Xi Jinping's public relations test

23 November 2012

Xi Jinping's words about needing to show greater connection with society make sense, says Professor Kerry Brown.
Xi Jinping's words about needing to show greater connection with society make sense, says Professor Kerry Brown.

Kerry Brown says of all the daunting challenges now facing Xi Jinping, the biggest may be whether he can connect with and mobilise the people - in a way his predecessor did not.

The months of speculation are mercifully over. Questions of whether there would be nine or seven are now resolved; who is in and who is out is settled. When the new Chinese Communist Party leadership walked before the world's press last week, there was a feeling of anticlimax. If Hu Jintao had wanted to create a process that ended up boring everyone into submission, it worked. In the end, a group of men with very similar backgrounds and life stories, wearing similar suits and acting in uniform ways briefly stood before the press. If they were happy or overjoyed at their current good fortune, they took care to suppress it. Sobriety and understatement were the order of the day.

Among all this, Xi Jinping's more expressive language was the single thing that interested most commentators. Even on Weibo, there were hints that people were relieved they now had a leader who at least spoke in a slightly more human way, and did not litter his public statements with references to party theory and slogans the way that Hu was wont to.

Maybe this restraint was due to the fact that these leaders are aware they come into a political context in which there are immense constraints around them. The reappearance of former president Jiang Zemin, now 86, on the final day of the party congress, standing on stage next to Hu in the midst of the outgoing Politburo, underlined how impossible it is in China for former leaders to finally relinquish power. The constraints, however, go further than just the involvement of specific individuals.

Institutionally, and structurally, the party leadership is hedged in. If they fail to deliver good growth, their legitimacy is undermined. If they alienate the important forces of vested interests and the elite networks around them, they will be under immediate attack. To left and right, in front of and behind them, their situation is surprisingly precarious.

In view of this, Xi's words about needing to show greater connection with society make sense. He and his team are there after a tightly managed process within the innermost core of the party. Only a tiny number have been truly consulted over who the new leaders should be, and who should and should not be in the new Standing Committee of the Politburo. The contract with the larger Chinese public is simply that a leadership transition should happen without social unrest and contention, and without threatening growth.

The public response of indifference is what the party wants. There were no large public outbursts of celebration. The whole process happened like a management takeover, in which new faces came in, promising to deliver on the policies and strategies of the people they had replaced, and nothing more.

This strategy might be right - at least for the moment. But as China's development trajectory becomes more complex, and growth in gross domestic product inevitably falls because the current dizzy levels are unsustainable, the need for the party leadership to reach out to the public will grow greater. They must learn to speak to people more directly and with more relevance, and not just act like technocratic managers. Political idealism is sorely lacking in modern China. Politicians function as administrators, delivering on government plans, with their ability to mobilise people seldom called upon.

In the future, though, it is almost certain that Chinese people will want a more personal relationship with their rulers. They will want more of a sense of who they are, where they plan to take the country, and what their vision and their qualifications are. Xi showed some awareness of this when he talked of the need to tackle corruption. He also spoke of the problems and challenges that lay ahead. It was a sanguine beginning, lacking in any triumphalism or bombast.

Xi shows he understands that the wooden, opaque public manner of his immediate predecessor was a problem. He has to craft a much more direct, accessible language, because he has the complex job of governing the world's second-largest economy at a time when its challenges are likely to grow more pressing. He is going to have to communicate the need for different policy options to the public in ways his predecessors never did.

A leader must convey to society a positive image of the future, and persuade people of the need to sacrifice now for a better return later on.

The new leadership has been appointed by a process that is opaque, and from within a tiny elite. Using that as a basis for legitimacy won't be good enough as they attempt to create a more broad voice to reach out to Chinese public opinion. They will need political will, imagination and intuition to be able to rise to the challenge of steering China, without fracture or unrest, towards middle-income status. Resting on their laurels and simply talking of their historic right to be the rulers of China is no longer enough. The gap between ruler and ruled needs to be closed - before the whole body politic is poisoned by cynicism, and most citizens, benignly or actively, become alienated.

If the new leaders are able to build up this personal link, then at least when moments of crisis approach, they will have some political capital to speak to their key constituents to try to mobilise them. But if they remain remote, acting like a privileged sect that runs on its own internal laws with no reference to the wider society, then any crisis will be debilitating, and could lead to their downfall.

And unlike in 1989, deployment of violence and suppression will be unlikely to work this time round. Xi looks like he can create a bond with the people of China. Let's hope he shows more signs of this sooner rather than later, because this, and this alone, remains his most valuable asset. Perhaps it is his only one.

Professor Kerry Brown is executive director of the China Studies Centre and professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney.

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