It is hard to know what a politician really thinks. Even in a country like the United States, which likes to bombard its electorate with an endless stream of campaign ads, when you scrape off their polished veneers, peel back the layers from their stump speeches, turn off their mics, and get right down to it, one would be hard pressed to find too many people who actually know what a politician thinks and feels. Sure people may claim to have deep insight into Candidate X or Candidate Y – the former schoolmates, teachers, employers, and drinking buddies like to come out of the woodwork to pontificate – but at the end of the day, it is hard to know what really makes the man or woman tick.
Multiply this phenomenon by a hundred or a thousand.
Now you are probably at the starting point when it comes to what we really know about the “would be” next generation leaders in China. In fact, aside from Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, it is hard to say with absolute certainty who will even be handed the reins of power in the upcoming 18th Party Congress.
Granted, few should be surprised by this – opacity and obfuscation seem, at times, to be part of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) DNA. Lest we forget, it was just last month that the entire world played a collective game of “Where in the World is Xi Jinping” because the heir apparent cancelled a string of meetings (including one with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) and disappeared from the public eye. Should it then come as any surprise that we aren’t entirely clear about his policy leanings?
Yet understanding this does little to alleviate the frustration and sheer exhaustion felt by many a China-watcher who has undoubtedly been asked, on multiple occasions, to provide his or her opinion on “Just who is Xi Jinping?”
So what do we, as China-watchers, do? First, we try to draw conclusions based on what occurred in the leader’s past. This certainly has its merits. Not only does it provide some insight into how people like Xi might react in certain situations, but it also helps us begin to construct a map of potential patronage ties and factional allegiances. In China it is not just who you know, but how you know them.
For example, many believe that because Xi was the secretary to Defense Minister Geng Biao, he might have closer ties to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. This could be important for a variety of reasons because the paramount leader’s relationship with the PLA can ultimately determine to what extent he can rely on the PLA to support policy initiatives, as well as the degree to which the military could exert leverage over the leader and influence the administration. But of course, the past is not a mirror to the future.
Another now common refrain about Xi is that he is more statesmanlike than his soon-to-be predecessor, Hu Jintao. For example, words like “confident,” “assured,” and “strategic” have been often used to describe the future leader. But what does that in turn tell us? It could mean that President Xi may be more difficult to work with, at least from an American perspective, because he may feel as if the U.S. should be more deferential to China and its core interests. On the other hand, he could be easier to deal with because he may have the confidence to make bolder moves on the foreign policy, political, and economic reform fronts.
Therefore, rather than simply theorizing about what a Xi Jinping administration may or may not do or what different personality traits might mean in terms of future policy shifts; perhaps, the best thing is to take a more “wait and see” approach. After all, it is important to understand that a leadership transition in China is a protracted process.
Further, the upcoming 18th Party Congress is only part of the overall transition. Throughout the process, a large number of Chinese officials and party members will shuffle positions both within and between bureaucracies as well as provinces. And though it is still quite important to understand who is at the top of the pecking order, it is equally important to understand that China still makes decisions by collective leadership. Therefore, it will be critically important to understand the overall mix of people on the Standing Committee – when the time comes.
Though let’s be honest, it will probably take a good 18 to 24 months before Xi is even able to shore up his position and has enough political capital to really begin to deal with the myriad tasks that confront China.
Xi has some very serious work ahead of him. He is inheriting slowing growth rates which will bring about new and potentially more dangerous social stresses, not to mention political challenges; relations with China’s neighbors are extremely strained; unequal growth and development within China’s borders has made significant segments of its population restive; and there are signs that the entire Chinese political and bureaucratic system have become increasingly ossified and sclerotic.
Actually after looking at that laundry list, perhaps the most important traits Xi could possess would be tenacity, the ability to multi-task, and a really good sense of humor.
But whether he has these traits or not… well, your guess is as good as mine.
A. Greer Meisels is the associate director and research fellow for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest.