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Who Cares About China's Xi Jinping?

On a tour introducing China’s future leader to the world, we all got a good look at Xi Jinping. How much does that tell us about where China is heading?


Even if you're an avid follower of world events, it is quite likely you've only lately heard of Xi Jinping, the heir apparent in the Chinese Communist Party - and thus the presumptive leader of China.

During the high-level tour of the United States mid-February intended to introduce Xi to the world, you've no doubt witnessed a sudden frantic interest in his biography. It's a story full of contrasts. Xi, we are told, is one of China's 'princelings,' or children of senior leaders, who also suffered in the countryside as a youth during the Cultural Revolution. He's a big thinker, but he keeps controversial opinions to himself. He's an avid Marxist, but he has built large chunks of his career in parts of China where the market is at its most unleashed. An enjoyer of Western culture, he also is a prickly defender of China's interests.

"Laundry Song" Performed by Peng Liyuan

You've also probably heard that Xi's something of a character by the grey standards of the party: tall, confident and married to - perhaps previously upstaged by - Peng Liyuan, a singer famous in China for singing phantasmagorical and jingoistic songs (see embedded Vimeo video).

Honestly, though, you might still struggle picking Xi out of a line-up. Don't beat yourself up about it.

During his tour in America - a land famous for elevating the individual - Xi was subjected to unprecedented personal scrutiny, all while he attempted to present an affable face to Americans suspicious of China's rise. But even then, much of the Xi story remains hazy and open to multiple interpretations.

What will China be like after Xi fully takes over as president in 2013? It's not as much about Xi, the individual, as we in the West may like to think. But the gaps in his story provide some clues.

"I think we need a break from this 'Who he is'," says David Kelly, the research director at China Policy, a Bejing-based private analysis and advisory firm. "Yes, he is important as an individual. But he's not an individual like Barack Obama. What kind of individual who survives in the Communist Party is very different from the kind of individual who survives in the Democratic Party."

Little understood is China's opaque, consensus-driven system, where the Communist Party remains in ultimate control. It is a system riven by competing personalities, factions and interest groups, but knowing who these people are and what they're after is in a large part guesswork. The party's deliberations happen behind closed doors.

Xi's rise to the top of the Communist Party hierarchy has appeared assured for a number of years. It's a succession that will happen in a number of stages. A key moment in his rise will be a party congress later this year that will anoint the next generation of leaders and see a changeover in all but two seats on its top body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

“What kind of individual who survives in the Communist Party is very different from the kind of individual who survives in the Democratic Party.”

The media focus on Xi's near-inevitable rise to China's presidency (he's Vice President now) misses the point, Kelly says. The succession is about the party first, China's government second.

"Xi Jinping will be the General Secretary of the Communist Party, and he will be the President, and he will be the Chairman of the (Central) Military Commission. So these three hats are the three things to watch, and the presidency is the least of them," he says.

Xi's biography points to a man who has proved adept at avoiding enemies during his steady rise through the party hierarchy.

Born in 1953, the presumptive leader is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a former guerilla leader who rose to the position of Vice Premier not long after the Communists seized power. The young Xi grew up in a world of relative privilege in Zhongnanhai, the walledleadership compound near Beijing's Forbidden City. He was raised to be humble despite living in a world in which even minor distinctions in party rank conferred massively different privileges, according to an account in one leaked US State Department cable.

<p>Photo by Peter Muhly/AFP/ Getty Images</p>

Photo by Peter Muhly/AFP/ Getty Images

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping.

After his father was purged by Mao, the teenage Xi was sent to years of backbreaking work, living in a cave house in the impoverished countryside of Shaanxiprovince. This ordeal has been offered in China as a sign of his empathy with common folk. Returning to Beijing in the 1970s, Xi stood out among friends trying to get some enjoyment in their lives; he pursued a more austere path, "reading Marx and laying the foundation for a career in politics," according to the State Department cable. The elder Xi was later rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping and became a key advocate of China's economic opening.

Xi's career in politics, including serving as an aide in the People's Liberation Army and a series of provincial posts, has provided him a wide network. He also has managed to avoid the worst of the cutthroat factional politics that happens beneath the Party's veneer of stability.

Xi's elevation is the product of a party that values stability, aware that it governs a country where the public has no say in who its leaders are, according to Kerry Brown, the head of the Asia program at Chatham House.

"The CCP doesn't have the public support or political capital to engage in infighting out in the open. External unity, no matter what the internal fights, is the order of the day," Brown says.

At the heart of it all is the sense that China’s model — export-led capitalism dominated by massive state companies — is in need of a rethink.

The incoming generation of leaders will not have the power once wielded by Communist strongmen. The position of General Secretary is far weaker than the omnipotent post it was under Mao Zedong, or under the transformational Deng Xiaoping. Even the current leader, Hu Jintao, when he ascended a decade ago benefited from the perception of being anointed by Deng - despite the former leader being dead since 1997, Brown says.

The paradox is that Xi, the inoffensive man, will have to head a party facing down a diabolical set of challenges, for which there are hotly contested solutions.

China must manage its expanding global role while maintaining prosperity and social cohesion at home. As the economy expands, there is widening inequality. Social unrest triggered by this gap, as well as by corruption and ethnic tension, is becoming an increasing headache. China says it budgeted 624 billion yuan for internal security in 2011 (about USD 99 billion), outstripping the 601.1 billion yuan spent on the military.

You might still struggle picking Xi out of a line-up. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

At the root of all this is the sense that China's model - export-led capitalism dominated by massive state companies - is in need of a rethink. Export growth is shrinking, and Chinese are saving too much, rather than consuming to pick up the slack. The fight over this model, among the multiple overlapping factions and vested interests, will be the key challenge for the new leadership, Kelly says.

China's leaders also have to deal with policy headaches posed by widespread anxiety, particularly in the West and Asia, over the country's rapid expansion into global prominence. Xi's trip to the United States saw manifest criticism of, among other issues, the undervalued yuan and Chinese diplomatic cover in the United Nations for Syria's Assad regime. Debate is ongoing in China between assertive nationalists and advocates of a softly-softly foreign policy.

Where Xi stands on all this is something no one can say with complete certainty.

Seeming to stick your neck out too much can prove perilous. Take for example, the party boss in the megacity of Chongqing, Bo Xilai. Bo, another princeling, has attracted plenty of attention with a set of reforms aimed at reducing inequality, attracting investment and promoting so-called Red Culture.

<p>Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images</p>

Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images

Chief of Chongqing’s Public Security Bureau, Wang Lijun.

Bo has been widely considered a sure thing for the standing committee, but that has been put in doubt by a scandal this month involving his mafia-busting police chief and close ally, Wang Lijun. Wang caused a nationwide stir after he disappeared into what local officials at one stage euphemistically called "vacation-style treatment" after spending one day in the US consulate in Chengdu in the neighbouring province of Sichuan. Wang is now widely believed to be in detention in Beijing amid speculation of a falling out with Bo and efforts by factional rivals to bring down the Chongqing Party boss. The police chief also reportedly also unsuccessfully sought asylum in the United States.

Kelly says he's not sure where Xi will fall on issues of reform, but predicts the presumptive leader will gradually side with party leaders who are in favour of modifying the China model and curtailing the powers of some deeply entrenched state firms.

But there's no way of knowing for sure.

"He has to play all the interests and factions off each other, he has to keep all his cards up his sleeves, and choose when to play them," Kelly says. "That's where the individual counts, and unfortunately we won't know too much about that until it's in hindsight."

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