Xi the reformer

Chinese President Xi Jinping was widely expected to minimise troubles in China’s foreign relations, leave the economy to the prime minister and focus on consolidating power in his first year, following in the footsteps of newly installed Chinese leaders.

Well, it is clear someone didn't read him the script.

Mr Xi appeared to be in a hurry to grab more power, roll out populist moves, tighten control over the military, tinker with the economy and assert China’s strength globally.

The first Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief in more than two decades to become the chairman of the Central Military Commission simultaneously, Mr Xi is set to take on the leadership of two powerful party committees, one overseeing national security and another, reforms.

Another sign of his growing powerbase is his deeper-than-usual involvement in directing the Chinese economy, an area fronted by Chinese premiers. Nudging Premier Li Keqiang aside, Mr Xi took charge of the drafting of a reform proposal unveiled at the CCP’s policy summit, which is viewed widely as one of the most comprehensive and ambitious in decades and could have profound impact on the Chinese society and economy in the next decade.

In so doing, Mr Xi is emerging as the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping formally exited the political stage in 1993, or since the two former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao took power in 1993 and 2003 respectively.

His close ties with the military, his “princeling” status as son of a late vice-premier boosted Mr Xi’s faster-than-expected power consolidation, though some think it could also be part of a strategy by the CCP to forge a single powerful leader capable of dismantling the vested interest groups.

In his first year, Mr Xi has also been more popular than his predecessors or the other six members of the CCP’s apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).

His first trip out of Beijing in early December to Shenzhen, the heart of reforms given the southern city’s pioneering status as the first Special Economic Zone, won him comparisons to Mr Deng and signalled his support for further economic and financial liberalisation.

An anti-extravagance campaign that the propaganda machinery has taken pains to associate with Mr Xi’s frugal and simple lifestyle has augmented his popularity as well. In bringing along his singer-wife Peng Liyuan on overseas trips, Mr Xi has also won over the crowds by portraying himself as a family man.

An ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has nabbed more than 12 high-ranking officials, or ‘tigers’, has pleased the public. In minimising fallout of former Chongqing boss Bo Xilai’s court trial and closing in on allies of ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang, Mr Xi has also shown that he has the means to take on the big guns.

His pledges at the Third Plenum to abolish and relax controversial decades-old policies, such as the one-child policy and the re-education through labour camps, have also won him praise from the public.

Mr Xi has certainly left his mark too in forging a more coordinated, assertive, and yet shrewd foreign policy that pushes a tough stance on some neighbours and issues and charms equally as hard on others to balance things out.

Topping his achievements was the informal summit in June with US President Barack Obama in California, where he scored by self-assuredly standing his ground over touchy issues like cyber-security, a contrast to the stuffy Hu Jintao.

As for the territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, Mr Xi, who is heading an internal CCP group on the issue, is deemed to have gained an upperhand in the past year by stepping up Chinese naval and aerial patrols to challenge Japan’s sovereignty claims. The latest move is, of course, a controversial Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea, which has irked the US and several countries and could spawn more such zones over other contested areas like South China Sea.

In Southeast Asia, Mr Xi and Mr Li scored points with a charm offensive pledging investments, trade, and development aid during their travels in October to five countries, helped no less by Mr Obama’s last-minute trip cancellation because of the US government shutdown.

A year on, Mr Xi is shaping up to be quite unlike recent leaders and answering a question that has persistently dogged him: is he more of a Deng or a Mao?

Now it is clearer to China watchers that Mr Xi is both Mr Deng and Mr Mao personified, in pushing wide-ranging reforms like former did while yet exhibiting latter's conservative political streak by pledging measures like tighter cyberspace control to consolidate the CCP's power grip.

Based on his first year record, maybe future new Chinese leaders will be asked this question instead: Is he more of a Xi?