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Xi Jinping: the new ‘cautious’ leader of China?

For the past two years Xi Jinping has been touted as a “cautious” reformer waiting in the wings to become China’s next leader. But only after the Communist Party’s current congress ends will the world meet the real man.


Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping belongs to the so-called ‘princelings’, or the offspring of the revered veterans of China’s civil war. This week, that ‘princeling’ is widely expected to be crowned leader of China’s all-powerful Communist Party and in March to start the first of two five-year terms as the country’s president.

When the 18th Congress of China’s Communist Party closes in ten days, the transfer of power from President Hu Jintao to Xi, 59, will be official. That outcome has been anticipated for several years.

In October 2010, Xi was appointed as vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), a position previously held by Hu and considered a trampoline to China’s highest office. Indeed, since his appointment to the CMC, Xi has been presented to the world as the successor to the throne.

A new generation?

While the term “cautious” reformer has been used to death by the international press to describe Xi, Jean-Vincent Brisset, a China specialist with France’s Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), says the leader-in-waiting is largely a blank slate in and outside of China.

“We know he’s an apparatchik, we know quite a bit about his family… we know China faces difficult challenges and that there are competing ideas at the heart of China’s standing committee, but everything else is speculation at this point. To add anything else is dishonest,” Brisset said in a telephone interview with

Brisset added that when President Hu had risen to power 10 years ago, journalists pointed to his sober demeanour and previous experience as governor of Tibet to hail a resurgence in hard-line rule. Those predictions have proved to be largely false, the scholar said.

Nevertheless, the world has enjoyed a few glimpses of Xi in action and witnessed a confident and able communicator.

In a stop in Mexico in 2009 he appeared to scold Western criticism of China’s human rights record. “There are some foreigners with full bellies who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our country. China does not export revolution, hunger and poverty,” Xi told members of the Chinese community in Mexico City at that time.

But in a recent visit to the United States in February, the over six-foot-tall Xi was hardly on the offensive. In fact, he charmed everyone he crossed paths with.

He was photographed laughing with Los Angeles city mayor Antonio Villaraigosa while the two watched a pro basketball game, and sitting on a tractor in the farming state of Iowa – a place he visited as a youth as part of a Chinese agricultural delegation.

The US tour was also an opportunity for Xi to make a good impression back home, where he was being closely watched. Peng Liyuan, Xi’s wife, is a glamourous People's Liberation Army singer who until now has been more famous than him among ordinary Chinese.

He wowed Chinese observers with unadorned talk and references to Chinese pop culture that are wholly uncommon for a politician of his stature.

Product of the system

While Xi is viewed by international analysts as an economic reformer unlike his conservative and puritanical predecessor Hu, relatively little is known about the princeling’s views on important policy issues.

His life and career, on the other hand, have been well documented.

Portly and sociable, Xi has risen through all the levels of China’s political machine with patience and determination during the past four decades.

During the height of the chaotic Cultural Revolution, his father, former vice premier Xi Zhongxun, was purged despite his previous military service alongside Mao Zedong in the war.

At the age of 16, Xi the younger was sent to work in the poor northwest Chinese countryside as a part of policy to send away Beijing’s elite to “learn from the masses”.

Xi did not attempt to exact revenge for his family’s extraordinary fall from grace, but instead embraced the party, and enlisted in the Communist Youth League.

From 1975 he returned to Beijing to study chemistry at the elite Tsinghua University and also earned a degree in Marxist theory. Xi filled several provincial government posts before higher-profile jobs as governor of the Fujian province in 1999 and party boss in the Zhejiang province in 2003.

Then in 2007, he won the top job in China's commercial capital, Shanghai, when his predecessor was caught up in a corruption scandal. Later that year Xi was promoted to the party's paramount group – the Standing Committee.

When the curtains finally close on Communist Party’s once-in-ten-years congress, China and the world will be eager to hear the first pronouncements by new party supremo Xi. Only then will the “cautious” leader come into clearer focus.

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