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FILE PHOTO: In this photo taken Sept. 1, 2012 and released by China's Xinhua News Agency, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping addresses the opening ceremony of the autumn semester of the Party School of the Communist Party of China in Beijing. (Li Tao/AP)
FILE PHOTO: In this photo taken Sept. 1, 2012 and released by China's Xinhua News Agency, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping addresses the opening ceremony of the autumn semester of the Party School of the Communist Party of China in Beijing. (Li Tao/AP)

China’s leader Xi Jinping says he welcomes criticism; critics aren’t so sure Add to ...

What does it mean when the new leader of a regime known for jailing its most prominent critics says he welcomes criticism?

Was Xi Jinping signalling an important break from the past on Thursday when he said the Communist Party “should be able to put up with sharp criticism”?

Was he encouraging China’s legions of bloggers – and the much smaller number of outspoken political dissidents – to speak up without fear when he said “non-Communist Party personages should meanwhile have the courage to tell the truth, speak words jarring on the ear, and truthfully reflect public aspirations”?

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The answer is that no one yet knows for sure what Mr. Xi meant. For starters, he delivered the message on the eve of China’s week-long Lunar New Year holiday, a time when few Chinese are paying attention to the news, even fewer to cryptic messages from their country’s leaders.

Mr. Xi is still in the process of acquiring control of the country’s levers of power. While he became leader of the Communist Party and head of the country’s military in November, his predecessor in those posts, Hu Jintao, remains President until March, when he is due to also hand that post to Mr. Xi.

But the initial reaction from those brave enough to speak up was cynicism about the Communist Party’s ability to face its faults.

“The state won’t pardon me for going to Tiananmen [Square] and expressing sharp criticism, will it?” dissident artist Ai Weiwei wrote on his Twitter account. Mr. Ai spent 81 days in solitary confinement in 2011 for his outspoken criticism of the regime. (The most prominent critic, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, has been in prison since 2008 for helping write a pro-democracy manifesto.)

Some openly worried about a trap akin to Mao Zedong’s “Hundred Flowers Campaign” of 1956, which saw the Communist leader encourage those with dissenting views to speak up, only to reverse course a year later and jail all those who had taken him at his word.

“Is it possible [for the Communist Party] to tolerate the sharp criticism? The experiences of the history are worth noting,” historian Zhang Lifan wrote on the Sina Weibo social networking site, in response the official Xinhua news report on Mr. Xi’s remarks. “Every time they promised ‘no punishment’… they always broke their promise.”

But comparisons to Mao are unfair to Mr. Xi, whose own father – revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun – was among those purged by the Chairman. The younger Mr. Xi spent seven years working as a farm labourer in remote Shaanxi province after his father’s fall from grace.

Since the power transfer began in November, the 59-year-old Mr. Xi has signalled he wants to at least change the optics of the Communist Party’s rule. He has adopted a more open style than the rigid Mr. Hu, dispensing with much of the vast entourage his predecessor travelled with and mingling more freely with ordinary Chinese. (He spent the week before the Lunar New Year holiday travelling in impoverished parts of China, reminding villagers there that he had also grown up as a poor farmer after his father was purged.)

Mr. Xi has also overseen a very visible and popular campaign to squelch official corruption – including a string of high-profile arrests around the country – which has been driven in part by independent bloggers’ exposés of official greed. There have been suggestions, too, that the regime will end its decades-long use of “reeducation through labour” as a way of punishing its critics.

In his remarks Thursday, Mr. Xi said the Communist Party should “correct mistakes if it has committed them and avoid them if it has not.” He was speaking at a meeting with leaders of China’s non-Communist “parties,” powerless political groupings that in fact support Communist rule.

There remain questions how much power Mr. Xi – who is only first among equals on the seven-man Standing Committee of the Politburo that runs the country – really has. While some reformers hope Mr. Xi has inherited his father’s willingness to stand up for what he believes in, the rest of the Standing Committee is stacked with political conservatives who are seen as resistant to substantive changes.

If Mr. Xi’s words were meant to mark a new era, the country’s army of overzealous Internet censors certainly didn’t get the message. In the 24 hours after Mr. Xi’s remarks were first reported by Xinhua, the story was forwarded more than 50,000 times. However, all but 300 mostly tame comments were erased from the conversation thread on Sina Weibo.

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