The Myth of Xi Jinping’s “New” Leadership
Image Credit: Photo #1 Wikicommons, Photo #2 White House (Flickr)

The Myth of Xi Jinping’s “New” Leadership


As China prepares to finalize the leadership transition that began last November and will conclude in March, there is no shortage of proposals for world leaders to engage China’s new leader Xi Jinping as the foundation for the future of relations with China. The idea is to get in “on the ground floor” as Xi takes over from Chinese President Hu Jintao, who will give up his last title to Xi at the National People’s Congress in March. The problem, however, is that opening was five years ago when Xi made the Politburo Standing Committee—if not before, when he was Fujian and later Shanghai Party Secretary and clearly destined for greater things. If foreign governments and particularly the United States want to develop strong personal relationships, then they have to start before China’s leaders achieve positions where every interaction becomes political. Otherwise, their energy is better spent elsewhere.

When observers call Xi a “leader-in-waiting,” they are forgetting that China is guided by the collective decision making in the Politburo Standing Committee. Xi’s vice presidency is one of those fictional protocol assignments that makes it easier for China to interact with foreign governments. The position, however, is worth less than even the U.S. vice presidency, which John Adams derided as being “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Even if Xi Jinping only took over the party reins at the 18th Party Congress last November, he already was an important Chinese leader at the center of power. President of the Central Party School, a position Xi held from 2007 to 2012, is the kind of title that sounds unimportant and mostly administrative. But the Central Party School post is important for at least three reasons.

First, almost every rising star in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will pass through the Central Party School for mid-career or senior executive education. Like the China Youth League, where Hu Jintao built a factional base, running the school allows for talent spotting for and relationship building with the officials who can support a leader through loyal policy execution as he moves up the greasy pole of Chinese politics.

Second, few civilian positions allow substantial engagement with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), not limited by the jurisdiction of a local defense mobilization committee or a garrison party committee. The Central Military Commission is one place. The Central Party School is another, because it plays an important role in setting ideology across the CCP. And the PLA has 1.8 million party members.

Third and most importantly, the Central Party School presidency placed Xi Jinping on the Politburo Standing Committee and signaled that his star was on the rise. From 2002 to 2012, Hu Jintao may have been first among equals, but he had difficulty controlling the Politburo Standing Committee, giving relative autonomy to the other members. Not only would this situation give Xi more flexibility to build the political support to replace Hu—many aspiring deputies ranging from Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao to Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang have been axed because they accumulated power outside the control of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping—but also would inject him into the center of deliberations requiring the standing committee’s collective approval.

February 11, 2013 at 16:53

will c that he will take up some action for the low income people in china. But whoever the premier what will their stand with the neighbours?

Bill Rich
February 8, 2013 at 11:57

I am sure PRC can never think of any mutually beneficial policy of any kind, and therefore US is the one which has to come up with such policy.

February 7, 2013 at 14:34

The author is no less unaware than the others advocating getting in on the ground floor now. And the author's point is that Xi already was an important part of the leadership for the last five years and that makes almost any interaction intensely political, even more so now. Courting Xi needed to be done far earlier if there was to be any real personal relationship.

February 6, 2013 at 19:39

The writer clearly is unaware of how much western countries have been courting Xi in the last five years. He has deliberately maintained a low profile, but the invitations from other countries far outpaced his acceptances. Many leaders and Ministers have met with Xi and established contact over the past 5 years.

Kim's Uncle
February 6, 2013 at 16:13

America doesn’t need bullet trains because we fly on jets!! Boeing and Airbus are the two biggest passenger jet manufacturers in the world while china has zero. In fact Chinese premier has to use a Boeing made jet or else he would be stuck in china! LOL

February 6, 2014 at 18:28

@Kim’s Uncle:

China is the biggest market of passenger aircraft in the world and has a young but growing civilian aviation industry building small passenger aircraft. Of course, China will eventually produce big passenger aircraft but those are still too carbon-inefficient for the long-haul transportation needs of a continent-sized country like China. The solution that China came out with is high-speed rail. And China has built half of all the high-speed rail lines in the world while the U.S.A. is still stuck using carbon-inefficient airplanes.

February 6, 2013 at 15:29

Doesn't your country have more productive use of its Psyops funds than to pay useless sock puppets like you to troll on every thread? What VALUE do you accrie, of what WORTH is your work? What did you contribute to this website? Do you think your stupidity has changed any minds?
CBack to the article, it is rather useless to talk about ONE person, Xi, when it is rather a deliberation behind the scenes with many competing factions.
The most productive way the Us can engage China is to consider a mutually beneficial economic-military-political framework forward. The EU has benefited tremendously from its dealings with China, as had Japan until the Diaoyu Islands fiasco. For example, it is a great mystery why the US has still not developed a bullet train system for its cities, eg. L.A. – SF, to promote better economic development. China can be invited to assist in such investments. Put aside the welath squandered on weapons – both nations do not need them, and focus on areas where co-operation can strengthen eachother's civil societies.

Kim's Uncle
February 6, 2013 at 04:21

I wonder what his net worth is ?? To loot is glorious!

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