China's Next Leader Offers Hope for Future

The Chinese are making an admiring fuss over the common touch shown by Gary Locke, the new U.S. ambassador to their nation. He carried his own bags on this past weekend’s move to Bejing, left the airport in an ordinary car and even tried to use a coupon to buy coffee at the Sea-Tac Airport Stabucks.

The fact that the young barista rejected the coupon, forcing Locke — a former two-term governor of Washington as well as the most recent Commerce Secretary — to pull out a credit card, no doubt scored even bigger subliminal points in the Chinese psyche as compelling evidence of America’s egalitarian culture — in sharp contrast to China’s nominally egalitarian communist society in which the leadership is cloistered in luxury and privilege.

What’s encouraging to me is that China’s netizens recognize the moral superiority of leaders who, despite their power and status, choose to live like ordinary people. This recognition isn’t a foregone conclusion by any means. Most of humanity remains overawed by limousines, black-suited minions and other trappings of power and privilege. On any given day popular media around the world are littered with breathless accounts of uber-luxurious or extravagant details from some celebrity’s lifestyle. Even Americans of education and sophistication are intrigued by details of the amenities aboard Air Force One, for example, or of the personal planes and yachts of tycoons. They are apt to view them as badges of success and power rather than as extravagances that merely hinder true personal freedom.

While recognizing that many such trappings are imposed by security concerns, the more enlightened of us recognize that leaders who try to keep their lifestyles as close as possible to those of ordinary citizens are more likely to have the welfare of the governed at heart. The gushing of thousands of China’s netizens over Locke’s desire to live like an ordinary citizen reflects a rapid evolution in China’s social and political culture.

In imperial China the rulers proved their power by surroundings themselves with the trappings of power, no matter how stultifying and, ultimately, enervating. In Mao’s time leaders who based their revolution on an assault on wealth and privilege nevertheless sought to surround themselves with more and more of the trappings of power to raise themselves to the level of other world leaders with whom they hobnobbed and haggled. The humble lifestyles that were originally moral and political imperatives fell by the wayside as the Communist leadership sought to distance itself from those they governed, partly for self-preservation, partly to gratify the natural desire for pleasure, ease and social status.

Mao may have built his revolution on the communist ideal of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, but the privileges he accorded himself suggested that his desires, not his needs, were paramount. One example of his lavish self-indulgence were the young entertainers, nurses and other females he routinely took to his custom-built wooden bed in the Forbidden City. When one of his soldiers was seen touching the buttocks of a favored female, Mao had him removed, never to be seen again.

Despite the isolation provided them by the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in central Beijing adjacent to the Forbidden City, China’s leadership style has evolved toward more egalitarian principles. Each successive paramount leader since Mao has become increasingly circumspect about using his position for seek privileges. Hu Jintao, the current leader, is known for his modest demeanor and moral behavior. His personal contribution to the Chinese Communist Party’s cannons focused more on personal morality rather than politics.

Hu’s list of Eight Honor and Eight Shames were posted on the CCP website on October 18, 2006:

Love the country; do it no harm.
Serve the people; never betray them.
Follow science; discard ignorance.
Be diligent; not indolent.
Be united, help each other; make no gains at others’ expense.
Be honest and trustworthy; do not sacrifice ethics for profit.
Be disciplined and law-abiding; not chaotic and lawless.
Live plainly, work hard; do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.

One reflection of Hu’s own ethical standards is the man his is grooming as his successor, Vice-President Xi Jinping. In late 2012 Xi is expected to become the CCP’s General Secretary — the top party post. That will be followed by his formal accession to China’s Presidency in March of 2013 as Hu’s second five-year term comes to an end. Signs that Xi is to succeed Hu were greeted with surprise because of Xi’s reputation as a quiet, hardworking bureaucrat who has eschewed the outward trappings of power. Xi seems ideally suited to lead China’s one-party system toward its inevitably more open, more democratic successor.

During his years as deputy governor and governor of Fujian province Xi worked diligently to improve living standards through economic development.

“His working efficiency was pretty high,” said Li Shih-Wei, a leader of the Taiwanese investment association in Fujian who met often with Xi. “That’s pretty rare among the officials we met here. When we discussed some problems we had, he would listen closely, track the issue and try to find a solution.

“He didn’t lead a luxurious lifestyle,” Li adds, noting that Xi used the government cafeteria for lunch and dinner meetings instead of fancy restaurants. Li also recalls how careful Xi was to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. When a group of businessmen offered to stop by Xi’s home for a social call, Xi replied that “business is done in the office.”

During Xi’s subsequent posting as governor and Communist Party chief in neighboring Zhejiang province from 2002 until March 2007, the province enjoyed an unprecedented period of openness during which thousands of new groups sprang up to represent private businesses. The elections also sent more independent candidates to local district congresses.

“When [Xi] was governor here in Zhejiang, the atmosphere here was the most open ever,” said Zhou De Wen, head of the local industry association in Wenzhou city. “Only with that relatively open and relaxed environment could an industry association like mine voice opinions that might differ from the government’s.”

Xi’s administration allowed industry associations and unions wide latitude to resolve labor disputes on their own. He also let illegal underground churches operate without interference.

More positive indications of Xi’s philosophy of government is found in the 232 essays he contributed under a pen name between February 2003 and March 2007 to the Zhejiang Daily on issues like corruption and the need for party officials to live more like ordinary people. One column criticized officials who display “the haughty manner of feudalism.”

“If we stay removed from ordinary people, we will be like a tree cut off from its roots,” Xi wrote. “Officials at all levels should change their working style, get close to ordinary people, try their best to do good things for people, put down the haughty manner and set a good example for ordinary people.”

Another Xi piece criticized “eggheads”, “some Party cadres” who “read books without then applying the knowledge.”

“We should try to link the theory up with the reality, and do things in a down-to-earth way,” Xi wrote. He compared the tendency to putting out a pretty flowerpot “without planting the flowers.”

“Transparency is the best anti-corrosive,” Xi wrote in another piece attacking graft. “As long as we follow democracy, go through a proper process [and] avoid ‘black’ case work . . . fighting against corruption won’t become some empty words.”

Thanks to Xi’s strong anti-corruption image he was sent to Shanghai in 2007 to replace party chief Chen Liangyu. Chen was fired and eventually sent to prison for taking bribes and for misusing pension funds for real estate investments.

Xi’s unpretentious philosophy is even more remarkable because he is a “princeling”, the the son of Mao-era revolutionaries now entering positions of power. Xi’s father was a vice premier and governor of Guangdong province credited with establishing China’s first successful “special economic zone” in Shenzhen. He was purged by Mao and, later, fell out favor for expressing sympathy with the student pro-democracy demonstrators who massed on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In Xi Jinping China will have a leader with a strong inclination toward an open and even democratic system of government. Of course he won’t be ruling in a vaccuum, but his tendencies will find support in a nation which, under Hu, has progressed a long way from a society divided between the privileged and the oppressed. Today, for all its shortcomings, China’s leadership appears to be focused on improving the lives of ordinary people rather than perpetuating power in the hands of a few old men fearful of a mass uprising that may end in their trials for crimes against citizens.