The Enigma of Xi

It seems that everyone is writing about Xi Jinping at the moment, at least everyone in America. The Wall Street Journal, CNN, the San Francisco Chronicle and a rather good article in the Washington Post have all given their opinion of the Chinese Vice President, even Comedy Central have got in on the action. But it’s not all that surprising as there are two very good reasons for this recent obsession:

  1. US Vice President Joe Biden has been spending a large amount of time getting to know Xi during his visit to China, including an intimate dinner date at a restaurant in Chengdu.
  2. Unless he does something profoundly stupid in the next year or so, Xi will become the next leader of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012 and the President of China in 2013.

But despite everything that’s being written about Xi Jinping, there’s very little information to go on, which is almost certainly why Mr Biden wants to get to know him better. The details of his life and career that have dribbled out of state mouth-pieces portray the man as dependable, incorruptible, a problem solver and a true member of the party. In a word, dull. But the real question, the one that Mr Biden I’m sure hopes to answer, is what sort of president will Xi Jinping be?

Given how little there is to go on, this is not an easy question to answer, but let’s examine the evidence. For Tibet supporters like myself, the biggest issue is how he views minority groups in China and what he thinks about human rights. In July this year he headed the central government delegation for the 60th anniversary celebrations of the “peaceful liberation of Tibet” (or brutal conquest to you and me). Whilst there he made several speeches, during one of which he made the following announcement:

“[We] should thoroughly fight against separatist activities by the Dalai clique by firmly relying on all ethnic groups… and completely smash any plot to destroy stability in Tibet and jeopardise national unity.”

Well, that clarifies that then; a true tow-the-party-line kinda guy. Or is he? Xi also visited Xinjiang (East Turkestan) in June 2009; another occupied territory that was experiencing rising tensions between the local ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese immigrants. Whilst there, it was reported by British journalist John Gitting that “he insisted that the local party should appoint officials who could do a better job of handling ethnic relations. He warned that they should solve the ‘real difficulties’ that Uighurs suffer in housing, food, health, education and employment.” It’s unclear whether this was a genuine sentiment, or simply a show for the foreign press, bit it is clear that he had a real grasp of the fundamental issues whether he truly intended to address them or not.

Xi has also expressed what appear to be relatively liberal views elsewhere. From 2003 to 2007, whilst serving as Communist Party chief in Zhejiang province, he was also a regular columnist for the Zhejiang Daily newspaper. In his short opinion pieces he often wrote about the need for greater transparency, an end to corruption and a desire for party leaders to better understand the man on the street. Whilst it might sound surprising and controversial to criticise the party like this, in reality most people, including top party officials, already concede that these issues are the biggest threat to the party’s continued rule. Indeed, they are at the heart of most of the demonstrations that occur all over China everyday.

So if we’re being optimistic, it seems that Xi has a good understanding of the social problems affecting China and the occupied territories and has a fairly practical approach to dealing with these problems, which, if true, is a refreshing change. However, when it comes to deeper political issues, such as Tibetan independence and human rights, I think we will see much of what we have seen before from previous leaders. Criticism from other countries about what China considers to be internal affairs has always been met with an attitude of “keep your nose out of our business”. We’ve already seen this attitude from Xi; in February 2009 whilst on a trip to Mexico he rather undiplomatically stated that:

“there are a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our county”.

It is also pretty unlikely that we will see any serious reforms from Xi that might lead to greater political freedoms in China. Even if he harbours such ideals, I’m sure he is aware that the main voice of reform in the current party leadership, Premiere Wen Jiabao, has been politically isolated because of his reformist views and Xi will not wish to suffer the same fate. Xi is a career politician in a cut-throat party. He has fought off Li Keqiang, the current president’s first choice of successor, to the top spot thanks to the support of other party members, many of whom are hard-liners, and he will need their continued support throughout his presidency.

Whatever leadership style Xi Jinping ultimately adopts, one thing is clear; he will soon become one of the most powerful men on Earth with an impact that will affect Tibet, China and the rest of the world. Sadly I think it is unlikely that Mr Biden will be sharing his conclusions about Xi Jinping with the rest us anytime soon, so for now we must continue to keep a watchful eye on the next president of the most populous nation.

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