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Xi Jinping opened the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China Wednesday with a pledge to build a beautiful China with blue skies and clean air. Add that to a host of promises about economic reform and more responsive government, and you have the makings of a Western-style political program. China’s old-style Maoist “death to capitalism” is nowhere to be seen.

As the Congress gets underway, it can sometimes be hard to remember that China is still a communist country. After all, what kind of communist country has to deal with a debt crisis or a real estate bubble? Or has a “People’s Congress” full of billionaire businessmen?

Mao would be spinning in his grave. Maybe that’s why they keep him perpetually on display in his Tiananmen Square mausoleum. They want to keep an eye on him.

 

Accountability without democracy

Like its economics, China’s politics aren’t very communist, either. Sure, the country is still run by a Communist Party that brooks no competition. But gone are the days when China’s leaders were Soviet-style apparatchiks. Today’s Communist Party leaders are professional politicians, and no one more so than China’s Communist-in-chief Xi Jinping.

Xi may be the General Secretary of the Communist Party, President of the People’s Republic and Chairman of the People’s Liberation Army, but to get things done he still has to cater to public opinion. You can’t run a sophisticated 21st-century economy by imperial fiat. Xi may not have to face the voters, but he does have to face the markets.

Xi took office in 2012-2013 as an energetic 59-year-old married to a glamorous popular singer. He immediately announced a major campaign to fight corruption, promising to snare both “tigers and flies”—the big fish and the little fish. Bringing down tigers is good press: everyone loves watching bricks of cash being hauled out of the home of some corrupt official. And swatting flies is even better politics.

Since Xi took office, petty corruption has fallen dramatically in China. Roughly one-quarter of Chinese people reported paying a bribe to access government services in 2016, according to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer survey. That may sound like a lot, but it’s the third-best result in developing Asia, placing China just behind Malaysia and way ahead of India. And when it comes to stamping out corruption, Xi takes all the credit. No one seems to mind that he also takes a lot of the cash.

 

Living the dream

Xi also plays the populist card in other ways. His Chinese Dream slogan for national rejuvenation sounds a lot like the American Dream of a home of your own and prosperity for all. It also sounds a lot like Donald Trump’s America First: under Xi Jinping, China has become much more assertive in supporting its own people and companies in the international arena. Deng Xiaoping’s maxim that China should quietly keep a low profile and bide its time has been thrown out the window. Chairman Xi proudly struts the world stage.

No one knows Xi Jinping’s real approval rating, and there is never going to be an opinion poll to tell us, but all the signs are that Xi is popular among ordinary Chinese. Even those who poke fun at him in China’s vibrant online satire culture seem to do so lovingly: the standard internet meme for Xi Jinping is Winnie the Pooh. Xi-Pooh comparisons are censored, but everybody knows about them, and if they laugh it’s not in a cruel way. Who doesn’t like Winnie the Pooh?

With his stock running high, rumors abound that Xi Jinping plans to stay in office beyond the customary ten-year term for Chinese leaders. Maybe he will. But even if he steps down, he will remain a popular force in Chinese politics, China’s first populist president. He’ll be a tough act to follow.

With another five years in office all but assured, Xi will almost certainly preside over the 100th birthday of the Communist Party in 2021. Expect a lot of hoopla come the day. And don’t expect China’s most popular politician to ride quietly into political retirement at some communist-themed golf resort. China’s millions of Winnie the Pooh fans will keep him in the public eye for decades to come.

Salvatore Babones

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