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Is Xi a Reformer? It’s still too early to tell

There is a hoary old tale about Zhou Enlai.  The premier was asked his opinion about the French Revolution.  Being the inscrutable embodiment of the Far East (and a Red at that!) Zhou is quoted as saying, “It’s too soon to tell.”  Ah, the wise old man of China with the long perspective.  Even luminaries such as Simon Schama have included this bon mot in their books on the French Revolution.  Turns out, according to most sources, that Zhou was confused, and thought the questioner was asking about the 1968 Paris demonstrations and not the 1789 French Revolution with the guillotine and Marie Antoinette.

C’est dommage. It’s a good line anyway.

I thought of the Zhou Enlai quote this week amidst the hand wringing over what did, or rather did not, happen during last week’s Third Plenum of the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.*

I understand the frustration. There’s an almost pathological desire among outside observers to acclaim every new Chinese leader as The One who will lead China to reform.

No doubt if there had been a foreign press corps in the 3rd century BCE they would have written of Qin Shihuang:

“Sure, he’s a reprehensible tyrant famous for slaughtering innocents and anyone who opposes him, but he gets things done and what China needs now is decisive leadership. Just look at how his success with wall and tomb construction has meant GDP growth and temporary jobs for thousands of soon to be buried alive slaves!”

or the Bloomberg version:

Code 204:


While the frustration is normal, everybody needs to take ten deep knee bends.  Xi has been in power for about a year (less if you include the formal state titles) and he’s basically Tommy Boy.**  He’s inherited a standing committee loyal to the other guys and there’s only so much he can do.  Fortunately, five of the seven guys are due to retire in 2017.  If in 2017, he still insists on naming  paleo-Party types to the standing committee then let the hand wringing truly begin.  Until then, he may just be biding his time.  I’m not saying that Xi is (or isn’t) a reformer, but as Zhou would say: It’s too soon to tell.


* They really need to work on these names.  How about have Vince McMahon come in and do a little marketing? It’s the 18th Super Slam Rematch III Xi vs. the Conservatives: This time it’s personal.  Oh. My. God! Is that Bo Xilai’s music?  Tell me this wouldn’t convince you to watch it a little bit…

**I will now not be able to get the image of Xi as Chris Farley and Li Keqiang in the David Spade role out of my mind. Hopefully you can’t either


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