There is a joke in China that the Communist Party actually doesn't mind elections, as long as it knows the outcome in advance. So though the stately, plump Vice President Xi Jinping still needs to officially stand for the position of general secretary to replace President Hu Jintao in October, the result -- barring disaster -- seems pretty certain. For Xi, a former pig farmer and provincial leader, and the scion of one of the reddest families in China, the last five years have been a campaign with Chinese characteristics to ensure that when he steps out behind the red curtain at the Great Hall of the People in six months' time, the last thing on anyone's mind will be a sense of surprise.
Xi, the son of a former vice premier, with an easy smile and the paternalistic manner of a well-seasoned Chinese leader, seemed destined to rise to the top. During the Cultural Revolution, Xi, like many educated youth, spent a decade farming in the backward inland province of Shaanxi; residents named him party secretary of the village soon after his arrival, a first among the 29,000 youths sent to the province from Beijing.
His real political career took off in the wealthy coastal province of Fujian, where he worked himself up to governor in the 1990s and avoided being implicated in a massive smuggling scandal. Appointed party boss in 2002 of the dynamic Zhejiang province, he briefly ran Shanghai after the felling of Party Secretary Chen Liangyu for corruption in 2007 before being elevated to the all-important Politburo Standing Committee during the party congress later that same year. He has been talked of as Hu's replacement ever since -- and like Hu, his ability in Fujian and Shanghai to avoid major scandals has stood him in good stead.
But it wasn't always clear that he would rise this far. In 1997, Xi, while still in Fujian as deputy party secretary, came in dead last in a vote by delegates for the 344-strong Central Committee, composed of the elite leaders of the Communist Party, largely because of a backlash against princelings, the sons and daughters of high-level officials. Xi took it in stride. In the space of only a decade, distaste for his privileged upbringing has been diluted by appreciation of his administrative abilities, his relatively clean record, and his ability to oversee booming economic growth in the provinces he has run. Unlike former President Jiang Zemin or current Premier Wen Jiabao, Xi's immediate family appears clean: His 19-year-old daughter is too young to be involved in business, and his wife too famous as an Army singer to risk the most obvious manifestations of corruption.
Like all good Chinese politicians, Xi used his family connections to his advantage, mobilizing support by calling upon his extensive networks of military and party elite. He has many friends among the party's elder establishment, people who know and trust him and his father, among them former Party Secretary Jiang and Jiang's chief political strategist and former Politburo Standing Committee member Zeng Qinghong. He also has links with the military through a brief stint as a private secretary to a People's Liberation Army general in the 1980s.
Ever since the death of Deng Xiaoping ended the era of Chinese political strongmen, the key to success in elite politics is having fewer enemies than your potential competitors do. It's no longer enough to have heady support from a narrow range of figures. Although the party might not be ecstatic about Xi, as it showed during the voting in 1997, his elevation will alienate the smallest number of elites. And because of his broad network, many now stand to gain once he ascends to China's top post.
Perhaps more important is Xi's ability to play by the rules of the system that nurtured him. In March 2007, Xi moved to Shanghai to serve as the city's party secretary. According to the Hong Kong magazine Open, he was initially shown a luxury apartment, the size of which far exceeded the 250-square-meter limit allocated to senior provincial leaders. Xi turned it down with the comment that it could be better used as a convalescent home for elderly cadres, thus neatly sidestepping a potential black mark on his record.