Will Xi Be Able to Deliver on People’s High Hopes?

Chinese Communist Party President Xi Jinping.
Wang Zhao | AFP | Getty Images
Chinese Communist Party President Xi Jinping.

Deng Guohua has insights into China's new president that few dignitaries let alone ordinary Chinese will ever have.

He and his family had a sit down with Xi Jinping at his home when the Chinese leader came through Shenzhen as part of his tour to the south of the country in December last year.

"I felt like it was the starting point of Xi serving the people," Deng said. "He's reaching out to understand ordinary citizens, our work and way of life."

Now that Xi Jinping has officially taken over as the president of the world's second largest economy, many in the public are hopeful he will carve a new path for the nation.

China is at a critical juncture in its economic development – when focusing on growth at all costs may no longer be the mantra that can keep the Communist Party in power, as it has for the past three decades.

"When Deng [Xiaoping] started in the '80s, it was enough to have 'more' as a mantra – more wealth, more food, more abundance," said historian and China expert Orville Schell. "Now that China has a substantial middle class and has been successful in creating 'more,' there are a whole host of questions that arise, 'What is the next act going to be all about?'"

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Experts say the next act of China's drama of modernization will need to include painful economic reforms to help reorient the economy from an investment-led one to a consumer nation.

To signal his intentions, Xi visited Shenzhen, following in the footsteps of a previous leader credited with transforming the nation's economy: Deng Xiaoping.

Twenty years ago, when it looked as though the momentum for economic reforms was stalling in China, the country's leader Deng decided to take his famous "southern tour" – a visit to the birthplace of China's market economy, Shenzhen. His trip in the wake of the Tiananmen protests, which were triggered in part by economic concerns, reaffirmed the Deng government's commitment to reforms.

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Linking himself to Deng's legacy, Xi toured the same fishing village where the earlier paramount leader visited and stopped by the home of ordinary resident Deng Guohua.

Rags-to-Riches Village

The fishing village, Yumin, is one of the first places to benefit from China's experiment with markets. Deng had designated the land a special economic zone, allowing the villagers to transform a sleepy backwater into one of the richest towns in China. The village, now a sprawling apartment complex, is nicknamed the "rags-to-riches" village.

"We used to rely on fishing," Deng Weixiong, Deng Guohua's father said. "After reforms and opening up, we developed the industry with drivers, boats, and factories. Our incomes jumped several folds."

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Despite Xi's signal to reform, many experts are skeptical if the son of a revolutionary hero will be able to push for radical change. They say he needs to tackle entrenched interests, such as the state-owned enterprises, and others who have benefited from the current system.

"Realistically, vested interests are leading the party," said Beijing-based scholar Zhang Lifan. "If Xi threatens them, then he's in great danger of being pushed out."

Since the announcement last November that he would be taking over as president, Xi Jinping has been trying to present himself as a man of the people. He's promised to fight corruption and bridge the wealth divide. However, many believe the pledges need to be backed by action and the country's increasingly educated population should be allowed to criticize the status quo.

Protests broke out in January in the southern Chinese trading hub of Guangzhou when journalists at a liberal newspaper rebelled over the government's strict censorship rules. Journalists from The Southern Weekly clashed with censors who had reworked their New Year day editorial which had asked for guaranteed constitutional rights.

Yan Lieshan, who worked at the paper as a columnist till last year, lives amongst the journalists at the housing complex provided by the publication. He said they have been strongly discouraged to speak to the foreign media about the incident.

"I just want to be able to express myself," Yan said. "I wish China were free. To want these things is the most basic human right."

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In a rare show of support, those who benefit from the system - celebrities, businessmen, and lawyers – had publicly backed the journalists.

Zhang had got a petition signed by 70 prominent academics and lawyers demanding the party rule according to China's constitution, which allows for greater rights.

"Throughout Chinese history, if a regime cannot change, a power rises up, and it is overthrown," Zhang said. "If we cannot reform soon, then China could have a revolution."

Back in Shenzhen, Deng Guohua hopes the new leaders bring about enough change so that never happens.

"When you look at Shenzhen and the way this small fishing village developed, you can see how all of China can develop," Deng Guohua said. "The future of China can be like Shenzhen."

(Watch:Inside China on CNBC TV)