What Have We Learned About Xi Jinping?

What Have We Learned About Xi Jinping?

Xi Jinping is already far better understood than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. By the time he ascends to the presidency in mid-March, completing the trifecta of the three most important roles in China (he’s also the chairman of the Communist Party and chair of the Central Military Commission), foreign observers will have long known where Xi was born and when his father died — all things that remain unclear about Hu, the son of an unsuccessful tea merchant.

Xi’s father, by contrast, possessed immense moral authority. If there is a bright side to Chinese Communist Party history in the last few decades, then former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun is central to it — promoter of key economic reforms in the early 1980s, supposed opponent of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and maintainer of dignified silence about the subsequent internal squabbles among the party elite until his death in 2002.

Xi inherits this mantle and the moral and political authority it bestows. Xi and his colleagues in the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body, are less a "team of rivals" and more a "band of relatives." With two possible exceptions, the seven standing committee members are related, directly or through marriage, to interlocked strands of party aristocracy.

It is within that context that Xi should be understood. He might resemble a party apparatchik who spent decades climbing through the Soviet-style bureaucracy, but he is to the manor born: an emperor with a common touch. Unlike the wooden Hu, who never departed from officialese, Xi speaks clear, standard Mandarin, moves with regal stateliness and has an orator’s sense of delivery and timing. They call them princelings for a reason. He comes with a celebrity wife (although she has taken the back stage since his elevation as heir apparent in 2007), a family worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a June 2012 Bloomberg report, and a daughter at Harvard. (Hu’s surviving family members are mostly officials in a township in Jiangsu, and his wife is almost completely unknown in China.)

Since he assumed power in November, Xi’s most visible policy has been his anti-corruption drive. It’s an easy target. But the populist Xi went for the visible things first — the huge banquets, the "tigers" and "flies," (powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats), the provincial official who had accrued 47 mistresses.

Xi also called for the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" during a speech at a military base in December. China is haunted by this figment of a golden age — when it had the world’s largest economy and looked posed to reign over Asia in the early 17th century. What was the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, which Xi managed, but a pageant of these accepted symbols of China’s glorious past?

In late February, at a talk at the Central Party School, the Communist Party’s most elite educational institution, Xi said that the party needed to live up to its responsibilities, continue to cut down on waste, and speak clearly to people. The decade in which Hu ruled, despite the roaring economic growth, did not foster an ideology that people could believe in. Part of this is because China’s experience of political idealism under Mao Zedong had been a wounding one. But Hu also never managed to communicate that the party cared about people’s daily concerns — speaking to the people was a job left to his premier, Wen Jiabao. In trying to restore a more wholesome image, Xi must work to change the perception of the party as a fiefdom serving a self-protecting elite.

The Chinese people assume (probably accurately) that Xi received his position as a result of backroom dealings among that same elite. Xi will need to make the case that he can, as the communist cliché has it, "serve the people." In this sense, paradoxically, his background is an asset. He’s not the state, but he represents it and stands at its center. He possesses extensive networks and links to disparate factions of the party world. In this milieu of densely interlinked networks, personal, family, tribal, institutional, Xi has the most to lose if the party begins to crumble. And from what he has shown in the last few months, he has no intention of wearing that mantle lightly.