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China's leadership change is disturbing the corridors of power

As China-watchers worldwide debate whether the new Communist Party leaders here will be able to push through the sort of political and economic changes that almost everyone agrees the country needs, a little noticed but possibly revolutionary reform appears to already be underway.

Officials and experts at some top level Chinese government meetings have been banned from simply reading their notes, and have instead been encouraged to speak spontaneously and engage in real discussion.

Nothing quite like it has disturbed the corridors of power for a generation.

“It was fresh and new and we had to concentrate,” says Zhou Shuzhen about a meeting she attended last week chaired by the anticorruption czar Wang Qishan, a member of the new seven-man Standing Committee of the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo.

“He said from the start that he wanted us to think hard instead of just reading our notes, says Professor Zhou, who teaches politics at Renmin Universityin Beijing. “That was a good sign.”

Li Keqiang, the party’s No. 2, stunned a meeting of provincial officials two weeks ago by interrupting one of them only a couple of minutes into his report on water pricing, according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

“I’ve read your report,” Mr. Li reportedly said bluntly, before asking a pointed question about its contents.

Xinhua did not reveal how well the official responded to such an unexpected demand that he get to the point, but he could have been forgiven for being flummoxed. Official Chinese meetings at all levels and of all descriptions are notorious for the manner in which participants drone on, eyes glued to their scripts, reciting their previously prepared words, regardless of what other people in the room have said.

Li seemed to be putting into practice one of the points that new party leader Xi Jinping made in his first appearance as top dog, when he made a speech in which he warned against “excessive formalism and bureaucratism” among Communist Party cadres.

That is part and parcel of a broader makeover of the party leadership’s image. Mr. Xi comes across in public as an affable and approachable man, speaking in a clear and direct fashion. That might seem unsurprising in a politician, but it marks a radical departure from the standard-issue party-speak delivered in wooden tones that Chinese citizens came to expect from Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao.

“The previous generation of leaders were mostly engineers,” Zhou points out. “They had a different mentality and meeting style.”

Zhou puts the new approach down partly to the fact that many members of the new party leadership spent their teenage years as “sent down” youth in the countryside, learning from the peasantry at Mao Zedong’s command.

“That means we have a deeper understanding of country life and of society,” argues Zhou.

The new meeting style, she adds, “is more productive, and efficient, and helpful for discussion,” but she warns that “it will be a challenge for mediocre officials. Their real abilities will be shown up.”

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