The Next President of China

As the summer winds down, mid-term election mode is powering up. (Strolling on the Mall on Saturday amid throngs of Tea Partyers and legions of Beckian and Palinite supporters, I certainly felt something needs to be restored...and it wasn't America's honor.) No, I'm not talking about the one here in the USA. I know you haven't noticed, but there is something of an "election campaign" taking place in the PRC.

In about two years, a new Chinese president will emerge to take the helm of the world's second-largest economy--just as President Obama and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou are up for reelection. Yes, the process in determining the Chinese president is secretive and opaque, and some have likened it to selecting a new Pope, except without the white smoke at the end. But in fact, the presidential heir apparent is crystallizing two years in advance of the formal passing of the baton in 2012. It's usually important in the Chinese system to send political signals internally over who the next designated leader will be so that the political apparatus will rally around the decision. One such signal (an important one) may be telegraphed via a Communist Party meeting later this year to give further credibility to the presumptive nominee to the presidency: His name is Xi Jinping.

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The South China Morning Post writes: "Vice-President Xi Jinping looks set to be promoted to a military position in the upcoming Communist Party plenum, in a significant step towards finalising the succession process for him to take over the nation's top leadership post."

Just like his predecessor and incumbent Hu Jintao, Xi's (sounds like "she") purported ascension to the crucial military post is almost like clinching the presidency--think of it as winning both Ohio and Florida in the U.S. general election. Nothing is guaranteed until the Politburo says so of course, and Xi could fall from anointed successor due to a number of unforeseen catastrophes or political missteps. Yet in the absence of polls and other tools of measurement, this is probably as good of an indication as any of Xi's political prospects.

So who is this Xi Jinping character? I had written on him a while back.

Xi's lineage as the progeny of a prominent military family benefited his political standing and puts him in the camp of the so-called "princelings"--those who in part owe their positions to family ties. After earning his doctorate in law in 1979, Xi took a job with the General Office of the Central Military Commission, a significant early post where he forged military ties that would serve him well in his future ambitions. He quickly climbed the ranks of the Communist Party and bureaucratic ladders in the relatively prosperous southern coastal province of Fujian, eventually becoming its governor. He then took the helm of Zhejiang, another wealthy coastal province, followed by a seven-month stint as head of the Communist Party in Shanghai--the hypermodern economic and financial locus of the country.

Xi, along with the new generation of Chinese leaders, are the same generation as my parents--in their late 50s and as teenagers, bore intimate witness to what my parents describe as that "nightmarish decade" of the Cultural Revolution. Disillusion with what the country of their birth had inflicted on their livelihoods, my parents eventually chose to emigrate. There are numerous stories along these lines that render theirs virtually "normal" among peers who came of age in that era of delirious tumult. But far more Chinese of that "lost generation," having weathered the turbulence and emerged intact, remained in the country too. And some, like Xi Jinping--perhaps due to family connections or sheer competence and savvy--have created something of a "rebirth" in political life and is on the cusp of becoming the most powerful man in China.

It's nearly impossible to deduce how his previous experiences shaped his current thinking and politics. He rarely makes public speeches, and continues to operate under the shadow of President Hu. But that is Chinese elite politics--being brash and boisterous is a sure way to jeopardize your career; keeping a low-profile before you've fully secured your post, on the other hand, is the modus operandi. That may change over time, but we will have to wait a while.

In the meantime, it might be useful to start practicing saying "President Xi." (The world's second most powerful man in training?)

Presented by

Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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