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China's next leader remains closed book

October 25, 2010

By Geoff Dyer in Beijing
Financial Times (FT)
October 19, 2010

In its 61-year history, the People’s Republic of
China has only ever had one orderly change of
leadership, when Hu Jintao assumed the reins of
power in 2002-03. Now China looks to be on course
for a second smooth transition.

After being appointed on Monday as a
vice-chairman of the body that runs China’s
military, Xi Jinping is firmly entrenched as the
leader-in-waiting, given that he now holds senior
positions in China’s three branches of power –
the Communist party (he is a member of the
politburo’s nine-man standing committee), the
state (as vice-president) and, finally, the military.

The strong betting is that Mr Xi, 57, will follow
the same path established by the 67-year-old Mr
Hu in his rise to power a decade before, becoming
general secretary of the party in late 2012 and
then president of the country in 2013.

The only real question is when he will also take
over running the military commission -- Mr Hu had
to wait a further year until Jiang Zemin, the
former president, could be persuaded to give up that role.

Given the vicious purges and botched coups of the
Mao years and the factional battles in the 1980s
that preceded the Tiananmen Square protests, such
an orderly transfer of power is a huge achievement for the Communist party.

Yet a stable transition requires more than just a
clear timetable and there are plenty of ways in
which the upcoming Chinese leadership change
could be very unpredictable. For all the
transparency in the process, there is a complete
absence of transparency about the politics that underpin the rise of Mr Xi.

In this arena, as in so many others, China is
almost the polar opposite of the US. In early
2007 Barack Obama was a largely unknown figure
who was thought to be making up the numbers in
the Democratic primaries. But by the time he was
sworn into office in January 2009, the world had
had two years to parse his policy positions,
analyse his personality and read his revealing first book.

Mr Xi has been in pole position to become the
next president since 2007, when he won a place on
the party’s standing committee. But most Chinese
know much more about his wife, the popular singer
Peng Liyuan, than they do about their next
leader. Little is known about his attitude to the
big policy questions of the day, the priorities
he wants to pursue when he assumes the top job or even why he was chosen.

This vacuum was less of a problem a decade ago
when Mr Hu was preparing to take office, because
China was more peripheral to the international
system. But now that China is the second most
influential voice on so many issues, Mr Xi’s
mindset is a matter of huge importance.

A few intelligent guesses can be made. His
father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of Deng Xiaoping’s
right-hand men when he was pushing market reforms
in the 1980s and the younger Mr Xi made his
career as an official in Fujian and Zhejiang, two
coastal provinces that have been hotbeds of
entrepreneurial, private companies. That might
make him a natural supporter of economic reform,
but there is a caveat -- it is the coastal
provinces, which are China’s big exporters, that
are blocking the reformers at the central bank
from pushing through a bigger currency appreciation.

On a string of international trips over the past
two years Mr Xi has said little of substance
about China’s role in the world. However, he was
taped grumbling at a private dinner in Mexico
about “a few foreigners with full bellies [who]
have nothing better to do than try to point
fingers at our country," a remark that led some
observers to believe he backs a more assertive
and self-confident foreign policy.

And while Wen Jiabao, premier, has been telling
audiences in recent months that now is the time
to push for bold political reform, Mr Xi has been
studiously quiet -- although, to be fair, the
same is also true of the president, Mr Hu.

The name of China’s next president might already
be pencilled in. But the political character of
the new generation of Chinese leaders remains something of a closed book.
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