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Xi Jinping – Profiling the heir apparent

Posted On April 25, 2011

If current trends are to hold, Xi Jinping’s leadership of the party will witness two decades of engineer-technocrat leaders giving way to a legalist and economics oriented leadership. China will not see the emergence of a ‘Gorbachev’ and Xi Jinping is definitely no ‘Gorbachev', says the author

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In little over a year’s time, China’s political landscape will undergo a comprehensive transformation. The 18th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012 will witness the stepping down of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao and their respective positions widely expected to be filled by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. By convention, members of the Politburo Standing Committee – the collective and supreme decision making body in China – retire on reaching seventy years. At the 18th Party Congress, five out of the nine current Standing Committee members are expected to retire. These include Hu Jintao (b. 1942), Wu Bangguo (b.1941), Wen Jiabao (b. 1942), Jia Qinglin (b.1940) and Zhou Yongkang (b.1942). As the youngest members of the current nine member politburo, Xi Jinping (b. 1953) and Li Keqiang (b. 1955) represent the 5th generation of leadership after Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. China’s successive political generations have deliberately airbrushed Hua Guofeng’s[1] brief interlude after Mao’s demise from 1976 to 1981.

Who is Xi Jinping?

Undoubtedly, Xi Jinping hails from the elite spectrum of China’s all-powerful and omniscient CCP. His father, Xi Zhongxun, a native of Shaanxi province was one of the icons of the CCP. Xi Zhongxun was a ‘Long March’ veteran who became the youngest deputy premier and served in that capacity from 1959 to 1962 before losing his position for allegedly being ‘disloyal’ to Mao and thereby the CCP. He made a comeback, during Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reforms phase’ and courtesy the reform minded Hu Yaobang, became the party secretary and governor of Guangdong from 1979 to 1981. Xi Zhongxun was known for being responsible in transforming Shenzhen into China’s template for Special Economic Zones and explosive rates of economic growth. In his later years, he was said to have spoken out against the massacre on Tiananmen Square and was eased out of all official positions in the political backlash that followed. The after effects of the father’s political stance did not appear to have derailed the son’s political career. 

For the next generation of China’s political leaders, the definitive event shaping their political outlook has been the Cultural Revolution. The irrational excesses committed in the name of radical Party ideology from 1966 to 1976 in many ways conditioned the CCP to adopt a political course where no individual becomes larger than the party and to the uncomfortable reality that ‘red’ rhetoric has limits. Being the son of a prominent ‘dissenter’ Xi Jinping did experience the rougher part of life when he was pulled out of middle school and sent for re-education to his father’s home province of Shaanxi. From the age of fifteen, Xi Jinping spent seven years in the village of Liangjiahe. The caves of Liangjiahe served as revolutionary bases and were built by the CCP during the bloody civil war it fought against the Japanese and the Kuomintang (KMT).  

Xi Jinping joined the CCP in 1974 after his application to join the CCP was finally accepted after several rejections. In the later years of the Cultural Revolution, he left Liangjiahe for Tsinghua University in Beijing to earn a degree in Chemical Engineering and begin his political journey. From 1985 to 2002, he gained extensive experience of the party machinery in Fujian province. He rose from being the secretary of Ningde Provincial Committee to becoming Governor of the province.  

Prior to his long stint in Fujian, Xi Jinping was the First Secretary of Zhengding County, Hebei province from 1983 to 1985. Afterwards, he became the Party Secretary of Zhejiang province and the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Zhejiang Provincial People’s Congress from 2002 to 2007.[2] His vast experience in the two ‘rich’ eastern provinces propelled him to become the Party Secretary for Shanghai in 2007 replacing Chen Liangyu who was sacked for corruption in a social security fund scandal. Shortly after settling down in Shanghai and calming a shaken local party apparatus he was elevated to the Standing Committee of the Politburo and left for Beijing. Importantly, he was appointed as the President of the Central Party School (CPS) in 2007. The importance of heading the CPS is twofold – it is the incubator for young party cadre in China who aspire to future leadership positions; and, it offers a talent pool of cadre who can be placed in important positions when Xi Jinping takes over from Hu Jintao. Xi Jinping’s organizational abilities were in evidence during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, as had led the leadership group that organized the hugely successful event for China.     

Xi Jinping and the PLA

Xi Jinping’s connections with the PLA make for interesting reading. According to Willy Lam, after graduating from Tsinghua (1979), Xi Jinping became the personal secretary to then Defence Minister Geng Biao and served in the Central Military Commission (CMC) General Office.[3] The ‘rehabilitation’ of his father Xi Zhongxun into the party and the senior position the latter held in Shenzhen makes it probable that Xi Jinping’s entry into the political sphere was ‘facilitated’ by the time honoured tradition of having ‘connections’ (guanxi) in China.  Lam further argues that Xi Jinping is on good terms with the CMC hierarchy and that parallel to his political rise through the CCP he maintained strong ties with the PLA by volunteering for “military related jobs” mostly to do with national defence mobilization. 

Supporting Lam’s assertions is the indisputable fact of Xi Jinping’s parallel ‘experience’ with the PLA in various capacities – voluntary or not. From being a secretary in the General Office of the CMC between 1979 and 1982, he has at various times been the First Secretary of the PLA Nanjing Military Region and Fujian Military District (1990 to 1996); First Political Commissioner, PLA Services & Arms, Reserve Artillery Division, Fujian province (1996-2000); Director, PLA National Defense Mobilizational Committee  for Fujian province (1999 – 2002) and concurrently Jiangsu province, Nanjing city (1999 – 2003); and, First Secretary Nanjing Military Region and Zhejiang Military District (2002 – 2007). The alternating positions held by Xi Jinping if anything reveal the symbiotic ties the CPC and the PLA share. After all, the PLA is the military expression of the party and poses a continued puzzle as regards the influence it has on the China’s politics.    

There is also a personal touch to Xi Jinping’s ‘networking’ with the PLA. His wife, Peng Liyuan is a Major General with the PLA Song and Dance troupe. Peng is a soprano who is very well known in China. Her public appearances and performances though, have more or less stopped after Xi Jinping was elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007. Xi Jinping’s PLA ‘experiences’ and exposure separate him from being equated with either Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao, both of whom had no experience with the PLA during their political journey. It is also known that in the case of Jiang Zemin at least, the relationship between him and the PLA was often testy and it was only after the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1996 that the PLA became amenable to Jiang Zemin’s leadership of the CMC. Xi Jinping is expected to take over the chairmanship of the CMC in 2014 having become vice-chairman only in October 2010. 

Comrade networker?

In a political culture known for its opacity, the limited information and nuggets available about Xi Jinping comes as no surprise. He is currently undergoing ‘apprenticeship’ phase and will be very cautious about public statements and appearances he makes. He will follow a script where his appearances at occasions and events are scripted well in advance and are a potent mix of the political and the symbolic. To cite an instance, as part of the responsibilities that await him from 2012, Xi Jinping has been making ‘inspection tours’ and in the third week of March visited the Shaoshan village in Hunan province – the birthplace of Mao Zedong. All these make it apparent that Xi Jinping is an astute ‘mover’ within the party who has the felicity of being associated with most groupings and yet staying above it. His provincial experience in Fujian and Zhejiang militate against his ever adopting a rigid ideological stance. The dexterous manner in which he charted a parallel experience with the PLA highlights his coalition building abilities at the elite level.

Xi Jinping also represents a new trend in Chinese elite politics – factional membership is no longer de rigueur for career advancement. What is required is a foundational belief in the immutable role of the CCP as the vanguard of the Chinese people and the commitment to continue the economic reforms and make China the world’s largest and most influential economy. Xi Jinping could belong to several factions and hence cannot be pinpointed as representing the interests of any particular one. As a ‘princeling’ his family background and elite upbringing stand out. His education in Tsinghua makes him a member of the so-called ‘Tsinghua clique’ and makes him a compatriot of Hu Jintao who also graduated from Tsinghua. 

Xi Jinping’s innings in the eastern seaboard provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang during the years Jiang Zemin was President would mark him out as a member of the ‘Shanghai Gang,’ added to his brief stint as Party Secretary of Shanghai, before he was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007.  His early stint with the PLA and continued association (professionally and personally) would categorize him, if not as a member of the ‘PLA faction’ then at least as someone who has the interests of the PLA very dear to his heart. 

Xi Jinping and Chinese politics 

Even after becoming the President of the People’s Republic of China and assuming the mantle of General Secretary of the CCP, Xi Jinping will have to wait a while before becoming the Chairman of the CMC. Political power in China is not absolute until an individual wears ‘three hats’ – President of PRC, General Secretary of the Party and Chairman of the CMC. Several conventions have developed in Chinese politics since the reforms began. Foremost among them has been that of the incumbent President retaining his grasp over the chairmanship of the CMC while the successor takes over the other two weighty positions. This convention can be traced to 1987 when Deng Xiaoping retired from all official positions, but retained the chairmanship of the CMC.[4] Jiang Zemin held on to this position until 2004, and Hu Jintao is expected to remain in the harness of the CMC until 2014. 

Next in importance has been the emergence of a division of labour existing with the President mostly focusing and addressing party affairs and political themes while the Premier focuses on the economy and development oriented themes. The Xi Jinping – Li Keqiang combine is precisely expected to do this and will be the third successive combination after Jiang Zemin – Zhu Rongji and Hu Jintao – Wen Jiabao. 

If current trends are to hold, Xi Jinping’s leadership of the party will witness two decades of engineer-technocrat leaders (Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao) giving way to a legalist and economics oriented leadership. Xi Jinping had followed his degree in Chemical Engineering with a Doctorate in Law from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Tsinghua University having majored in Marxist theory and ideological education. The premier-in-waiting, Li Keqiang, has a degree in law and a PhD in economics from Beijing University. Their educational degrees hold a clue to the political tune they will be harping consistently – tackling corruption, establishing the rule of law and gingerly exploring concepts on how to bring peripheral changes within the party. For the CCP the need to maintain political stability at home is paramount for keeping on track the reforms process and transform China into what ideologically the party terms a ‘socialist market economy.’ The hard headed reality for the CCP is to not create conditions that would permit the emergence of a ‘Gorbachev’ from within its ranks. Xi Jinping is definitely no ‘Gorbachev.’

By Dr. Raviprasad Narayanan

    (The author is Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations,National Chengchi University,Taipei, Taiwan)




[1] ‘Hua Guofeng’ was nom de guerre for Su Zhu and was arrived at by picking the characters that stood for “Zhonghua kangri jiuguo xianfengdui” – ‘Chinese People’s Resist Japan and Save the Nation Vanguard.’ Source: Edwin Pak Wah-Leung (ed.), Political Leaders of Modern China – A Biographical Dictionary (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing House, 2002), p. 59.

[2] For a comprehensive biography of Xi Jinping, see http://www.chinavitae.com/biography/Xi_Jinping/career

[3] See Willy Lam, “The Military Manoeuvres of Xi Jinping” Wall Street Journal, 26 January 2011. Available at:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704698004576103513580674214.html (Accessed on 21 April 2011)

[4] Deng Xiaoping also was an expert at playing the card game ‘Bridge’ and was the Honorary Chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association. 

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