KRISTOF: Looking for leader to give China a jump start

  • This undated photo provided on Dec. 23, 2012, by China's Xinhua News Agency, shows Communist Party Leader Xi Jinping carries his daughter with a bicycle in Fuzhou, the capital of southeast China's Fujian Province. (AP Photo/Xinhua) NO SALES


Here is my prediction about China: The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform and probably some political easing as well. Mao's body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer, will be released from prison.

These won't happen immediately — Xi won't even be named president until March — and I may be wrong entirely. But my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.

Here's my case for Xi as a reformer.

First, it's in his genes. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a pioneer of economic restructuring and publicly denounced the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Xi's mother chooses to live in Shenzhen, the most capitalist enclave in the country.

Xi is also one of the first Chinese leaders to send a child to the United States as an undergraduate. His daughter is a junior at Harvard, reflecting her parents' emphasis on learning English and their admiration for American education.

It helps that the bar is low for Xi: he follows President Hu Jintao, who is widely regarded in China as a failure. Even government ministers complain that he squandered his 10 years as leader. Today there is pent-up demand for change.

Hu, who always reads speeches from texts, is a robot who surrounds himself with robots. One such robot aide is Ling Jihua, whose 23-year-old son was driving a Ferrari one night last March with two half-naked women as passengers. The car crashed on a Beijing road, killing the young man and badly injuring the women, one of whom later died.

Ling feared a scandal and reportedly began a cover-up. He went to the morgue, according to the account I got from one Chinese official, and looked at the body — and then coldly denied that it was his son. He continued to work in the following weeks as if nothing had happened. The cover-up failed, and the episode underscored all that was wrong with the old leadership: The flaunting of dubious wealth, the abuse of power and the lack of any heart.

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