The man most likely to be China’s next president has shown himself a strong supporter of free market economic reforms, but steered clear of a swelling debate over political changes, leaving his future intentions in doubt.
Vice President Xi Jinping, 57, boosted his chances of succeeding President Hu Jintao in 2013 when he was promoted Monday evening to a key post seen as the penultimate step on the ladder to the top job.
The son of a revolutionary hero and former vice premier, Mr. Xi is a prominent “princeling” whose political and family connections have served him well in his rise through the ranks of the ruling Communist party.
Efficient consensus builder
Xi has developed a reputation as an efficient administrator and a skilled consensus builder who has managed not to make serious enemies, observers say. Though he has spent his career in China’s most prosperous eastern provinces, he has earned a national reputation by overseeing high profile events such as the 2008 Olympic Games and through his marriage to a popular folk singer.
Xi was named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission on Monday by the annual Communist party plenum. President Hu was given the same job before he was named head of the party in 2002 and then president in 2003.
Xi made a name for himself as a party prospect in the coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang “where he did well promoting the market economy and being very entrepreneur-friendly” says Li Cheng, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
In 2007 he was sent to Shanghai as a troubleshooter, to run the country’s biggest city after the former party leader there had been fired for corruption. Only a few months later he was drafted onto the nine-man Standing Committee of the Communist party Politburo, the country’s top policymaking body.
Family ties for the 'princeling'
As the son of a veteran revolutionary, Xi has enjoyed privileges. Soon after graduating from the prestigious Tsinghua University, where he studied Organic Chemistry, he became secretary to the Minister of Defense; he has worked in the most prosperous regions of the country and he was elevated to the Standing Committee with unusual speed.
Those family ties have also been a problem. His father was purged by Mao Zedong in 1963 and spent 16 years in jail; young Jinping was sent to a particularly grim village in Northeastern China to work in the countryside for several years (and once ran away before being caught by the police).
“He has had first hand experience of how tough life can be and of how brutal old Communist politics could be,” says Huang Jing, an expert in Chinese leadership issues at the National University of Singapore.
Xi’s family background has also sometimes appeared to be a drawback in his political career. He won the fewest votes of any candidate promoted to be an alternate member of the Central Committee in 1997. “People didn’t like princelings… that were not well tested,” says Dr. Li.
As head of the Central Party School, Xi has sounded moderately conservative in political matters, but has avoided identifying himself publicly either with reformers or opponents of political liberalization at home.
He drew international attention to himself, however, with a comment early last year during a visit to Mexico when he made a jibe about “bored foreigners with full stomachs who have nothing better to do than to point their fingers at us” [translated from Chinese].
“Firstly, China does not export revolution; secondly China does not export hunger and poverty; thirdly China does not come and cause you headaches,” he told his Mexican audience tartly. “What more is there to say?”
Like a number of other members of his leadership generation who will be running China in a few years’ time, Xi has “a strong sense of mission to keep this system going” says Professor Huang. “Their fathers belonged to the generation that made the revolution. That means they might be more resolute in dealing with the corruption” that plagues China’s political and economic life.
At the same time, predicts Huang, Xi and his fellow leaders will find it hard to share China’s growing wealth fairly among its citizenry without political reforms. The next president’s top challenge, he says, will be “to strike a balance between reform and keeping the system intact.”