The Call

Xi’s all that: Who is the man behind the big promotion?

Xi’s all that: Who is the man behind the big promotion?

By Damien Ma and Henry Hoyle

Earlier this week, Xi Jinping was promoted to a senior post on a key Communist party military committee. That’s the surest sign yet that Xi (pronounced "she") remains on track to become China’s next leader in 2012. But beyond the official biography, just who is this guy?

Xi Jinping is a slightly pudgy 57-year-old man who, in some ways, looks appropriately like a typical roughneck from China’s coal country near the Ordos Basin (think West Virginia). But his family is anything but ordinary. He traces his lineage to a revolutionary who fought the Japanese alongside Mao Zedong. In today’s China, that generation of old cadres still inspire reverence, rendering them virtually untouchable. In fact, Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, is considered by some as one of the "eight immortals" in Chinese politics. There’s little doubt that the younger Xi’s political career benefited tremendously from his family name.

Xi not only boasts a famous father, he is also married (his second) to celebrity singer Peng Liyuan — a beauty from a bygone Chinese era. Peng is no shrinking violet. She commands positions in the People’s Liberation Army and a government advisory body. Her stellar entertainment career earned her a coveted spot to perform for top leaders at the grand celebration of the 60th anniversary of modern China last year. In fact, Peng’s career path and independent identity have spurred speculation among many Chinese about the future First Family’s marital problems. It’s not quite Bill and Hillary or even Nicolas and Carla, but people whisper a lot in China too.

Much about Xi remains under wraps — everything from his relationship with current president Hu Jintao to his personal political philosophy. It is also unclear how his teenage experiences of manual labor in the Chinese countryside — his family was purged during the Cultural Revolution — shaped his views. He certainly emerged intact, with no lingering grudges toward the party. Xi then went on to Tsinghua University, the Yale or MIT of China, depending on whom you ask, and majored in "Marxism and Political Ideology Education," according to his official Chinese biography. His education pedigree seems to fit an emerging pattern in Chinese elite politics today: Beijing University and Tsinghua University have become fertile breeding grounds for future Chinese politicians. In fact, many of the new leaders expected to be promoted in the next round of power handover claim one of those two universities as their alma mater. Like the past five (including Obama) US presidents who have gone to either Harvard or Yale, the Chinese version might be the "Tsinghua Mafia."

Though Xi’s familial and university peer networks have certainly given him advantages, Chinese commentary also indicates that he is judged to be competent, albeit instinctively cautious. That trait may explain why he remains less than revealing before he is officially anointed president. Rumors have circulated that Xi turned down the military promotion last year at the fourth plenum in a personal letter to Hu Jintao, arguing that he wasn’t ready. Now that he has secured the final base of power, the PLA, Xi may be more willing to speak louder and to show some color.

Damien Ma and Henry Hoyle are analysts in Eurasia Group’s Asia practice.