China's New President
So little is known of Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping that even seasoned Sinologists are at pains to pin down the fifth-generation cadre who will become General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the 18th Party Congress in late 2012 – and State President soon afterwards.
The 57-year-old Xi's status as crown prince was confirmed on Monday, when a party Central Committee plenary session made him a Vice-Chairman of the policy-setting Central Military Commission.
Particularly in a year that is remarkable for the no-holds-barred projection of Chinese hard power, many commentaries about Xi have focused on his close ties to the People's Liberation Army. Xi's glamorous wife, veteran singer Peng Liyuan, heads the PLA Song and Dance Troupe. She is also a bona fide major general.
Friends in High Places
Much more important is that as a "princeling," (a reference to the sons and daughters of party elders), Xi has close ties with the several dozens of the offspring of retired senior cadres and generals who have risen to rank of senior colonel or above.
Shortly after graduation from Tsinghua University in 1979, Xi worked for three years as secretary to former defense minister Geng Biao. General Geng happened to be a good friend of Xi's father, the late vice-premier Xi Zhongxun.
It is thus possible that with Xi at the central military commission, PLA generals' say in foreign policy and related areas – which is already considered excessively high by most Western governments – may be further enhanced. Very little, however, is known about Xi's personal views on diplomatic and security affairs.
This is mostly due to the fact that almost his entire career was spent as a regional party and government bureaucrat in the two coastal provinces of Fujian (1985 to 2002) and Zhejiang (2002 to 2007).
Scolding the Americans
Xi has, however, come across as a nationalist mostly by virtue of an off-the-cuff remark he made when addressing members of the Chinese Embassy in Mexico City in 2009. The Vice-President scolded unnamed parties – presumably Americans – of "having nothing better to do than pointing their fingers at China and saying [improper] things." This diatribe, however, was never publicized in the Chinese media.
While it is not certain whether Xi will pursue a hard-line policy toward the US or the West, there can be little doubt that he is a conservative in political and ideological matters.
Since being inducted into the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007, Xi has played a sizeable role in the ideological campaign to "Sinicize, popularize and develop Marxism."
As President of the Central Party School, which is the CCP's training ground for up-and-coming mid-echelon officials, Xi never tired to urging students to "upgrade their understanding of Marxism and to improve their cultivation as a Communist."
Leading cadres, he said in a memorable speech last year, must "boost the resoluteness of their political beliefs, the principled nature of their political stance, the sensitivity of their political discrimination, and the reliability of their political loyalty."
No Political Liberalizer
It is improbable, therefore, that Xi will back the repeated calls for political liberalization made by the most liberal member of the Politburo, Premier Wen Jiabao.
On economic matters, however, the "crown prince" will likely continue the reform and open-door policy started by Deng Xiaoping 31 years ago.
It is even possible that Xi will improve the current treatment of multinationals as well as domestic private firms. While both President Hu Jintao and Wen are career party apparatchiks, Xi had a lot of experience dealing with Hong Kong, Taiwan and foreign businessmen while working in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai.
While serving in coastal Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007, Xi deserved a lot of credit for turning the coastal province into a world-renowned haven of "red capitalism." For example, he was an early supporter of Zhejiang-based Geely Motors, which recently made international headlines when it took over Sweden's Volvo.
Must Wait in Line
Irrespective of whether Xi has strong views on either economic or foreign-policy issues, it is unlikely that they will be translated into policies soon after his "coronation" at the 18th CCP Congress in 2012.
After the announcement of Xi's elevation to the CMC vice-chairmanship, the buzz in Beijing's political circles is whether Hu, who has been CMC Chairman since 1999, will vacate that position at the 18th Party Congress.
Political sources in Beijing said Hu wants to emulate his predecessor, ex-President Jiang Zemin, who remained CMC chairman for two years despite having retired from the Politburo and the post of general secretary at the 16th CCP Congress in 2002.
The sources said at this stage, several PBSC heavyweights including Wen, were seeking to persuade Hu to set an example for rejuvenation -- and the orderly transfer of power -- by quitting all his positions in 2012.
However, Hu, who was born in December 1942, is in good health and it is likely that, unless he is faced with overwhelming odds, he will hang on to the slot of commander-in-chief at least until 2015.
Particularly given Xi's relatively small power base, it is widely assumed that he will continue to defer to Hu until the 19th CCP Congress of 2017.