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Who is Xi Jinping, and where will he lead China ?

The imminent accession to power of China’s fifth generation of leaders since 1949 focuses attention on the background and character of its new president. Xi Jinping’s route to the summit, and the crucial fall of his fellow princeling Bo Xilai along the way, is assessed by William A Callahan.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in the midst of a transition from the fourth-generation leadership of President Hu Jintao to the fifth-generation leadership of Xi Jinping. The official transition takes place in two steps : Xi Jinping will take over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the eighteenth party congress that starts on 8 November 2012, and he will be elected president of the PRC at the national people’s congress (NPC) in March 2013.

But who is Xi Jinping, and where will he lead China ? Because of the party’s secrecy, reliable sources are scarce. Beyond Xi’s potted official career history, most of what is known about his personal life and his beliefs comes from rumour and gossip. Otherwise, the main sources are leaked American diplomatic cables (see « Portrait of Vice President Xi Jinping : ‘Ambitious Survivor’ of the Cultural Revolution », American embassy, Beijing, 09BEIJING3128).

With these caveats in mind, a few things are clear. Like many of the fifth-generation leaders, Xi is a « princeling » : an informal group of around 300 children of veteran communist revolutionaries. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, joined the CCP in 1928, and was a revolutionary hero who founded a key communist guerrilla base-area in northern China. After spending the cultural revolution in jail, the elder Xi was rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping. He became the party head of Guangdong province, where he launched the Shenzhen economic reform experiment that initiated China’s economic opening to the world in the 1980s.

Xi Jinping was born in Beijing in 1953 when his father was head of the CCP’s central propaganda department and deputy minister of culture and education. So Xi grew up in the gated communities and elite schools of China’s red aristocracy. Like many of the princelings, Xi has used family connections to smooth his career. But while other princelings have gone into business to make vast fortunes, Xi used his network for political advancement.

Xi, according to the childhood friend cited in a United States diplomatic cable, has been « single-minded » and « exceptionally ambitious » in his pursuit of high office. Even though his father was denounced and tortured during the cultural revolution, Xi decided to join the CCP during this turbulent period. To avoid Beijing’s hyper-competitive political climate, Xi chose to start his career outside the capital, and in 1983 he requested a position in the provinces.

Over the next twenty-five years, Xi rose through the ranks of the party leadership, starting in the poor northern province of Hebei (1983-85), before being transferred to the wealthy southeastern provinces of Fujian (1985-2002) and Zhejiang (2002-07). Due to successful anti-corruption drives, he acquired the reputation of being « Mr Clean ». Hence in 2007, Xi was parachuted in to lead Shanghai, which was in the midst of a corruption scandal. Xi dealt with the scandal so effectively that within seven months he was summoned to Beijing to join China’s central leadership in October 2007, and become vice-president of the PRC in March 2008.

The heir apparent

As this impressive professional biography shows, Xi has the perfect formal credentials. Instead of pursuing a specific political programme - either as an economic reformer or as a political conservative - Xi’s career shows that he’s a careerist ; instead of being ideological, he is best-known for being pragmatic and loyal. While his father was in jail during the cultural revolution, Xi survived this tumultuous period by becoming « redder than red ». Later, when he worked in the prosperous southeast, Xi promoted economic reform. When speaking as the president of the CCP’s central party school in 2010, Xi enjoined people to study the Marxist classics. In other words, Xi is loyal to the party, whatever the particular party line is at the time. Like most of China’s leaders, Xi has no experience outside the system ; he even divorced his first wife because she wanted to live abroad.

When meeting with western politicians and officials he is engaging and even friendly : according to the leaked diplomatic cables, Xi told an American ambassador that he liked Hollywood movies because they show that « Americans have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil. » But for other audiences, he lashes out at the west : « Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us, » he told overseas Chinese in Mexico in 2009. « First, China does not export revolution ; second, it does not export famine and poverty ; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say ? » On the other hand, Xi sent his daughter to study at Harvard University. Like many Chinese, he has mixed views about the west ; his foreign-policy ideas, like his policy preferences in other areas, are more flexible than ideological.

Flexibility can be a strength ; but it doesn’t reveal much about what Xi will do once he’s China’s leader. Again, the diplomatic cables suggest Xi believes that the princelings are China’s « legitimate heirs » who are entitled to lead because « rule by a dedicated and committed communist party leadership is the key to enduring social stability and national strength. » Xi’s beliefs about his natural leadership role in China thus have much in common with popular feelings about China’s natural leadership role on the world stage : both Xi and the PRC are pragmatic, ambitious, successful, and see themselves as destined to rule. While the rise of the princelings in 2012 heralds the return to power of the red aristocracy, the rise of the PRC in the 21st century marks the return of China as the centre of the world.

These sketchy sources are not enough to provide certainty about what Xi’s hopes and dreams for China are. Since the main task of an heir apparent in China is not to stand out, leadership style and policy preferences only emerge after he (as it always been) gains the top job. Still, soon after Xi was summoned to the capital in 2007, he was put at the helm of China’s mega-events : the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the PRC in 2009. During his short tenure as Shanghai’s party secretary in 2007, he was an ardent supporter of Shanghai’s World Expo 2010. This shows how he was involved in shaping Beijing’s official view of China as an authoritarian capitalist civilisation-state.

While Hu Jintao turned out to be a weak leader who generally lacked confidence, Xi’s self-confident charm could make him a strong leader who makes bold choices. But as only the first-among-equals in the central leadership’s collective decision-making, it is unlikely that Xi will be a transformational leader like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Xi is his second wife, Peng Liyuan. Peng is one of China’s most famous folk-singers. As the long-time host of CCTV’s Chinese new-year gala - the most important event in Chinese television - Peng was probably more famous than her husband, at least until recently. Peng’s patriotic crooning as a major-general in the PLA’s premier singing troupe makes her popular with rank-and-file soldiers, which adds a populist element to Xi’s military connections. In 2011, Peng’s fame went global : she was appointed « goodwill ambassador » by the World Health Organisation’s director-general Margaret Chan, who is from Hong Kong. Many expect Xi’s glamorous wife to give a Kennedy-esque feel to his tenure.

The rivals

Most analysts compare Xi and China’s premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang, pointing out that they come from rival factions in the CCP. Xi is a princeling who is part of former president Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai gang. Li has risen through the ranks under the patronage of current president Hu Jintao and the Communist Youth League faction of the CCP, which is seen as more populist than the elitist princeling group. But rather than probe the dance of these two factions, it is more important to compare two « princelings » : Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai, who until his downfall was party secretary of the southwestern city of Chongqing (2007-12).

Xi and Bo make an interesting comparison because their experience illustrates not only how to succeed in China’s elite politics, but also how to fail : in 2012 Xi will become the leader of the CCP, while Bo was expelled from the party. Bo’s fall triggered the party’s most serious crisis since 1989. It exposed factionalism, corruption and abuses of power at the very heart of the CCP leadership, which damaged the party’s legitimacy in the eyes of both the elite and ordinary people.

This scandal was shocking because it was so unexpected ; everyone was predicting a smooth transition to the fifth-generation leadership. Before his fall, Bo Xilai used the mass media to capture the national imagination by courting populist audiences, as well as elite patronage. He was handsome, articulate and media-savvy ; if Peng Liyuan is Jackie-O, then Bo was China’s JFK. He was the « crown prince » among princelings : his father Bo Yibo was a top revolutionary veteran who held key posts under both Mao and Deng ; he was one of the powerful communist party veterans who backed Deng’s crackdown after the massacre of 4 June 1989.

In 2007, Bo Xilai was in the running to become China’s vice-president, and thus its president in 2012 ; but after much politicking, Xi Jinping beat him to be the princeling candidate for the vice-presidency. Bo was named to the politburo in 2007 ; but he was sent to the provinces. Rather than take this demotion as the end of his career, Bo decided to use his time in Chongqing to openly campaign for a seat on the politburo standing committee, the small group that runs China.

But Bo campaigned for the standing committee in an atypical way. Rather than just rely on personal networks to broker a backroom deal in the politburo, he started a number of high-profile political campaigns. Soon after arriving in Chongqing, Bo launched a crackdown on the city’s notorious criminal syndicates that controlled prostitution, drugs, and other illegal businesses. Bo’s « strike black » anti-crime drive led to nearly 3,500 arrests and thirteen executions, closed down sixty-four criminal syndicates, and seized some 2.1 billion yuan ($330 million) in assets. The anti-mafia campaign made Bo enormously popular in Chongqing, and throughout China. Liberal critics, however, said that the strike-black crackdown was overzealous : its use of torture to extract confessions and a heavy-handed approach to the law were seen as undermining the growing independence of China’s judicial system.

However, Bo is most famous for his Mao-style mass campaigns : the « red culture » movement included singing revolutionary songs, reading communist classics, broadcasting red television programmes, and texting Mao quotes. This rather traditional propaganda campaign culminated in 2011 with Chongqing’s official celebration of the ninetieth anniversary of the CCP : 70,000 people filled a football stadium to sing revolutionary songs like « The East is Red » and « Without the Communist Party, There Would be No New China. » Bo even recruited arch-geostrategist Henry Kissinger, who was in town promoting his book On China, to join in the communist singalong.

Alongside the strike-black and sing-red campaigns, Bo pursued other populist policies including subsidised housing for the poor, free tuition below ninth grade, and more police in crime-ridden neighbourhoods. Bo even revived the cultural-revolutionary practice of sending bureaucrats to the countryside to work alongside peasants for one month each year. Bo’s egalitarian policies thus were very popular among the anti-reform groups and China’s New Left intellectuals.

Leaders in Beijing were initially wary of Bo’s populist style. Since they prefer a behind-the-scenes collective responsibility approach to politics, Bo’s populism with an iron fist was a little too close for comfort to Mao’s strongman tactics that decimated the CCP in the cultural revolution. Bo is a strange sort of Maoist considering that during the cultural revolution his father was tortured and his mother was beaten to death. Bo’s actions came less from deep-seated beliefs than from his quest for power. Like Xi Jinping, Bo was a political chameleon who seized opportunities : when Bo was minister of commerce, he was very cosmopolitan ; as general secretary of Chongqing, he was populist. Bo also hedged his bets through his son, who went to Oxford, and then Harvard. For the princelings, the main ideology is not communism, nationalism or reform ; everything is about power.

While Bo’s supporters said that he was media-savvy, he was also criticised for his « flashy » style that played to both China’s tabloids and the foreign press. In 2011, the leadership started to show some interest : after months of silence, Xi praised Bo’s policies, and most of China’s other top leaders went to visit Bo to commend his « Chongqing model. »

But Bo’s quest for power ran aground in February 2012, when his right-hand man Wang Lijun - the city-state’s super-cop and vice-mayor - fled Chongqing to request asylum at the US consulate in Chengdu. When Bo Xilai found out, he sent seventy police cars over 200 miles to surround the consulate, which actually is outside Chongqing’s jurisdiction. During his thirty-six-hour stay at the American consulate, Wang told a story of elite corruption and the abuse of power in Chongqing, including details of how Bo’s wife Gu Kailai poisoned British businessman Neil Heywood after he threatened to expose the family’s shady foreign-business deals. When Wang finally left the consulate, he and his evidence of Bo’s misdeeds were escorted to Beijing by the central government’s state-security bureau. Wang was later convicted for, among other things, trying to defect to a foreign power. Why did this well-connected police chief willingly risk such a serious outcome ? Wang was convinced that the alternative would have been worse : he figured that Bo would have had him assassinated if he stayed in Chongqing.

This event precipitated Bo’s downfall because foreign factors - killing a Briton and involving the US consulate - exposed the party to international embarrassment. As the New York Times’s revealing story about the wealth of premier Wen Jiabao’s family shows, corruption is common among China’s political and military elites. But the way Bo ran Chongqing as a personal fiefdom for personal economic and political gain went too far - the outrageous wealth of his wife and son shocked many people in China. In a way, Bo had to go because he was too popular, and his Chongqing model was too successful. Bo’s ideological campaigns, which challenged the authority of the central government, threatened to split the party leadership. Bo thus was expelled from the party, and the political aspects of his Chongqing model were quickly dismantled, although some of the economic policies remain in place.

The transition

The Brookings Institution’s Cheng Li concludes that China will benefit from this political crisis ; he sees the opportunity for the Chinese leadership to develop a new consensus to promote meaningful political reform, otherwise « the party will continue to lose its credibility. »However, the calls for party unity and the crackdown on « rumours » - meaning news from outside the propaganda system - after Bo’s ousting suggest that the party learned a different lesson from its most serious crisis since Tiananmen in 1989. The CCP used traditional propaganda strategies to reestablish political control ; hence rather than a being part of the solution, transparency is seen as a problem. In other words, just because the CCP successfully stopped the rise of an ultra-egalitarian and ultra-nationalist strongman does not mean that it will pursue liberal political reforms.

The main conclusion that can be drawn from the Bo Xilai crisis is that the party is more fragile than most experts thought. The widespread expectation of observers was that they would witness a well-scripted transition from the fourth to the fifth generation leadership. This crisis - and the elite infighting that it exposed - shows the fragility of China’s leadership and the uncertainties of a power-transition that was anything but smooth. There were struggles not just between the CCP’s two main factions - the princelings and the China Youth League - but, as Bo’s challenge shows, also within the princeling faction.

More broadly, the power-transition will change the character of China’s leadership. While most of the fourth-generation leadership were trained as engineers, the fifth-generation leadership studied the humanities and social sciences : law, economics, history and journalism. The fourth-generation technocrats worked to modernise China according to the universal logic of science : their achievements are China’s rapid economic growth and huge projects like the Three Gorges Dam, the high-speed train network, and the 2008 Olympic games.

The fifth-generation social scientists, however, are more interested in China as an exceptional civilisation that needs to pursue its own culturally-determined China model of economic, political and social development. The fifth generation may be more open in terms of presenting themselves to China and the world ; but they are more elitist in their politics. Hence this transition will not provide a democratic or a liberal opening. Even before he was arrested in 2011, artist-activist Ai Weiwei was pessimistic about the prospects for political change : « we are not expecting much from this generation of leaders. Maybe the generation after. After a decade, they will be more open in their ideas. »

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.