THE words of few global leaders these days sound as pleasing to liberal ears as those of Xi Jinping. How comforting it was when, shortly before Donald Trump’s swearing-in as America’s president, Mr Xi advised the assembled elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos that blaming globalisation for the world’s problems was “inconsistent with reality” and that protectionism was “like locking oneself in a dark room”. These were not just platitudes crafted for foreigners. Back in his own country, Mr Xi has been striking a similar tone. He chaired a meeting this month that called on reluctant officials not to shilly-shally with economic and social reforms, but to “choose the heaviest burden and chew on the hardest of bones”. The main state-run news agency said the central government’s demands for reform were becoming “ever clearer”.

If only there were evidence in China that Mr Xi really means what he says, and that, if he does, bureaucrats are paying heed. Recent news has suggested quite the opposite. Officials have been trying to crush dissent with even greater vigour. Their targets now are not only the usual suspects—those few who dare to challenge the Communist Party openly—but also mainstream liberals who want to work within the system to make China a better place. In the past few months hardliners have taken control of a leading magazine once beloved of such reformists. Popular online forums for moderate, pro-reform debate have been closed down—including, in January, those run by one of the country’s most prominent think-tanks, Unirule (see article). Mr Xi’s predecessors had put up with them. He looks keen to keep even the moderates quiet.

It is tempting to pin all the blame for the suffering of China’s liberals on Mr Xi himself. After all, he is often described as the country’s most powerful leader at least since Deng Xiaoping. Who else could be responsible? But getting the measure of this colossally important figure, for China’s destiny as well as the rest of the world’s, is fiendishly hard. Since he came to power in 2012, Mr Xi has abhorred consistency. At times his language has been even more reformist than Deng’s, at others it has been coloured by nationalism, with warnings against the “infiltration” of China by “Western thinking and culture”. He has called for the Communist Party’s power to be “put in a cage”. But China’s chief justice (presumably with Mr Xi’s blessing) has recently railed against the “erroneous influence” of those who want an independent judiciary. At times Mr Xi sounds pro-market, yet he refers to debt-laden and market-distorting state-owned enterprises as his party’s “most dependable source of support”. The consensus among China-watchers is that, under Mr Xi, the country has been more protectionist and intolerant of dissent than for many years.

Who he, Xi?

There are two possible explanations for these contradictions. The first is that Mr Xi has no real interest in reform: that his talk about it is largely a sop to the West and an attempt to deceive those Chinese who are eager for change. If so, he is using his enormous power for precisely the purpose he intends: crushing all opposition and keeping the party in control of everything, including the main levers of the economy. The other possibility is that Mr Xi is less powerful than he appears—that he wants reform (at least of the economy), but feels he must make concessions to his party’s hardliners, or that he tries to initiate reform but is stymied by conservative subordinates.

It would be better for China if the second explanation were true. A five-yearly reshuffle of the leadership is due later this year; it may leave Mr Xi feeling stronger and therefore more able to pursue the reforms he says he wants and that his country needs. But in the years ahead China must grapple with slowing growth, an ageing population and social unrest. Despite the best efforts of the government’s internet censors, social media have provided unprecedented opportunities for the disaffected to join forces and put pressure on the party. It would take consummate skill to navigate those hazards while keeping reforms on course. Whether Mr Xi is a despot or a frustrated reformer, China is unlikely to loosen up.