Xi’s the one?

Xi’s the one?

Before he became Barack Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden famously ripped his then opponent’s lack of experience. “The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training,” he said.

Nowhere is this more true than in China, where would-be leaders spend years toiling in the Communist Party’s lower ranks, clawing their way to the top in a dog-eat-dog political culture that rewards loyalty, economic performance, and savvy backroom maneuvering.

Today, China announced that Xi Jinping has been named  the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, an important sign that he’s successfully navigated this gauntlet and is destined to take over in Beijing once Hu Jintao retires in 2012. He’ll have two years to learn the ropes as a civilian overseer of the world’s second most powerful military, essential training for any Chinese leader.

Xi’s ascent is probably a good thing as far as the West is concerned. Here’s how China analyst Cheng Li described him few years back:

Xi has leadership experience in economic administration and favors pro-market reforms. In the provinces that he ran, Xi was particularly noted for his promotion of the private sector. His likely policy priorities lie in enhancing economic efficiency and promoting market liberalization, continuing China’s high rates of GDP growth, and expanding China’s integration into the world economy. 

The rap on Xi is that he’s a “princeling” — a Chinese politician who owes his career to family connections (guanxi ) rather than hard work (his father was a top party official). Many in China are critical of this youngish group of party leaders, but Xi seems to have acquited himself well thus far. In 2008, he oversaw the successful Olympic Games, and last year he headed China’s 60-year celebrations. He has a law degree and a master’s in chemical engineering, and has styled himself as tough on corruption. His wife is a famous folk singer.

At a meeting last week with Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, Xi pledged to work toward closer bilateral ties with the United States, though he’s made undiplomatic remarks in the past. On a tour of Latin America in 2009, Xi seemed to catch a bit of the region’s anti-yanqui fervor, telling a gathering of Chinese expats, “There are some foreigners who have eaten their fill and have nothing better to do than point their fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; or third, cause unnecessary trouble for them. What else is there to say?”

Though most analysts think Xi will succeed Hu, the appointment probably won’t end the speculation over his putative rival Li Keqiang, a close protégé of Hu’s with deep ties to the powerful Communist Youth League. Li’s faction doesn’t think much of the princelings, though there doesn’t appear to be any rift between Xi and Li — at least not one that has spilled into public view. Li is widely thought to be in line to succeed Wen Jiabao as premier, the No. 2 job in China’s political system.