How is Washington sizing up the man who looks set to be China’s next president, Xi Jinping? Reuters news agency has reviewed a large number of U.S. State Department cables sent to WikiLeaks but unpublished to date. From the snippets of information and analysis in these gained over several years by American diplomats from their sources, Reuters constructs a biography that paints a picture of the 57-year-old Xi as:
…untainted by corruption–he is referred to as ‘Mr Clean’–and disdainful of China’s nouveau riche and consumer culture. He is also depicted as an elitist who believes that the offspring of Maoist revolutionaries [the princelings] are the rightful rulers of China. His father was a major Communist leader who fought alongside Mao Zedong and helped implement Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms.
Xi emerges as competent, conservative and cautious. Somewhat taciturn, he is a man whose ability to keep his own council and no clear record of imposing his own agenda make him a leader acceptable to the competing factions among the princelings. They see him as one of their own and a safe pair of hands. His smooth ascendancy of the Party ranks suggests no political naivety, however. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is a well known (and wealthy) singer with the People’s Liberation Army, giving him good links to a crucial domestic political constituency often underestimated by outside commentators.
What sort of president will Xi make? Even allowing for the fact China’s president is more a convener of the Politburo rather than a leader in the Western sense, it is impossible to say on the evidence of the cables. If anything the profile raises more questions than it answers. If Xi is a chip off the old block, he will be more a Dengist reformer than a Hu Jintao equalizer. His father, Xi Zhongxun, when Party boss in Guangdong from 1978 to 1980, set up the first special economic zone in Shenzhen, now regarded as ground zero of China’s explosive economic growth of the past three decades. The younger Xi has made his political career in provinces known for economic openness, trade and rapid wealth creation.
Xi senior is also believed to have opposed using troops to clear Tiananmen Square in 1989, prompting some sources to suggest that the younger Xi might have similar liberal leanings. Despite some tinkering with low-level political transparency in Zhejiang and Shanghai, we see little evidence to support that. Rather we see a man who will act pragmatically to secure the long-term interests of his fellow princelings as the guarantors of the Party’s primacy. If so, that will translate into a continuing but slowing pace of reform.
If he is driven by anything, the cables suggest, it is by a sense of a loss of the Party’s traditional moral values of honesty, dignity and self-respect. He is unusual among his Cultural Revolution disrupted generation to have embraced the Party at an early age in preference to hedonism and moneymaking. Some sources suggest Xi is repulsed by China’s corruption and its all-encompassing commercialization. He is said to be dismissive of the ‘shopkeepers’, the nouveau riche elite who cannot trace their wealth or political lineage to revolutionary roots. If Egypt and the rest of the Middle East is any harbinger, he may need to be more worried by the shoppers than the shopkeepers.