A sensible way for the new Chinese leader to navigate Beijing's treacherous political terrain is to reach out to the dissident community and, through reliable intermediaries, urge restraint and cooperation.
A reform-minded Xi will contend with China's hard-liners
One piece of Chinese conventional wisdom holds that a "princeling", or the scion of a senior official, is far more willing to take political risks than an average apparatchik who owes his position almost exclusively to his patrons in the one-party regime. China's new leader, Xi Jinping, whose father was a top official in Mao Zedong's government in the 1950s, is a princeling. His immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, is not. The style of the two leaders, based on Mr Xi's first 50 days in office, could not be more different. Mr Hu was cautious and self-effacing; Mr Xi is confident and assertive.
Since he was officially installed as General Secretary of the Communist Party in mid-November, Mr Xi has moved quickly to show that he is now in charge. In rapid succession, he issued bans on flower displays and red carpets at official functions and called for sumptuous official banquets to be replaced with a simple menu of "four dishes and a soup". (The official media even published the menu from one of his recent dinners.) As China's new commander-in-chief, Mr Xi has also prohibited the consumption of alcohol in the military during holidays and on official business occasions, which has led to a massive sell-off of the stocks of Chinese liquor companies.
In addition to these popular measures, Mr Xi has sounded a different political tune. He has promised repeatedly to pursue difficult reforms. The first official trip he took outside Beijing was to visit Shenzhen, a booming city next to Hong Kong. Twenty years ago, the late leader Deng Xiaoping also used his tour of the city to call for rapid economic reforms. Just in case the media failed to pick up the political symbolism of his trip, Mr Xi laid flowers in front a bronze statue of Deng in the city.
But while Mr Xi may appear far more reform-minded than his predecessor, there is one glaring omission in his speeches - political reform. He has so far carefully avoided wading into this minefield.
But China's pro-democracy forces are not waiting. They have immediately put Mr Xi to a difficult test.
On December 26, a group of leading liberal scholars, journalists and writers signed an open letter addressed to the government. They called on the Communist Party to honour the Chinese constitution, protect human rights, institute democratic elections and establish an independent legal system.
Almost immediately afterward, on Wednesday a small group of veteran dissidents (including one signer of the open letter) staged a daring act of defiance. They went to visit Liu Xia, the wife of jailed dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo. Ms Liu has been held under illegal house detention by the Chinese authorities for two years since her husband won the Peace Prize in 2010.
The dissidents pushed away a lone security guard who was stationed outside and managed to get into Ms Liu's apartment and talk with her for 15 minutes. The news was widely reported in the international media, clearly to the embarrassment of the Chinese government.
So far Beijing has not punished any of the signers of the open letter or the dissidents who visited Ms Liu. There are several possible explanations. The most plausible is that Mr Xi does not want to damage his image with an immediate crackdown. Politically, he needs the liberal forces to burnish his image as an open-minded new leader. Punishing the signers of the letter or the dissidents who visited Ms Liu would alienate China's liberal intelligentsia.
Even though this group holds little power inside official circles, they have enormous influence over public opinion and international support. Unless Mr Xi is another hardened conservative, he would not want to make them his enemies.
However, Mr Xi's apparent restraint carries its own risks. China's pro-democracy forces may continue to test the limits of his tolerance. They may become more aggressive in pushing the Xi administration on issues of human rights and democracy. There are many things they can do, such as organising more open letters and demanding that the Communist Party acknowledge the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown was a terrible mistake.
A bigger danger awaiting Mr Xi, should he decide to allow such expressions of dissent and defiance, is that other groups may take advantage of the little political opening created by the open letter and the visit to Ms Liu to press their demands and grievances. In particular, the spiritual group Falungong, which has been practically destroyed as a political force, might be encouraged to revive itself inside China.
Should such events happen, Mr Xi could find himself in a politically precarious position. His more conservative colleagues would force him to make a tough decision: crack down or quit. Two of Mr Xi's liberal predecessors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were forced out after they refused to suppress pro-democracy groups. Mr Xi certainly does not wish to follow their example.
A sensible way for Mr Xi to navigate Beijing's treacherous political terrain is to reach out to the dissident community and, through reliable intermediaries, urge restraint and cooperation. In the meantime, he will need to give the pro-democracy forces some hope that he will push for political change. This he can accomplish by softening China's recently promulgated tough regulations on internet users (one provision will force them to register with their real names) and by allowing Ms Liu to live and move about freely.
For Mr Xi, this will be the real test of his political courage.
Minxin Pei is a professor at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States