On October 18, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee appointed Xi Jinping vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), confirming his position as successor to Hu Jintao as the Paramount Leader of China.
Xi Jinping is known for his competence, work ethic, stance against corruption and his cautious leadership style. He first stepped into the spotlight when he received the top party position in Shanghai after several party officials were embroiled in corruption scandals. He was also in charge of the comprehensive preparations for the Beijing Olympics as well as the sixty year anniversary celebration in 2009. In short, Xi has often been handed politically complex and logistically challenging problems, a sign of the faith the top Chinese leadership has in Xi.
Xi’s ascension to the national stage has been long and systematic. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a contemporary of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and a victim of the purges during the Cultural Revolution. As a result, Xi Jinping was forced to leave school and do farm labor for seven years. Following this, he worked as a secretary for the vice-premier and Secretary-General of the CMC. In 1982, he was moved to a county level position from which he began a gradual climb up the bureaucratic ladder. The process spanned county, municipal, and provincial positions, including overseeing the expansion of economic ties with Taiwan while acting as governor of Fujian Province before he took the reins in Shanghai.
Barring any disastrous setbacks, Xi will become China’s next leader, but what will China look like under Xi? There is speculation that Xi will emulate his reform-minded father. Indeed, Xi has been described by others as being open-minded and supportive of new ideas. When working in Hebei province, he once overruled local officials’ objections and promoted the filming of a television series based on A Dream of Red Mansions, a Chinese classical novel, believing it could encourage tourism.
Reform is believed by many to be necessary if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is to remain in power. Xi has first-hand experience with CCP rule at all levels of government, as well as being on the receiving end of CCP repression. He is aware of the government’s shortcomings and will be well placed to make changes. The challenge will be to gain the support of China’s top decision making bodies and to develop a reform program that will be effective and acceptable to the CCP.
Xi Jinping’s “Mr. Clean” image will certainly help the reputation of a party stained by numerous corruption scandals. Hopefully, he will do more to combat corruption than just lend his sterling reputation to the central government, and based on his past position in Shanghai this seems likely. Corruption consistently is one of China’s greatest domestic concerns as it undermines the legitimacy of the CCP, a party that claims to be a “party of the people”.
The cross-Strait relationship with Taiwan may also benefit under Xi’s leadership. Despite the tense political ties, Xi’s leadership in Fujian province, the province nearest Taiwan, was essential for cross-Strait economic development. Increasing economic integration blazed the trail for other key developments in the cross-Strait relationship, including opening up direct transportation, potential reductions in the military buildup directed at Taiwan, and even the possibility of direct political talks.
What is less certain is the direction that foreign policy will take under Xi Jinping. His defining characteristic seems to be his cautious nature, born out of the hardships he and his family faced because of the Cultural Revolution as well as his long experience with bureaucracy. This caution will serve him well in navigating the complex and occasionally tense relationships China has with its neighbors and trading partners.
Hu Jintao will remain the general-secretary of the CCP until 2012 and the president of China until 2013. The gradual process of succession will ease Xi Jinping into his role of Paramount Leader. China faces a host of challenges in the 21st century and its success at addressing them will depend greatly on the leadership of Xi Jinping. Considering his record of capable management and troubleshooting, China appears to be in good hands.
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