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PARTY vs STATE: Leader Xi Jinping's words must be followed by action

NEW Chinese leader Xi Jinping is assuming the mantle of a reformer, visiting Shenzhen, adjoining Hong Kong, which pioneered China's economic reform movement more than 30 years ago, on his first trip outside of the capital.

Xi also visited Zhuhai, next to the former Portuguese colony of Macau, and Shunde -- cities also visited by Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China's reforms, 20 years ago. After laying flowers at a statue of Deng, Xi pledged to continue on the road of reform and opening up, which "is making the country stronger and its people richer", and promised to "break new ground".

It is a little early to welcome Xi as a reformer. After all, 10 years ago, many hoped that Hu Jintao would be a reformer only to be disappointed. But there are some things that seem to separate the two men. For example, whereas Xi made his first trip to Shenzhen -- a symbol of change and modernisation -- after becoming party leader, Hu chose to visit the communist revolutionary base of Xibaipo.

The circumstances of Xi's visit to Shenzhen also reflect a change in style. It was a low-profile trip, without the hoopla that usually accompanies visits by senior officials, such as welcoming crowds or banners. There was no red carpet and traffic controls were minimal. Apparently, some local residents were even unaware of the new leader's presence until they ran into him while visiting Lotus Hill Park.

According to the China Daily, "Many said they did not know of Xi's arrival and were impressed by his approachable style."

So far, much of the change has been a matter of style. In fact, on Dec 4, the 25-member Politburo, at a meeting presided over by Xi, passed guidelines that called for rejection of extravagance and reducing red tape, not attending ribbon-cutting or cornerstone-laying ceremonies and maintaining a frugal lifestyle.

Fighting corruption is clearly a priority issue for the new administration. Both Xi and Hu have said that corruption may lead not only to the demise of the Communist Party but of the state itself.

This is reminiscent of what Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader, said 65 years ago, when he was waging a life-and-death struggle with the Communist Party.

The film The Founding of a Republic, produced in 2009 to mark the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, contains lines spoken by Chiang about his party, the Kuomintang, and his government, the Republic of China. In the film, Chiang said: "If we fight corruption, we'll destroy the party; if we don't fight corruption, we'll destroy the nation." He decided not to fight corruption and, in the end, lost the China mainland to the Communist party.

Today, the Communists evidently realise that it is not a choice between losing the party or the state -- it will be both.

One tangible new effort to fight corruption is the announcement that officials in several districts in Guangdong -- China's pioneering province -- will have to disclose their assets. It is unclear why this is not required of the top leaders of the country. After all, the families of Premier Wen Jiabao and of Xi himself were recently disclosed to be fabulously wealthy. Presumably, it is easier to start at the bottom rather than at the top, where there is strongly entrenched opposition to the declaration of assets.

It is too early to assess the new leadership, which has just been in place for a few weeks. Xi will not assume his government role, that of president, until March, when his No. 2, Li Keqiang, will become premier.

In 2000, when Chen Shui-bian became president in Taiwan and made conciliatory remarks in his inaugural address, the Chinese government responded that it would "Listen to his words and watch his actions."

Millions of people in China and overseas are likely to bear the same attitude towards the new administration. While the reformist words sound encouraging, they need to be followed by action. There are many areas awaiting action, such as ensuring an independent judiciary by ending communist party interference, and setting up an anti-corruption agency, akin to Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The main thing is that the party must not put itself above the law.

Signals of change can range from easing restrictions on non-govermental organisations to action on charges of the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng to the release of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Whatever it is, the change needs to go beyond easing of traffic controls when leaders travel.

Twitter: @FrankChing1

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