As the National People's Congress (NPC) -- China's rubber stamp parliament -- concluded on Sunday, China's historic leadership transition came to an end after more than two years of political intrigue and factional infighting. In the carefully choreographed tradition of previous transitions, the 3,000 parliamentary delegates convened in Beijing and elected the new government with an overwhelming majority. Xi Jinping was voted president with one opposing vote, just like Mao Zedong in 1949, and Li Keqiang became China's new premier, with three opposing votes.
But something was decidedly different this time around. It was a combination of the smog-filled skies, the reports of thousands of dead pigs floating in Shanghai's water source, and a growing public disenchantment with the Communist Party. Expectations for change were high, and tolerance for another orchestrated Communist gathering was low.
The signals coming from the NPC reflected a clear recognition from Xi and Li that something has to change. Over the past year, the party's domestic credibility has taken a serious beating: from the ouster of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai last March in a tale of murder and betrayal fit for a novel to foreign press accounts of unseemly wealth amassed by family members of Xi and outgoing premier Wen Jiabao to strikes earlier this year by journalists at liberal media outlets.
At the NPC, the leadership moved to address popular criticism. By dismantling two highly unpopular administrations -- the Railways Ministry and the family planning commission -- China's new leaders made the first real attempt to streamline the bureaucracy since reformer Premier Zhu Rongji in 1998. They vowed to improve food safety and fight environmental degradation, two issues of great public concern. The government also pledged to reduce the state's role in the economy and society.
Thus far, these moves amount to political symbolism rather than substantial change, but there is a lingering sense that this time is different. Since coming to power in November, Xi Jinping has consolidated his power base in the party and army more rapidly than his predecessor. He also has greater credibility and a more appealing public persona than the outgoing Hu Jintao, in part thanks to the aggressive promotion of the anti-corruption and frugality campaigns.
But while Xi Jinping is better placed than his predecessors to take on that broad agenda, the high expectations that come with that recognition are not always helpful. The new president will spend the year setting priorities and consolidating internal support for them even as pent-up internal and popular pressure on the young administration continues to build. Xi will have to move quickly. Beyond the signals, he will have to give substance to his reform agenda by the third plenum in the fall of 2013. The symbolism will not be lost on Chinese leaders, since it was Deng Xiaoping who also announced his transformative "reform and opening up" policy at the third plenum in 1978.
Only then will it be clearer if this time it really is different -- and if Xi's the one to bring about lasting and substantive change for a party and a country that needs it.
Michael Meidan is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.
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