Xi Jinping will be restricted in his maneuvers

DW: Professor Schubert, Xi Jinping has been party head for almost four months now and today he is president. Can what he has said and done in the past four months give an indication of what direction he's going to take China?

Gunter Schubert: I think that's still relatively unclear. He has tried in the past months in several public speeches to hint that China needs a new reform process, new economic reforms, and in this way he has clearly distanced himself from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao's administration but it has all been very vague and not linked to a concrete political program. We have to wait and see how easy it is to really deviate from what his predecessor did in the past 10 years.

That is exactly my question: How freely can a man such as Xi Jinping actually make decisions in a system of collective leadership in which there are five-year plans, like the one agreed upon in 2011?

It's not so much the five-year plans that are limiting his freedom of maneuver. It's more the state and party leadership structures. It's a very well-balanced system in which the different politicians, the top cadres, are interlinked horizontally and vertically in very complex networks. Therefore, one man can't do so much. However, it's possible to learn from history. And one can't exclude that he might try with his charisma to bring people into the Politburo and the Standing Committee who are at his side - when he has a clear agenda, but this is not yet very visible in my opinion.

Let's take a look at foreign policy. We've got the territorial disputes with Japan and territorial conflicts in the South and East China Sea. How do you think Xi is going to position himself?

He's positioned himself quite clearly - as often happens in matters of Chinese foreign policy. These questions of territorial integrity, preserving the national interests are independent variables in Chinese politics. Clear language is always spoken so that unclear matters in domestic policy can be compensated with so-called "successes" in foreign policy. Because in the end no one can get by China and everyone has to come to an arrangement with China.

What do you think are the key challenges for the new leadership?

I think that they are in essence the same challenges as in the Hu Jintao era. What most definitely has to be tackled is the problem of social disparities. In some circles, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are accused of having produced a lost decade. I don't agree. I think this administration did a lot to provide public goods to the rural and semi-urban population. It also introduced a paradigm shift, a financial transfer from urban to rural centers, to encourage development and support social welfare, to improve rural infrastructures and above all to drive urbanization forward. This all had the clear aim of evening out the social differences between the urban and rural areas, reducing inland migration, and at the same time modernizing the cities by integrating the economic migrants. This is an agenda that Xi Jinping absolutely has to pursue. This where the greatest burdens for the political system lie.

Gunter Schubert, Ph.D. in Political Science, is Chair Professor of Greater China Studies at Tübingen University's Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies (AOI).