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.
Foreign observers also should remember that Xi has held a number of other important policy posts in the final five years of Hu’s tenure. For example, Xi has held the Hong Kong and Macao portfolio, running the corresponding central leading small group since 2008. In October 2010, Xi Jinping became one of the vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, China’s highest political-military authority, and the only other civilian apart from Hu.
There is a further strike against the idea that a personal relationship with Xi is the path forward. If China’s assertiveness after the global financial crisis stems from systemic internal insecurities, then these developments raise the question of why Xi Jinping would be receptive to the personal entreaties of foreign dignitaries. He is the first leader that is solely a product of that same government system with those insecurities and that same system that routinely blames domestic ills on Western hostile forces that seek to encircle, Westernize, and divide China.
If only Nixon could go to China, then perhaps only a princeling can change it. That decision, however, will be Xi’s and will depend on his ability to exercise power. Rather than pursue the false hope that a personal relationship can have a transformative effect on their countries’ relationship with China, foreign leaders should seek to engage Xi politely and professionally as befits a head of state. The efforts to develop closer personal relationships and to understand Chinese policymaking would be better spent elsewhere.
Such relationships have to begin before a rising leader’s position becomes too political and before they become surrounded by palace gatekeepers. The increasingly standard rules for leadership selection and promotion place considerable limits on who might succeed Xi in 2022 at the 20th Party Congress. Irrespective of the factional horse-trading that probably still takes place, suitable candidates most often need to have checked the boxes of provincial party secretary, a ministerial post under the State Council, and graduate education. These standards suggest there are really only three serious candidates to succeed Xi Jinping: Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chunhua, Chongqing Party Secretary Sun Zhengcai, and Hunan Party Secretary Zhou Qiang. Only the first two, however, are on the Politburo. These are the men would-be presidents and foreign ministers should engage.
For the practically-oriented “get things done in China” crowd, the vagaries of Politburo Standing Committee policymaking mean that understanding the Chinese government is far more important than understanding China’s newest president. Speculating what Xi’s nationalism means or whether he is reformer is far less valuable than reading about the making of Chinese industrial policy or the nuts-and-bolts of how to make contracts enforceable—or understanding the relationship (or sometimes lack thereof) between Chinese government and business, and why that affects a foreign company’s ability to be successful in a specific locality.
Xi Jinping already was a leader. He is not new to the top and the “ground floor” was long ago. Now is the time to focus on understanding how he affects the system below, how he can build his own political base, and how he can wield power.
Peter Mattis is Editor of China Brief at The Jamestown Foundation.