Everything You Need To Know About China's President-In-Waiting

Xi Jinping

Photo: Hannah Johnston/Getty Images

Xi Jinping’s disappearance during the first two weeks of September cast doubt on the health of the future Chinese leader and prompted speculation of political infighting in the Chinese communist party. But Xi surfaced two weeks later, looking healthy and ready to take the helm from current president Hu Jintao.

He is expected to become general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the 18th Party Congress, and the president of China after the National People’s Congress in 2013.

But little is known about Xi the “compromise candidate” and his rise to power.

Xi’s ascendancy

Before the 17th Party Congress in 2007, Li Keqiang was expected to be next in line to take over as the president of China in 2012. But his nomination to the post of vice-premiere made it almost certain that Xi Jinping, who was named vice-president, would take over from Hu.

Xi’s spot as the future president of China was further strengthened by the success of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, according to Zheng Yongnian and Chen Gang of the East Asia Institute. This is because Xi, who had significant experience in local governance, but lacked similar experience at the national level got the opportunity to flex his leadership skills when he was put in charge of preparations for the Olympics.

From Zheng and Chen:

“It was a  comprehensive mission that involved not only foreign affairs, but also security, logistics, transportation, media management, environment protection and other preparatory work that needed extensive domestic coordination among the military forces (PLA), police, party, and different governmental bureaucracies and localities.  

The number of terrorist plots by Xinjiang Muslim separatists, the protests along the global Olympic torch relay route triggered by the Tibet violent riots in March, as well as the increasing domestic unrest amidst rising inflation and social inequality in 2008 heaped the Games with such high risks and such great international pressure that it was almost impossible for the organisers to handle. With the Party and people having high expectations for success, there was little room for failure.”

An interesting side note is that Xi held some of the same positions that Hu did before he became the leader of China. 

Xi was appointed the executive secretary of the Secretariat – a bureaucratic body that helps manage the work of the Politburo and its standing committee (PSC) – from 2002 – 2007. Hu had held the same position from 1997 – 2002. This shows an institutionalization of the manner in which officials are being appointed to positions of power.

Xi jinping

Photo: Guang Niu/Getty Images

The “compromise candidate”But Xi’s climb to the top of China’s political arena can be attributed to more than just his political successes.

His ability to be respectful of party elders, and his father Xi Zhonxun’s alliance with Hu Yaobang, former chairman and general secretary of the Communist Party, won the younger Xi favour* with the reformists and the Youth-League faction, according to John Dotson at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC):

“Xi Zhongxun’s friendship and political alliance with Hu Yaobang “in the long run gave political credits to his son [Xi Jinping] in the eyes of liberal Party officials and the so-called ‘Youth League faction’, thereby adding to the younger Xi’s value as a compromise candidate acceptable to both of the CCP’s most powerful factions.

…Xi Jinping may have been successful in rising through the CCP bureaucracy in part by being attentive to senior leaders, and circumspect in expressing his own views. Such reporting as is available paints a picture of a man who is very personable; very politically ambitious, with his eyes on a senior leadership post from an early age; and possessed of a confident belief that the children of the CCP’s revolutionary generation are the natural heirs to rule China.”

Impact of Xi’s childhood and his stance on the U.S.

Xi initially grew up in the lap of luxury while his father Xi Zhongxun was appointed vice-premier. But after the older Xi fell out with Mao Zedong he was stripped of all his positions and sent to prison.

During this time Xi Jinping was sent to work in the countryside. In an essay titled ‘Son of the Yellow Earth’ via The LA Times, Xi explained that he despised the fleas, the farm work, and the food, prompting him to run away to Bejing only to be captured and sent back. 

But his time in the countryside is said to have been extremely formative. Xi is quoted writing (from the NY Times) “Much of my pragmatic thinking took root back then, and still exerts a constant influence on me.”

On his return however, he is said to have committed to his work and eventually sought out the approval of the Communist Party’s youth league.

Xi Jinping in Muscatine, IowaXi Jinping in Muscatine, Iowa

Photo: AP Images

But Xi also has ties with the West. He spent some time at a farm in Iowa nearly 25 years ago, when he was an official in China’s Hebei province; he is said to love basketball, American war movies like Saving Private Ryan, and, his daughter is studying at Harvard University.While he appears more at ease on international visits than president Hu who is seen as a typical Communist bureaucrat, Xi has been described as “redder than red”. And during a visit to Mexico in 2009, he showed his intolerance for Western criticism of China with a comment that is believed to have been directed at the U.S. (via Asia One):

“‘There are some foreigners who have eaten their fill and have nothing better to do than point their fingers at our affairs. ‘China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; or third, cause unnecessary trouble for them. What else is there to say?'”

Moody’s analyst Xu Cheng told Business Insider that Chinese policy to the U.S. is difficult to predict without knowing the U.S.’s policy towards China. While he doesn’t expect Xi to “poison” the relationship with the U.S., he did warn that Xi “did not grow up in a family culture of giving in” and that “America will find him a very difficult person to deal with, if it wants to trudge into the waters in which the Chinese leaders consider as their own affairs.”

What to expect from China’s president-in-waiting

china leadership slide

Photo: U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

Xi is likely to establish power by promoting into the leadership from three groups according to Alice Miller at the China Leadership Monitor. In her paper. ‘Who Does Xi Jinping Know and How Does He Know Them?’ she writes that the people that Xi promotes are most likely to be ‘princelings’ – the sons and daughters of Chinese Party elders.The second group of people would likely come from his connections from the Secretariat where he has served as executive secretary, and his time as president of the Central Party School since 2007. Finally, he is also expected to look to colleagues that he worked with during his 25-year tenure as a provincial official.

Xi is also expected to tackle income inequality in China. The country’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, is at a range of 0.45 – .49. It is unsurprising then that the poor in China are discontent and are seen as a source of instability. This has also in turn hurt consumer spending and prevented China’s ability to move away from an export and fixed asset investment (FAI) led growth model.

Moody’s analyst Xu said he expects Xi and Li to continue to build up a sense of security and to focus on stabilizing home prices. 

“Xi, together with Li, is likely to continue the recent efforts made by Hu and Wen to build up the feeling of security among the Chinese middle and lower income class. They will target at the ‘new three mountains’ on the Chinese households:  Housing price, Education Expenses, and Healthcare.”

While president Hu’s leadership was market by high-speed growth, and the massive 4 trillion yuan stimulus during the global financial crisis, the Xi-Li partnership is increasingly unlikely to be able to maintain such high growth.

Xi JinpingXi Jinping at a book fair in Germany

Photo: AP Images

Everything from the economic rebalancing to domestic demand led growth, rising wages, the impact of the demographic trends on its labour force, the global economic slowdown, and a property bubble, are expected to contribute to the slowdown in the Chinese economy.And though this slower pace of growth will be higher than the GDP growth rates across Europe, the U.S., and Japan, Alice Miller at the China Leadership Monitor writes that this will pose a challenge to Xi’s leadership:

“Slower growth rates will bring new social stresses and political issues, as the Xi leadership will be forced to wrestle with the dilemmas of refereeing among constituencies pressing for expanded allocations and favourable policy treatment, be they the state-owned versus private sectors, scientific and technical institutions clamoring for investment in technology innovation, or the military and its rival services. 

This seems a recipe for a more contentious politics ahead that will confront a leadership that is in many ways more diverse and so harder to rally around a decisive consensus.”

Xi is expected to serve two five-year terms.

*The piece was updated to clarify that Xi won favour with reformists and the youth league faction.

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