China's likely next leader

When he was sent to the countryside at 15 and his father was jailed, Xi Jinping learned a lesson in political pragmatism that has helped carry him to within a step of the pinnacle of power in China.

Eschewing the turbulent fervour of the Cultural Revolution in favour of stable growth, he has spent the 30 years since then working his way up the Communist Party hierarchy. His rise has been unspectacular. So much so that, until he took pole position in the race to lead a fifth of humanity, the party boss of Shanghai was less well known in China than his celebrity wife, Peng Liyuan, a folk singer in the People’s Liberation Army’s musical troupe.

The stout 52-year-old’s premier position among the “fifth generation” of communist leaders was signalled at a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in October to unveil the new standing committee of the politburo.

Introduced in strict hierarchical order, Xi emerged ahead of his rivals, signalling that he is most likely to become the next party leader and president in five years’ time.

Despite being the son of a high official of the revolutionary era, Xi’s elevation is a surprise to many politburo watchers, but it signals the growing strength of party “princelings” and the diffusion of power inside the world’s biggest political party.

Xi was born in Shaanxi province in 1953.
His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a veteran of the revolution who survived the Long March and became a vice-premier. But Xi’s privileged childhood was turned on its head by Mao’s purges. His father spent 16 years in prison. It was only in 1975 that he was released, later becoming an advocate of reform. Like many “intellectual youths” in the Cultural Revolution, Xi was dispatched to the countryside to learn from the peasant masses. It was a bitter experience that helped to shape his views.

“In the past, when we talked about beliefs, it was very abstract. I think the youth of my generation will be remembered for the fervour of the Red Guard era. But it was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realised, it proved an illusion,” he told state-run CCTV in 2003.

He returned to Beijing to complete the first of his two degrees from the elite Tsinghua University. Unlike most recent politburo members, he has a doctorate in law and ideological education.

A communist from the age of 21, Xi cut his administrative teeth in the fast-growing provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. Foreign investors and diplomats spoke highly of his English, knowledge of international business practices and ability to get things done.

He has twice been called on to clean up high-profile corruption cases, most recently in Shanghai where former party boss Chen Liangyu was caught up in a social security fund scandal. “Princelings” such as Xi have also come under suspicion because of the advantages they can secure through their family ties, but leading reformers believe they can be a force for change. “Most corrupt officials come from poor families. But Chinese royals like Xi have a spirit that is not dominated by money,” says Li Datong, a former editor who was fired for refusing to toe the line of the propaganda department.

Privately, people who have met Xi describe him as open-minded, friendly and not the type to put on airs. In public his views on policy are largely orthodox. He is less bellicose than other senior officials on Taiwan, which China considers to be a rogue province. But on other matters his speeches have carefully followed the leadership line.

Loyalty to the party, a lack of controversy and the ability to please all factions are the main qualities needed to rise inside today’s Communist Party, according to Nicholas Becquelin of Human Rights Watch. “There are no particular policies associated with Xi,” he says. “If you are tipped to go up the ranks, you have to be as bland as possible with nothing on your record that can attract opposition from rivals.”

In contrast to the autocratic rule of Mao Zedong, President Hu Jintao has had to balance the interests of rich and poor provinces, powerful families and patronage groups in choosing a successor. The favourite to become the next party leader was Li Keqiang, the party boss of Liaoning, who was a protégé of Hu’s for more than a decade. But he was too close to the president for the liking of other power brokers, such as former president Jiang Zemin, so Xi became the compromise candidate.

“His rise is slightly unexpected, but he has broad appeal,” said a European diplomat. His succession is not guaranteed. But if recent prece­dent is a guide, Xi will probably be president from 2012 to 2022. Before then, he will at least start to become as much of a household name as his wife.—Â

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