Xi Jinping

The rise of Xi Jinping, China's next leader

Xi Jinping will be the next leader of China, but to many observers he remains something of a cipher. In a three-part-series, the Post attempts to solve the mysteries of President Hu Jintao's successor by examining his early postings in rural Hebei and the work in the affluent coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang that were the foundation for his rise

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2012, 10:50am

The era of Xi Jinping is dawning.

In less than a month's time, he will succeed Hu Jintao as Communist Party general secretary, marking the climax of the once-a-decade leadership succession. In March he will succeed Hu as president. Xi will then rule the world's most populous nation and its second-largest economy for the coming decade.

But just as when Hu took office himself 10 years ago, the question on the lips of China watchers today is: who is the man who will become the torch bearer for the communist regime's new generation of leaders?

Xi, 59, has risen through the party ranks over the past three decades and has been groomed for the top job in the party's fifth generation of leaders for at least the past five years as vice-president, ranking No5 in the party's leadership hierarchy. Even so, very little is known about the man himself apart from his enviable pedigree and the sketchy details found in his official résumé. He is the "princeling" son of Xi Zhongxun, a former revolutionary general and vice-premier and one of China's first generation of communist leaders.

Xi's final ascent to the pinnacle of power, to be confirmed at the 18th national party congress next month, has been overshadowed by a slew of damning intra-party scandals, including the downfall of a fellow princeling politician, Bo Xilai, and swirling rumours about splits among top leaders.

Xi's sudden disappearance from public view for two weeks last month, which sparked intense speculation about the state of his health, has undoubtedly added to the mystery surround the leader-in-waiting.

Although China watchers generally believe Xi is more likely to be a reform-minded leader than his conservative predecessor, they caution against hopes that he may become a political strongman like the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, able to push for bold political reform.

There were similar expectations of Hu 10 years ago. But amid political uncertainties and intense factional politicking that came close to throwing the elaborately planned leadership succession into disarray, observers say hopes of imminent, substantial changes may turn once again into disillusionment.

Most political pundits, however, still believe Xi is capable of doing a better job than Hu, who has been blamed for the country's political stagnation, worsening corruption and poor record on human rights and environmental issues, despite glittering economic success.

Professor Roderick MacFarquhar, at Harvard University, said that while Xi shares with Hu a reputation for keeping a deliberately low profile and staying vague on policy issues, which have made both men acceptable to all factions and helped their rise to the top, he is the exact opposite of Bo, who campaigned almost publicly for a seat at the top leadership table until his spectacular downfall this year over his wife's involvement in a scandalous murder case.

Unlike Bo, who has good looks, speaks reasonably good English and became a media darling before his downfall, Xi, although also brought up in the Beijing district reserved for high-ranking officials, is seen as somewhat bland and rustic.

"Unlike Hu, who got there by a hard slog, not offending people and being efficient, Xi has had a certain self-confidence from the get-go, which Hu did not have," MacFarquhar said.

Professor Kerry Brown, a specialist in Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, described Xi as a highly networked person, thanks to his family background, his institutional, military and provincial links and his service as an official at all levels of government.

"He appeals to the widest constituencies in the party, and can reach out to them with the broadest appeal," Brown said.

Professor Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, agreed. "Xi is good at working with his senior level colleagues. His ability to get selected to succeed Hu despite Hu's preference for someone else testifies to his skills as a political manipulator," Tsang says.

MacFarquhar says Xi shows a remarkably higher level of confidence than many of his peers, including the premier-to-be, Li Keqiang , because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and had every advantage - except during the Cultural Revolution, when he and many other educated young people were sent to work in the countryside.

Many analysts say that because Xi will face greater problems and challenges than Hu, he may have even less room to manoeuvre than his predecessor, since the obsession of everyone at the top of the Communist Party is preserving the party's rule.

"Xi's tenure happens to coincide with a decade that will require much greater skills and leadership ability than the previous decade. How well he will manage this, only time will tell," Tsang said.