Will China's leaders reform? I have no idea

On Thursday, the Chinese Communist Party announced the seven people who would lead the country for the next five or ten years. Helmed by Chairman Xi Jinping, they're a mysterious bunch -- the world knows very little about what they think and how they will act. But still, their ascension is very significant, and whether or not they decide to institute "political reform" (i.e., liberalize the party) will help determine where China goes over the next decade.

As usual, this has caused a dilemma for western newspapers: Extremely important event + extreme surfeit of information = vague headlines.

"China's new leadership team not expected to push drastic reform" and "Don't expect reform from China's new leaders" the Washington Post wrote on Thursday.

The Financial Times seemed slightly more optimistic the Friday headline, "Chinese transition leaves many questions". The subtitle was, "Change of leadership prompts reform speculation."

Granted this vagueness is better than baseless predictions, but it's still worth noting again just how in the dark we are about elite politics in China.

Xi is slightly less than a mystery than his predecessor. Ten years ago Hu Jintao took power amid widespread bafflement about the man or his policies.  Articles in respected media outlets in 2002 expressed bafflement at the "faceless apparatchik" set to run the world's most populous country. Hu turned out to be fairly conservative, though that took a few years to be apparent. (In the meantime, there were headlines like that of the New York Times July 2003: "China's Leader Gives No Sign of Changes to Come".)

The most accurate prediction about Hu that I've seen comes from a Nov. 15, 2002 article in The New York Times:

''People think Hu will fulfill their own dreams,'' said Wu Guoguang, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. ''The liberals see a reformer; the conservatives see a hard-liner. Sooner or later he will have to make some choices, and people will see his real colors. But it may take years for that to happen.''

It's a comment worth remembering when guessing about what direction Xi will take China in his early days in office. 


Putin on Pussy Riot: 'I don't think modern Germany should support anti-Semitism'

When a Moscow court jailed three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot in August for staging a protest against Vladimir Putin, the charge was "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."

And according to Russia's president, that hatred extends beyond Christianity. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised human rights concerns about the case during a meeting in Moscow on Friday, Putin issued a fiery response, putting Merkel in an exceedingly awkward position by accusing the Putty Riot members of being anti-Semites. Per AFP:

"So the chancellor mentioned the girls who are in prison for performing in a church. But does she know that before one of them hung up an effigy of a Jew and said that we need to get rid of such people in Moscow?" Putin asked.

"You and I cannot support people who have anti-Semitic views," he told Merkel, who sat next to him in a chair looking uneasy.

Later, at a news conference, Putin added, "I think one should understand what sort of people we are dealing with. I don't think modern Germany should support anti-Semitism."

What's Putin talking about? Apparently he wasn't well-briefed (or deliberately mischaracterized the facts). AFP notes that Pussy Riot's Yekaterina Samutsevich did participate in a 2008 political art performance at a Moscow supermarket that included "stylized lynchings" of migrants workers and gay men (one of them Jewish). But the point of the demonstration was to "highlight discrimination" against those groups (You can see footage of the protest here.) The Telegraph says another Pussy Riot member, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, also took part in the mock hanging.

Putin's sharp rebuttal is in keeping with a strategy he's used before to defend the Pussy Riot sentence: Compare the case to a sensitive religious issue in the country of the critic. When the Russian leader was asked about the case during a dinner with foreign journalists and academics in Moscow in October, he responded by wondering why Westerners aren't supporting the jailed American behind the "Innocence of Muslims" film that touched off violent protests in the Arab world.

"We have red lines beyond which starts the destruction of the moral foundations of our society," Putin explained. "If people cross this line they should be made responsible in line with the law." The protest that landed Pussy Riot members in labor camps, he added, was "an act of group sex aimed at hurting religious feelings."