Growing up in California with no special interest in China, one of the few things I associated with the big country across the Pacific was mix-and-match meal creation. On airplanes and in school cafeterias, you just had “chicken or beef” choices, but Chinese restaurants were “one from Column A, one from Column B” combination domains. If only in more debates on China, a similar readiness to think beyond either/or options would prevail!
I thought of this early in 2013 when I saw a January 10 Reuters assessment of Xi Jinping’s actions during his first few weeks as head of the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.). The article carried this “chicken or beef” headline: “China’s New Leader: Harbinger of Reform or Another Conservative?” Previous Chinese leaders had often turned out to have both reformist and conservative sides. Even Deng Xiaoping, considered the quintessential reformer due to his economic policies, held the line on political liberalization and backed the brutal 1989 crackdown. Despite what the headline suggested, I joined with those analysts who thought it most likely that Xi, too, would end up ordering from both the reformist and conservative sides of the menu. And that’s what he has done. For example, he has instituted a dramatic change in the way rural property rights are handled, something that economist Barry Naughton, hailing it as one of several key important recent economic reforms, lauds for finally giving farmers “a clear system to support renting, leasing, and mortgaging land.” But, conversely, Xi has also done even more than his predecessor did to rein in civil society and shown an even greater penchant than Hu for celebrating traditional Confucian values.