Tuesday, October 26, 2010

China’s next leader remains closed book

By Geoff Dyer in Beijing [Financial Times] - Published: 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.