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Xi promises ‘new strides’ along the path of reform

FILE - in this Friday, June 7, 2013 file photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping pauses during a meeting with President Barack Obama at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The Straits Times, one of Southeast Asia's largest circulated English newspapers, has named the leaders of China and Japan as the most prominent Asians of 2013. The title, instituted last year, aims to recognize a person whose work or actions have had significant impact on the region. Despite being relatively new leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe "have already left a mark on Asia," The Straits Times of Singapore said in an announcement Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)   | Photo Credit: Evan Vucci

China’s President Xi Jinping on Tuesday marked the end of a dramatic 12 months in Chinese politics with a pledge to make “new strides” in pushing reforms, as the new leadership grapples with challenges ranging from curbing corruption and maintaining economic growth, to addressing pollution and increasing transparency.

Mr. Xi, who took over as President in March, in his first annual new year address said his government had attempted to “draw a grand blueprint” for development during its first year in office.

“In 2014, we will make new strides along the path of reform,” he said.

“The fundamental purpose of the reform is to make the country rich and strong, the society fair and just and people’s lives better. We welcome a 2014 that is full of hope.”

The Chinese President, who also took over as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and as the head of the military following the once-in--a-decade leadership transition in November 2012, described 2013 as a “very unusual” year for the country with “various difficulties and challenges”.

Dramatic period

Indeed, the past 12 months have been a dramatic period in Chinese politics, witnessing an unprecedented show trial of a purged Politburo member, a widening corruption crackdown, and new challenges to the Party’s authority from civil society activists who have given voice to increasing public demands for transparency in politics.

Mr. Xi took office with a pledge to go after both “tigers and flies” in the Party, suggesting high officials would not be spared in his crackdown on graft.

His administration’s first steps were to pick the low-hanging fruit, as it were, in addressing public anger about corruption.

It did so by outlining a number of measures to curb “extravagance” such as banning the serving of alcohol at official banquets, and clamping down on what Mr. Xi described as the “bureaucratism” that underpins official excess in China.

Publicised trial

In August, the CPC took the unexpected step of carrying out a widely publicised show trial of the purged former Politburo member Bo Xilai.

Although carefully choreographed, the proceedings were covered with an unusual degree of detail, with the court releasing regular updates on its microblog throughout the five-day-long hearings.

While the Party appeared to have taken a risk by exposing to the public the excess and corruption at its very top — the trial provided lurid details of the Bo family receiving bribes of millions of Yuan from a prominent business magnate and acquiring a villa in the south of France, as well as allegations of an affair between Mr. Bo’s wife and his police chief — the public purge also served to underline Mr. Xi’s authority as he promptly disposed of a rival.

In the months since, the new leadership has widened a corruption crackdown, going after prominent officials in the lucrative State-run oil industry.

At the same time, the party under Mr. Xi has made clear it will not tolerate challenges to its authority.

More than a dozen anti-corruption activists who have been campaigning for the Party to force officials to declare their assets have been detained and some put on trial in December.

Besides managing rising public expectations for official accountability, Mr. Xi will, in the coming year, also face the challenge of putting into effect the ambitious reform measures unveiled in a policy blueprint in November.

Reform group

On Monday, Mr. Xi took charge of a reform leading group to advise, supervise and implement political, economic and social reforms.

The blueprint pledged to give the market a more “decisive” role, and to reform State-owned enterprises.

It promised to break monopolies and move towards giving farmers rights to sell collectively-owned rural land, despite objections from local governments, to address widening inequality.

Complicated

Ding Ningning, a scholar at the Development Research Centre, a prominent think-tank affiliated with the State Council or cabinet, told the official China Daily that the fact that Mr. Xi took direct control of a body usually headed by lower ranked Chinese Premiers — and not Presidents — only showed “how difficult and complicated” the reforms process was likely to be in the months ahead.

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