The Chinese do not appoint a president so much as anoint him. The recent process began in 2007 when the new nine-man Politburo Standing Committee was formed. After five years of observation, the next president was chosen from this body. His front runner status was never in doubt, but it was also never assured. The actual settlement did not come until recently with the public recognition of Xi Jinping’s transition to the top spot to replace Hu Jintao by the end of 2012 as the country’s president, head of the military and the party. This man will be China’s new CEO. The seemingly neat evolution was the product of years of behind-the-scenes, sometimes vicious machinations among the nation’s power brokers.
In divining the future of the People’s Republic of China, analysts tend to focus on the character and background of the people chosen to assume the top leadership positions of the government and party. This is currently the case as the designated president, Xi Jinping, has visited major world capitals in an introductory tour prior to becoming Hu Jintao’s replacement later this year. The problem is that very little is known about him other than the biographical material made available by the official sources.
Much has been made of the prospective president’s lineage as the son of Xi Zhengxun, one of Mao Tse-tung’s followers during the famous “Long March,” and who became the youngest vice premier in Mao’s cabinet in the 1950s. From that sterling revolutionary beginning the Xi family fell into disfavor during the Cultural Revolution and the father was sent to prison while the young Jinping, we are told, spent the next six years on a remote farm until he was 21. By today’s standards these are excellent post-Mao credentials. Mao’s death and the ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping completely changed the family’s fortunes, as the elder Xi returned to active Communist Party life as party secretary in Guandong province.
While the young Jinping was attaining a degree in engineering from the prestigious Tsinghua University, his father was a member of the Deng inner circle that was responsible for the creation of Shenzen, the special economic zone that launched the new period of what would become the “Chinese way” of market economics. This placed the Xi family in the vanguard of new economic thinking that controversially is now called “liberal reform.” What is the most important selling point for Westerners is the action Xi Jinping’s father in 1989. The elder Xi opposed the military assault in Tiananmen Square and subsequently was forced into retirement as a result.
The question arises whether, and how much, these personal family experiences will actually matter. The nearly 59-year-old Xi Jinping above all must be considered in the broader context of China as an export-driven modernizing nation and a Chinese Communist Party whose nine-member standing committee of the politburo is the true ruling body.
There is also the determinant role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as Xi Jinping’s personal power base. While serving as provincial leader in Zhejiang, Jinping made a point of revitalizing the contacts he had made during his earlier uniformed stint as aide de camp to Defense Minister Geng Biao. The PLA is a political force in itself, but over the last thirty years it — and its ranking officers — has gained considerable economic and commercial influence through widely-based ownership and control of property, trading, and manufacturing companies. It is clear that Jinping has carefully maintained and nurtured his military connections to good effect.
Just as important in social/political terms is Jinping’s second wife, the nationally famous singer of patriotic songs, Peng Liyuan, who is said to hold an official rank of major general in the PLA. Xi Jinping has filled in all the political boxes, including having gained — or achieved by his work experience — a doctorate in Marxist theory and ideological education. This “academic” credit is a valuable addition to his formal party résumé.
In contrast to the current president, Jinping is consistently referred to as “personable” by foreigners who have met him. As reported by State Department leaked dispatches, Jinping at an early age decided to gain political protection by becoming recognized as a party loyalist of the first order. Good humor and consistent pragmatism clearly have smoothed his way to acceptance within the Chinese Communist hierarchy.
Xi Jinping’s party credentials have allowed this member of the highest social strata in China to march steadily up the Chinese Communist Party’s post-Mao path to success. During Xi Jinping’s recent White House visit, public relations advisers from both sides used every arrow in their quiver to project a positive image. They even emphasized his over six foot height along with his tennis playing, love of American films, and a daughter attending Harvard. It all may be true but really mean little if anything about how Jinping will govern.
Certainly this future president of China has allowed nothing to stand in the way of his getting ahead. One only can expect the same dedication to success in Xi Jinping’s period as primus inter pares among the Chinese leadership. It is not unreasonable to assume he will continue to provide justification for the growth of China’s military, whether it’s its space and missile program or its effort to build a combat-ready blue water navy.
In the end Xi Jinping can and will be judged only by what occurs during his presidency, which under his predecessor has included, among other things: intelligence operations to penetrate U.S. cyber systems (civilian and military); placing the South China Sea under PRC domination; support for Iran’s unfettered nuclear development; vetoes in the UN Security Council on motions to intervene in Syria; refusal to accurately revalue China’s currency, and so on. If such issues are approached differently during the presidency of Xi Jinping, he will come to hold a unique position in China’s global relations. However, his biography notwithstanding, it would be a major surprise both to China and to the world.