"In China, we always say a new leader has three fireworks, which means they should do something different from their predecessors to gain public support and public confidence in their first year," explains Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"Also, there's a timetable in Xi's mind," Mr Cheng explains. In three years, Communist Party protocol dictates that three of Xi Jinping's seven closest associates will have to retire, lending greater urgency to his reform campaign.

Alone at the top?

Arguably, the president's first order of business has been to consolidate his own power.

For the past two decades, China has been run as a collective by a team of men sitting on the state's elite Politburo Standing Committee. Now, few doubt that Xi Jinping has elevated himself above the shoulders of his colleagues, like China's early leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

When the government unveiled its much-anticipated reforms in November, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was expected play a key role in the plan's formulation. China's premier customarily handles domestic matters - economic policy in particular.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Experts say Xi Jinping has weakened Premier Li Keqiang's role

Instead, Xi Jinping's name appeared frequently throughout the reform blueprint.

Notably, Mr Xi appointed himself to major new committees guiding national security and the country's restructuring process. Two weeks ago, it was announced that the president would also head a third group overseeing China's internet sector.

The new committee positions are savvy attempt to boost Xi Jinping's power base, explains Bo Zhiyue, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore.

"What he did was to expand the pie of power so he could have a larger share," says Dr. Bo. "He created new offices and new positions for himself [and] he was not undermining anyone else's position. And now he has more important titles."

Xi Jinping benefits from the fact that he is surrounded by colleagues from the same political faction within the Communist Party.

"Xi Jinping holds the majority of the top leadership, the Politburo Standing Committee," explains Cheng Li. Only Premier Li Keqiang belongs to a different political faction, as a protégé of former President Hu Jintao.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Japanese and Chinese vessels have had several tense encounters near disputed islands in the East China Sea

"The six versus one ratio majority really consolidated his power and allowed him to do what he wants."

Dangers lie within Mr Xi's decision to stand alone at the top of the party.

"He's taking a risk by weakening Li Keqiang's role," says David Zweig, professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "There's nowhere to shuffle the blame."

If that concern worries Xi Jinping, it has not stopped him from executing a rigorous anti-corruption campaign aimed at his government colleagues.

'Flies' and 'tigers'

So far, 40,000 government officials have been disciplined for graft violations. A further 10,000 have been fired from their jobs, allowing the government to recoup $65 billion in illicit funds.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Bo Xilai (centre) is the most high-profile official to be jailed for corruption under Xi Jinping's presidency

Many of those officials are "flies", low-ranking officials with little power. But several "tigers", high-ranking party chiefs, have also fallen under the campaign. Rumour has it that Mr Xi's rival, former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang, is also a target.

A fear of political instability is pushing forward the Communist Party clean-up. Xi Jinping has worked to boost his own power, but he is also striving to safeguard the party's future.

He has been entrusted by other leaders with saving the Communist Party, explains David Zweig. The organisation is rife with corruption, so he is risking financial loss to eradicate it.

"They're really carrying out a drastic anti-corruption campaign which is going on at the cost of the economy. GDP is going to drop," Mr Zweig says.

"One of the biggest aspects of consumption in China, which people often don't calculate into the economy is government consumption, including parties, gifts and travel. "

Repression continues

Xi Jinping's fear of instability in China also explains his intolerance of political opposition. Before he came to power, many Chinese liberals hoped he would tolerate more open debate and greater freedom of expression.

Instead, the opposite appears to be true.

Large numbers of dissidents have experienced detentions and harassment. Liu Xia, wife of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, remains trapped in her home by the authorities, despite grave concerns for her health.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Xi Jinping's government has shown little tolerance for dissent

Respected legal scholar Xu Zhiyong was imprisoned for four years after demanding officials publicly reveal their assets. Religious repression in Xinjiang and Tibet continues unabated.

The speed at which Xi Jinping accumulated power and the ease at which he uses it can be traced to his political pedigree, Cheng Li explains. The president is a "princeling", the son of one of the Communist Party's founding members.

"A princeling has a sense of ownership of the country," Mr Cheng says of Mr Xi and his closest allies. "Both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the leaders who led China for the past 10 years, came from humble family backgrounds."

They were seen as managers, but the "owners" of the system find it easier to fix some of the country's problems, Mr Cheng believes. For example, they have close ties with the people who run China's all-powerful state-owned corporations.

"So they can force their own people to surrender some of the power and therefore open China's economic system and thus promote China's economic reform."

Last week, China's distant second in command, Premier Li Keqiang, opened this year's parliamentary session with a two-hour speech outlining the government's work. Mr Li's appearance at a press conference full of hundreds of journalists is expected to conclude the 10-day event.

But few will doubt that the person behind the scenes is Xi Jinping. In just over a year, he has reshaped China's political structure, bringing it back to its early Communist roots. Once again, one man sits at the top.

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