BEIJING — No references to Marxism-Leninism or Mao Zedong. A speech lasting all of 16 minutes.
Xi Jinping’s debut performance Thursday as China’s new leader won him plaudits for being concise, clear and refreshingly free of the turgid Communist Party rhetoric of his predecessors.
China’s future, Xi said, requires raising the quality of life by reducing the economy’s lopsided dependence on exports. He spoke of improving housing, medical care, education and the environment. He also said the government would strive to “make the Chinese nation stand rock-firm in the family of nations," hinting at more assertive stances on the international stage.
Although the 59-year-old Xi is a well-known figure in China, having served the last five years as vice president, Thursday was the first time he stepped out as the party’s general secretary, a position more powerful than the presidency he will take over from Hu Jintao in March.
Given his new role, his speech drew intense scrutiny from Sinologists who will parse each word for clues to how he will steer this behemoth of a nation over the next decade.
A bear-like man with a lumbering gait, Xi affected a disarming modesty as he entered the conference room at the Great Hall of the People as head of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. He wore a dark suit and red tie, the same attire as the others except for one whose tie was blue. Xi smiled and apologized for being 40 minutes late.
Most notable was that the speech made no mention of Marxism-Leninism or Mao, instead emphasizing the need to improve the people’s well-being, a new buzzword in Chinese public discourse.
“There are many pressing problems with the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption, being out of touch with the people, putting too much emphasis on formalities and bureaucracy," said Xi, speaking from behind a flower-decked lectern, with a dramatic landscape of the Great Wall as the backdrop.
The last barb about formality seemed aimed at Hu, who opened the party congress last week with a 100-minute work report in which he repeated slogans such as “socialism with Chinese characteristics" (79 times) and “scientific development" (19 times).
“I was so surprised by Xi’s speech," said He Peirong, an activist from Nanjing. “It actually sounded like he cared more about the people than the party."
A breezy, populist style, however, will go only so far.
Chinese leaders today rule by consensus and Xi’s fellow Standing Committee members, with the exception of Li Keqiang, the next premier, are hardly trailblazing reformers.
Zhang Dejiang earned his economics degree at North Korea’s Kim Il Sung University. Zhang Gaoli oversaw a mega-construction project in the city of Tianjin that critics say embodies China’s addiction to debt-addled construction.
Meanwhile, Wang Qishan, arguably China’s most capable economic apparatchik, is not likely to have as much say in financial policymaking because he is slated to head a commission aimed at cracking down on corruption.