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Beijing - With Xi Jinping set to take over the leadership of China's Communist party on Thursday, China watchers, analysts and pro-democracy advocates are fiercely debating whether he is at heart a reformer or a stalwart product of the ruling party system.
Some contend that Xi will bide his time and consolidate his power before embarking on a bold political restructuring of the country's Communist-run political system. Others see an inherently cautious operator who has no interest, and certainly no power, to dramatically reform the system. At most, they say, he might offer token reforms to stave off dissent and maintain the party's ironclad grip on power.
About the only one here who has not offered a view of any kind is Xi. Keeping with protocol, Xi has said little during the past months or years that would reveal even the slimmest hint of his intentions. His public speeches have largely been typical jargon laced with Communist fare, urging the party to maintain "purity."
Xi's silence on the key issue of political reform has made the portly 59-year-old a veritable walking Rorschach test, allowing observers to project onto him whatever views they choose or perhaps hope to see.
"Compared to Hu Jintao," the outgoing president, "Xi is more like a reformer," said Mao Yushi, an economist, offering one commonly heard sentiment. "China is a country under dictatorship. But the new leadership group, I don't think, will take active measures to change the situation. It's too difficult."
He added: "I think they will make some changes. But they won't make fundamental reform. It's important for the party to maintain its power."
Li Datong, a journalist and reform advocate who was fired from his editor's job at China Youth Daily for pushing against official censorship, said he believes Xi realizes the imperative for reform but may be hamstrung by a Communist Party fearful of losing its power.
"The CPC is facing an unprecedented crisis of credibility, which is fatal for them," Li said. "The party has already lost its credibility because of the long time of one-party dictatorship. The regime will collapse like the last few years of (the) Qing Dynasty if the new leaders don't catch this chance to reform."
Li said Xi, as the "princeling" son of a Mao Zedong-era revolutionary hero, has a better chance to make real political change. He compared Xi to the late Taiwanese president Chiang Ching-kuo, who in 1987 was able to lift martial law and move Taiwan to democracy without opposition because he had credibility as the son of the nationalist leader, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
One of the problems with speaking about reform in China is the myriad definitions of what that word really means here. In most cases, when Communist officials speak of reform, they are not thinking of moving toward anything resembling a Western-style multiparty democracy.
Hu laid out his view of reform in a lengthy opening report to the party congress Thursday. Hu mentioned the word "reform" 86 times in his speech, "comprehensive reform" twice and "deepen reform" five times, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
"The reform of the political structure is an important part of China's overall reform," Hu said. But he also stressed, "We must uphold the leadership of the party," and added later, "We will never copy a Western political system."
The country's state-run media outlets have been left to parse the meaning of reform and how the term applies to China.
"It is not easy for laypeople to fully understand the report to the ongoing 18th National Congress," conceded the party-owned tabloid newspaper Global Times, in a Friday editorial. The paper said that for a small number of unnamed people, "The 'reform' in their message has hidden meaning, including the intention of changing the country's political system."
Separately, the People's Daily warned its readers, "Looking around the world, some countries copied the Western political system blindly, which could not be adapted to the local condition." The paper called Western countries pushing democracy "stubborn" and prejudiced, saying, "In order to promote so-called universal values, they labeled political systems randomly, criticized and even interfered directly."
Wang Yukai, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, said reform in China means different things to different people, and in the Communist Party view-laid out in Hu's speech-it means mostly giving some more independence to the judiciary, gradually making officials disclose their assets and eventually allowing multiple handpicked candidates to compete for party positions.
"In a thousand people's eyes, there are a thousand types of political reform," Wang said. "The idea of political reform meant by the Chinese Communist Party is not what Westerners talk about at all. Western countries believe that the multiparty system is the end of political reform. But for the CCP, the multiparty system has never existed in their dictionary of political reform. The party must insist one-party rule."
But even by the party's limited definition, reform looks likely to be a slow-moving process.
For example, the wealth held by family members of top officials has come under scrutiny after reports by Western media outlets detailing the vast holdings of the close relatives of Xi and of outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. But efforts to require the disclosure of assets have proceeded at a glacial pace.
When Wang Yang, the party secretary of Guangdong province, was asked at a Friday news conference at the party congress about the need for more disclosure in light of the media exposes, he replied, "I believe officials in China will gradually have public disclosure of their family's assets according to the rules of the Central Committee."
And how long is "gradually"?
The Global Times on Tuesday laid out what it called a proposed step-by-step process to increase officials' disclosure. It said the process should start with a "pilot stage" to "produce a greater consensus while avoiding divergences of opinion." Then after a "transition period," the disclosure requirement would be put in place for any official who wanted to be promoted above the county level.
The paper suggested two or three more years would be needed before disclosure could be conducted, on a "trial" basis only, in perhaps "two or three provinces" for officials above the county level. After another seven years, "when the time is propitious," disclosure could then be promoted nationwide. "The whole reform should be realized within a decade," the paper triumphantly declared.
By coincidence, a decade would be the normal time that Xi would be expected to step down as president if he serves two full terms.