China's leaders change, but will they change China?

The Great Hall of the People pictured in Beijing Photo: Reuters/Petar Kujundzic

Over the last few days the one word I've heard a lot during speeches and press conferences inside the Great Hall of the People is "Gai Ge" which means reform.

Type it into Chinese search engines and you are told "due to legal obligations imposed by Chinese laws and regulations, we have removed specific results for these search terms".

There's a gathering expectation that Xi Jinping, the next President, and Li Keqiang, the Premier in waiting, will take China in a fresh direction once they are officially presented as this vast nation's new leaders during a grand ceremony on Thursday.

Why is there this expectation? Western diplomats point to work the two men have done internally looking at economic liberalisation. Including, in Mr Li's case, co-sponsoring a World Bank report which looked at a more liberalised future for the Chinese economy.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meeting China's Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang Credit: Reuters/Minoru Iwasaki/Pool

In 2010, Li Keqiang said, "Only by opening wider the market, can we optimise the allocation of resources, the function of the market, and share the benefits of globalisation. In order to achieve a win-win situation, countries should open their markets to each other, expand their fields of opening up and iron out the trade and technology barriers."

Doesn't sound like a hard-line Communist does he?

However, what you have to bear in mind is that the days of Chairman Mao, a political strongman who could push through his reforms, albeit with often brutal and tragic consequences, are well and truly over.

Today's Chinese leaders are appointed not because they rise above and dominate the others but because they are committee men, keen on compromise and keeping the status quo. Experts in the internal favour trading which got them to the top in the first place.

If you think through the many suggestions of reform that are currently being made by many within Chinese society, then you always end up at a similar dead end.

Xi Jinping will be officially presented as President at a grand ceremony on Thursday Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

The brick wall is hit when you realise that no one round the top table would want to pipe up and propose taking power away from the Party. That would be seen as a sign of weakness. Chinese leaders fear showing weakness, which they see as a loss of control and loss of control leads to chaos, which terrifies them. Fundamentally, giving up power goes against everything the Party stands for.

In his speech last week, outgoing President Hu Jintao said, "We must draw on the beneficial fruits of humankind's political civilisation, but we will never copy the model of the Western political system".

A clear signal to his successor Xi Jinping as well as Li Keqiang that reforms must not stray away from the Chinese model, and that translates as "don't even consider giving up complete control by the Party". Hu could only make that speech once it had gathered support and approval from the rest of the Politiburo.

So reform? Does that mean giving the banks complete market freedom? Does that mean a liberalised personal finance system? Political reforms? Do they mean freedom of the press, freedom of expression and independent courts?

Many argue that if go down any of those routes, you get to the same dead end. No Chinese leader wants to risk the wrath of the Party, the vested interests and be accused of showing weakness. No Chinese leader would suggest taking significant control out of the hands of the Party.

New leaders, old limits on change.