Who is Xi Jinping? It's possibly the most important question in China today. At the 17th Party Congress, Mr. Xi was made head of the Party secretariat to the Standing Committee of the Politburo -- which puts him in pole position to lead China when Hu Jintao steps down from the presidency in 2012. And if all goes to plan, he'll be a far more powerful leader than Mr. Hu.
Mr. Xi's appeal starts first with his lineage. The son of a former Politburo member and "Long March" veteran Xi Zhongxun, Mr. Xi is a "princeling" -- the most privileged class of cadres in the Party. He is a member of the Party's "Shanghai faction," a group of men who made their careers through patronage to former President Jiang Zemin. And he has powerful backing: He is the personal choice of Mr. Hu's affable rival, Vice President Zeng Qinghong.
Mr. Xi, however, has personal experience with the dangers of radical ideology. Born in June 1953, he remembers his father being purged several times during the Cultural Revolution. One of seven children, his eldest sister was reportedly killed by Red Guards. He himself spent several years of exile in the desert caves of western China to atone for the sins of his birth. He told a reporter from the Washington Post in 1992 that as a youth, he had to attend daily "struggle" sessions and was forced to read out denunciations of his father. "Even if you don't understand, you are forced to understand," he said. "It makes you mature earlier." In remote villages from 1974 to 1977 in Shaanxi province, he was a farmhand, tractor driver and barefoot doctor.
Early on, Mr. Xi showed an unusual ability to work the Party machine through his family connections. After the Cultural Revolution ended and he was permitted to return to university, Mr. Xi attended Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University and earned a doctorate in organic chemistry. In 1979, he became a secretary to General Geng Biao, who was then concurrently vice premier, defense minister and secretary of the military affairs commission -- and who had been purged with Mr. Xi's father during the Cultural Revolution. In that position, Mr. Xi likely had contact with now-Vice President Zeng, who was then the secretary to State Planning Commission chief, Yu Qiuli, himself a leading military figure. In 1982, he was sent to work as a county-level party boss in Hebei province. In 1985, he became a vice mayor in Xiamen, one of China's "special economic zones," where a protégé of his father's, Zou Erjun, was then-mayor.
It was during those years that Mr. Xi gained his first experience abroad. In 1985, he visited the United States as a county cadre attached to a corn delegation from Hebei province. He traveled to Iowa, Oregon and California, but -- he later told me -- was most impressed by his stay two nights with an American family in a town south of Des Moines, Iowa. He spoke wistfully of the summertime local baseball game and the community barbeque.
Mr. Xi's political aptitude has always been apparent. When I was serving as deputy consul general in the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou in the early 1990s, I noted in one meeting that "Xi has a quick smile, seems at ease in social situations, likes to talk, but is thoughtful, is relaxed, was interrupted by a lower ranking cadre during the conversation, but did not bristle or show any sign of annoyance." In a later encounter in Fuzhou's Lakeside Hotel in 1991, I was talking with an older cadre in charge of the province's Taiwan affairs, when I spotted Mr. Xi waiting on a sofa in the reception area. When the old cadre said goodbye to me, Mr. Xi jumped up from his couch and rushed over to shake hands with him. He seemed genuinely to respect him; so much so that I thought they were old friends. Later I learned he had met the older cadre for the first time earlier that day.
But for all his politicking and broad-based job experience, Mr. Xi is no democrat. While he was serving in Xiamen in 1988, the mayoral vote did not go as Beijing's higher-ups had planned. The Party wanted to "elect" a hidebound economic planner from Shanxi province to run the ailing city. Mr. Xi -- then only 35 years old -- had already been deputy mayor of Xiamen for about three years, and had made a good impression on the local cadres.
The Ninth Xiamen Municipal People's Congress, the collection of local Party hacks charged with legitimizing Beijing's choice as mayor that year, bridled at the thought of an outsider telling them how to run things. And despite Beijing's explicit demand, the city congress surprisingly refused to vote for the interloper. Instead, the city congress wrote in Mr. Xi's name on a secret ballot. After three separate ballots, Mr. Xi had the most votes. An abashed Beijing was obliged to pull the name of its candidate.
Mr. Xi's father, who by that point was a Politburo member, phoned his son and ordered him to withdraw his name from consideration. In the end, the sitting mayor stayed on in the job for another four years. Mr. Xi was sent out to a poor Fujian backwater to do penance as a district-level Party chief for two and a half years. He denies to this day that he was punished for winning the election.
It was the first of many instances where Mr. Xi faithfully toed the Party line. During the 1989 Tiananmen crisis, Mr. Xi was Party chief in one of Fujian's poorest and most remote districts, and over the next two years became highly regarded for his success at balancing budgets, eliminating cadre corruption, building roads and opening a television station.
But he was no hand-wringing liberal. According to the Duihua Foundation, a U.S.-based human-rights organization, on June 20, 1989, Fujian police in Ningde prefecture, imprisoned 35 members of the "Chinese People's Democratic Party." Their crime? Putting up posters criticizing the suppression of the student protests in Tiananmen. As Ningde party chief, Mr. Xi surely presided over the arrests.
Mr. Xi is familiar with market economics, if not an expert. He introduced no bold ideas in coastal Fujian province's economy, despite a 17-year tenure there. But that doesn't mean Mr. Xi isn't conversant in new ideas. At a dinner one evening in Fuzhou in 1991, Mr. Xi spoke to me about local real estate speculation, and complained that provincial laws were too immature to cope with the fast-growing economy. He spoke at length about Singapore's land zoning policies and Germany's port development. Eventually, Mr. Xi was elevated to the governorship of prosperous Zhejiang province, and earlier this year, became the Party boss of Shanghai.
Mr. Xi has won these appointments by anticipating what his elders want. Intellectually curious as he is, he is fundamentally an organization man. He is intelligent, open-minded, personable and a good manager. Should he succeed President Hu, his vision for China will be that of his father and his father's generation: to make China preeminent in Asia. To achieve that vision, he will seek the counsel of his elders and of fellow "princelings."
Mr. Xi's China is not meek and submissive. It is powerful and assertive. And it is not democratic, nor visionary.
John J. Tkacik Jr., a senior fellow atthe Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Taipei in the U.S. Foreign Service.
First appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal