China Power

Who is Xi Jinping?

How much exactly do we know about the heir apparent to the Chinese presidency, Xi Jinping?

It’s an important question now that the vice president has received a major boost to his prospects of succeeding Hu Jintao as president after being appointed vice chairman of the Central Military Commission at the Communist Party Central Commission plenary session. Hu is expected to step down as head of the Communist Party in 2012 and then as president a year later, and China watchers’ eyes were on Xi to see if he got the widely expected promotion.

One measure of Xi’s importance came last year with his selection as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. But what do we really know about him? Born in Beijing in 1953, Xi is a native of Shaanxi Province and the son of Xi Zhongxun—a hero of the Long March and one of the founders of the Communist guerrilla movement in the province, who was also prosecuted during the Mao era (and spent 16 years in jail).

Xi has held a number of key roles, including being the top-ranking member of the Communist Party secretariat, principal of the Communist Party’s Central Party School, and now vice chairman of the Central Military Commission—China’s national defence body.

In fact, Xi had been widely expected to assume the CMC vice chairmanship last year, and his failure to do so raised eyebrows and even some questions over how smooth a succession he could expect. Interestingly, back in 1997 he won the least number of votes out of any of the candidates who were promoted to be alternate members of the Central Committee at the 15th Party Congress. In addition, questions have also been raised about Xi’s educational background—he entered university in 1975 despite never studying at, let alone finishing, high school, and received a doctorate in 2002 despite not holding a masters.

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Domestically, Xi is known for his tough stance on corruption after he made something of a name for himself in Shanghai after being transferred there in March 2007 to take over as Shanghai Party chief from Chen Liangyu, who was fired over allegations of being involved in a social security fund scandal.

According to the Financial Times’ Geoff Dyer, Xi is also sympathetic to pro-market reforms. Writing in the FT on Monday, Dyer said:

‘He is the son of…an important ally of Deng Xiaoping in the introduction of market reforms in China in the 1980s (and) spent much of his career in some of the export strongholds of the Chinese economy.

‘As a result, many see him as a natural supporter of continued economic reform. (Hank Paulson, the former US treasury secretary, famously once called him “the kind of guy who knows how to get things over the goal line.”)’

But Dyer also adds that Xi has given little away, a sentiment echoed by some of the Chinese analysts I’ve spoken with, one of whom noted simply that he’s a ‘low key leader’.

Xi’s likely stance on international issues is equally unclear, although Korea’s JoongAng Daily had an interesting piece today exploring Xi’s alleged criticism of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s tough policy toward North Korea.

According to the paper, the opposition Democratic Party has urged Lee to adjust its policy in light of Xi’s appointment to pave the way for his presumed accession. It said:

‘Park Jie-won, floor leader of the Democratic Party, said yesterday that Xi expressed disapproval of the Lee administration’s North Korea policy during a May 2009 meeting with former President Kim Dae-jung in Beijing. Park accompanied Kim to the meeting.’

And it went on to add: ‘Stressing that a new era will begin in China in two years, Park urged the Lee administration to change its North Korea policy.’

The daily noted that Xi is ‘well-informed’ about Korean affairs and said he has travelled to both Seoul and Pyongyang. On a side note, it’s interesting that Park appears to be promoting foreign policy subservience to China, or at least to the perceived views of its vice president, on this key matter.  But if Xi genuinely does have some expertise on this then all the better (although with so many questions swirling about Kim Jong-il’s health and the succession, there’s no telling how things will look on the peninsula in 2013).