The Pragmatic Princeling


China’s president-in-waiting Xi Jinping arrives on the big stage with a charm offensive

Ravi S Buddhavarapu, Senior Journalist

Leading the way Xi Jinping
Photo: AFP

CHARISMA IS regarded with familiar distrust in China. In a culture that values sobriety over flourish, personality is indulgence. Political leaders cultivate their unsmiling faces with as much care as their business suits and jet-black pomaded hair. Yet, when China’s president-in-waiting Xi Jinping, 59, walked onto the podium for a press meet after he took over as the Communist Party chief last week, he did so with a flourish never before seen at a leadership transition. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” he said, talking as he strode purposefully onstage, in the best manner of a corporate honcho at a product launch. His pleasantly plump face was creased into an easy smile; if he was nervous at the greatest moment of his long and sometimes arduous career, he didn’t show it.

The contrast with his stoic, even wooden, predecessor President Hu Jintao was striking. Xi, who will take over as president in March, diverged from the script in more than appearance and style. He also took control of the military, as the chairman of the military commission. Hu did not get formal control over the military till two years after he assumed control as China’s leader in 2002.

In his brief speech, Xi eschewed the usual party clichés and instead focussed on corruption. “There are many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption, being divorced from the people, going through formalities and bureaucratism caused by some party officials,” he said. “We must make every effort to solve these problems. The party must stay on full alert.”

The new leader was accompanied onstage by the other six members of his team, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), including Li Keqiang, a supposed Hu loyalist who will take over as premier in March. Of the other members of the new PSC, an overwhelming majority seem to owe allegiance to Xi, who is himself a ‘princeling’, the son of a party elder who was a close aide to Mao Zedong. China’s leaders are drawn from either the privileged ‘princeling’ faction or the party youth cadre, and represent the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

Former president Deng Xiaoping, who began China’s flirtation with capitalism, is famously said to have formalised this contest between the two factions by laying down that one would succeed the other by turn. This, he believed, would check the influence of both. Hu, who was picked by Deng to succeed Jiang Zemin as president, was a party youth recruit; his father owned a teashop. Jiang, on the other hand, was a princeling.

This year, 10 years after he relinquished power to Hu, Jiang himself was the great untold story of the 18th party congress: the 86-year-old leader took the stage several times and gave the impression of having much more to do with the selection of the PSC than was customary for a former president, onceremoved. Xi is said to be his protege, or at the very least, a ‘princeling’ fellow-traveller.

This fact could provide some indication of China under its new leader, who is a complete unknown where policy is concerned. Like always, the world media is squeezing every factoid dry in their quest for a glimpse into his mind. But like all known things in the opaque world of Chinese politics, facts reveal just as much as they are persuaded to. Xi’s personal history reveals a deeper source of his confidence than privilege. Hardship and poverty followed wealth when his father fell from Mao’s grace. During the dreaded Cultural Revolution, Xi was sent to a small village for ‘re-education’. He is supposed to have lived in a cave, a huge change from a courtyard home with cooks and nannies. But this information is hard to sift from party propaganda.

If Xi is going to follow Jiang’s lead, however, it will help to remember the record of the former: Jiang’s tenure was marked by nationalist demonstrations and the beginnings of China’s assertiveness against the US. He forced the US, and its newly-elected leader George Bush to back down after forcing an American spy plane to land in China.

In an interview with a Chinese magazine in 2000, Xi warned against being too ambitious when taking a new post. “You always want to do something new in the first year,” he said. “But, it’s a relay race.” He also quoted an ancient Chinese philosopher as saying: “Don’t try to do the impossible.”

Ravi is a senior journalist based in Singapore


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