China Anoints Its Next Leader
By JEREMY PAGE
Chinese President Hu Jintao, left, talks with Xi Jinping after the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress in March 2009.
BEIJING—China's Communist Party appointed Vice President Xi Jinping to a key military post, cementing his status as heir apparent to president and party chief Hu Jintao and removing much of the uncertainty surrounding the country's leadership succession.
The appointment comes at a pivotal time for China as its economic and military might grows. Many inside and outside the party will now be looking for signals as to whether Mr. Xi stands closer to Premier Wen Jiabao and others who appear to be pushing political reform, or to more conservative leaders, thought to include President Hu.
Mr. Xi, the 57-year-old son of a revolutionary hero, was appointed a vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission at a secretive annual party meeting in a hotel in Beijing that ended Monday. The commission controls China's two-million-strong army and is headed by Mr. Hu, who is due to step down as Communist Party general secretary in 2012 and as president in 2013.
Mr. Xi, who is married to a hugely popular folk singer, is among a generation of Chinese leaders who grew up during China's traumatic Cultural Revolution and whose careers have coincided with the country's meteoric rise since economic reforms were launched in 1979.
A portly figure sometimes criticized for lacking charisma, Mr. Xi has maintained a low public profile, though on a visit to Mexico last year he openly mocked foreign attitudes toward China.
"Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us," he said. "First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?"
Yet the appointment yields few clues as to how Beijing will ultimately move to address rising tensions—domestic and international—over questions such as what political freedoms to allow, what responsibility to take for climate-change issues, or how much to let its currency respond to market forces. In some crucial ways, the next face of China is a blank slate.
Still haunted by memories of the personality cult surrounding Mao Zedong's leadership, and the political convulsions that accompanied the handover of power around his death in 1976, China now actively seeks to avoid emphasis on its leaders' personalities by stressing a collective leadership.
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Xi Jinping applauds at a conference in Moscow in March.
Xi Jinping's Rise
Vice president of China, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, member of the Politburo Standing Committee
Born June 1953 in Fuping, Shaanxi province
Son of Xi Zhongxun, former revolutionary leader who was imprisoned by Mao Zedong in 1962. Following Mao's death, the elder Mr. Xi re-entered government and led the creation of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in southern China.
Married to celebrity folk singer Peng Liyuan
Joined the Communist Party in January 1974
Graduate of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Tsinghua University, majoring in Marxist theory and ideological education. Also holds a law degree.
Named vice president of China in 2008.
It has also been in Mr. Xi's own interest to keep a low profile. Behind the façade of unity among leaders, jockeying for power is intense. For ambitious bureaucrats like Mr. Xi, passage to the top can easily be derailed; that encourages them to mask their personal views, build consensus and avoid taking risks, particularly in their dealings with foreigners.
Senior U.S. officials said they viewed Mr. Xi as a moderate who is well briefed on the U.S.-China relationship. They said that like many of China's senior leaders, he was difficult to read, though they said he appeared very engaged on key economic and strategic issues involving China and the world.
Mr. Xi has long been seen as a potential heir to Mr. Hu, but was passed over for promotion to the commission this time last year, leading to speculation he had fallen out of favor.
His promotion now clearly marks him out as the pre-eminent member of a new generation of leaders. Unlike the present generation, who are mostly engineers and scientists, the new crop have relatively diverse academic backgrounds, including social scientists, lawyers and a historian.
Hear performances by Mr. Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, a hugely popular folk singer.
Performing 'In the Field of Hope'
Our hometown lies in the field of hope,
With smoke from the kitchen hearths floating above new workshops,
And brooks flowing through beautiful villages;
Fields of winter wheat next to those of paddy rice;
A vast pond of lotus next to orchards.
Oh, we are living in this field for generations
To make it rich and prosperous.
Our hope lies in the field of hope,
Rice sprouts grow in the sweat of farmers,
Cattle are raised amid the sound of herdsmen's flute.
The west village is spinning fiber while the east is fishing;
The north is planting seeds while the south is threshing grains.
Oh, we are working in this field for generations
To make it pretty and groomed.
Our future lies in the field of hope,
People are living in the beautiful sun,
Life is changing amid people's work,
Old people are raising the glasses while children laughing,
Boys are playing the music while girls singing,
Oh, we are fighting in this field for generations
To make it happy and proud.
* * * * *
Performing 'Mount Everest' at a Chinese New Year Gala in 1997
You're standing in people's heart and under the blue sky
You're nurturing Gesang flower in the sunshine of love
You're spreading the moonlight across Himalaya
I love you Mount Everest,
The Mount Everest in my heart
You're walking into people's dreams and smiling in the plateau of Tibet and Xijiang
You're radiating the rays of sunshine in the spirits of justice
You're warming the mother land with fresh breezes
How much I want to do a Tibetan dance and present you a white kha-btags
To you, Mount Everest,
The sacred Mount Everest
Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution, said there were concerns in the broader Party last year that Mr. Xi wasn't promoted because of a leadership struggle or a push to introduce a more democratic succession.
"The fact that he has got the job shows that the political establishment wants to have the succession go as smoothly as possible," said Mr. Li. He said that the leadership also wanted to give Mr. Xi more time and experience on the top Party bodies. Mr. Hu had been on the Standing Committee for 10 years before he became Party chief. Mr. Xi has been on it only since 2007.
The appointment makes Mr. Xi only the second civilian on the Military Commission after 67-year-old Mr. Hu, who was promoted to the same post when he was vice president in 1999, three years before becoming party chief.
Mr. Xi and other incoming leaders have been scarred by traumatic experiences as children growing up during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, a reign of terror during which many of China's intellectuals were sent to prison or the countryside.
"I ate a lot more bitterness than most people," Mr. Xi said in a 1996 interview cited in China Parenting Magazine. He said he was imprisoned four times and called names such as "son of a b—" and "reactionary student."
But his generation of leaders also has had greater exposure to Western ideas than its predecessors did.
Attention is now focused on who will replace the seven of nine members of the Standing Committee who are due to retire at the next Party Congress in 2012.
The question has been building in importance as the party has been caught up in an intense and unusually public debate about its future ever since Mr. Wen—who is 68 and one of those due to retire in 2012—made a surprise appeal for political reform in August.
Mr. Wen is widely expected to be succeeded by current Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who was once seen as another potential candidate for the top spot.
Some leaders are thought to favor limited internal reforms to make the authoritarian government more responsive to the needs of an increasingly complex society, while others fear that any such moves could unleash social unrest and eventually topple the party.
What is clear from Mr. Xi's biography is that he has always remained loyal to the Party—in contrast to his father, who was accused of disloyalty in 1962 and went on to condemn the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square.
That debate has grown more intense since Liu Xiaobo, a jailed Chinese dissident, won the Nobel Peace Prize early this month, and after a group of party elders wrote an open letter calling for media freedom last week.
The country's new assertiveness on the international stage has also raised questions among anxious Asian neighbors about how the Party intends to exercise its new power. Mutual suspicions still roil China's relations with the U.S.
"People within the government and elsewhere are going to want [Mr. Xi] to articulate his vision for the Party and its relationship with the armed forces," said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst.
Mr. Xi has been raising his profile internationally in the past few years, meeting President Barack Obama on his visit to Beijing last year, as well as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and several other foreign leaders, this year.
The State Department's top economic official, former Goldman Sachs executive Robert Hormats, has met with Mr. Xi twice this year, according to U.S. officials. And Mr. Hormats attended a speech Mr. Xi gave last month at an investment forum in Xiamen, where the Chinese official talked about the need for Beijing to continue its economic-reform program.
"I was impressed with the keynote address," which has "received too little attention in the United States—and yet it has potentially significant implications for Chinese investment and reform policies," Mr. Hormats told a Washington conference this month.
Mr. Hormats added that Mr. Xi "stressed China's 'going-global' strategy and noted that China is now in a new phase of reform and opening-up."
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China Vice President Xi Jinping speaks at the Australia China Trade and Economic Forum with then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in June.
Mr. Xi's appointment to the Military Commission was announced at the end of a four-day meeting of the Party's Central Committee—consisting of its 371 most senior leaders—to chart China's economic and political course for the next five years.
The meeting approved China's next five-year economic development plan, due to start in 2011. The plan, which straddles the leadership transition, promises to continue the present administration's focus on ensuring more equitable and sustainable growth. It will stress domestic consumption, in part by raising wages, after years of economic growth led by exports and investment.
A communique published by the state-run Xinhua news agency also pledged to make "vigorous yet steady efforts to promote political restructuring," but gave no details about what that would entail or how fast it would progress.
—Jay Solomon contributed to this article.
Write to Jeremy Page at email@example.com