Xi has also succeeded in avoiding knotty issues like health-care reform and social unrest. Those issues have been left to his Politburo colleague and possible rival Li Keqiang, who has been given these thankless policy areas, supposedly to train him for the job of premier. Xi, meanwhile, has been tasked with managing macroeconomic policy, overseeing the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and running the Central Party School -- a relatively straightforward and more glamorous portfolio. Despite the 2008 economic slowdown, China has continued to produce impressive GDP growth, and the Olympics were considered extremely successful from a domestic perspective. And Xi, like Hu before he ascended to party secretary, looks after Sino-American relations, which accounts for his visit to the United States this month. Li has the less attractive and more difficult job of maintaining positive links with a fractious European Union. It's impossible to say whether Xi received his portfolio because of luck or because of his ability to convince the party's powerful Organization Department to task him with an easier job than his rival, but it's one of the main reasons for his success.
Unlike in the United States, where politicians campaign on their outsider status, a desire to change the system, and a willingness to take responsibility for problems the country faces, Xi's slogan might as well be "the buck stops there." Xi shares the skill for deflection with his predecessor, Hu. As party secretary of Tibet in the months leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprisings, Hu mysteriously went missing on the night of April 29, when protesters attacked a police station in Lhasa, according to China analyst Willy Lam. Because of his absence, the head of the local police had to shoulder the responsibility of calling in the Army. The gamble paid off: The troops quelled the unrest, and the hard-line leadership in Beijing praised Hu for his actions. But had the Army failed, Hu would have been able to blame his subordinate.
But Xi hasn't wholly escaped controversy. He was married before, briefly, to the daughter of a former Chinese ambassador to Britain, who lived in the United States and now resides in Hong Kong. The fact that she chose to stay abroad and that Xi would be the first divorcé since Mao Zedong to run China has already created controversy. Some Chinese Internet commentators have claimed he plagiarized all or part of the Ph.D. thesis he wrote while governor of Fujian. And some see his decision to send his daughter to Harvard University as a vote of no confidence in the country's education system. None of these issues will derail his rise.
For the next six months, like Hu prior to his ascension to party chairman in 2002, Xi will lay low, producing at most a screed of accepted formula that won't leave him vulnerable to attack within the party. In January, Xi gave a grindingly orthodox talk on the need for cultural wholesomeness and the need for more "ideological control" over students. He parrots Hu in his quest not to offend his predecessor, talking of the need to preserve harmony, guard against forces of instability, and push "core socialist values," all Hu buzzwords. Nothing he has said publicly prefigures any radical departure from the previous decade. In the U.S. presidential campaign, surprise, grandiose declarations, and the daily clash among contenders form part of the testing process of possible candidates. The Chinese keep contention well out of sight; the less Xi looks like he is actually chasing the top slot, the better it is for him.
What lies behind the formal exterior that Xi presents to the world -- the side Americans will see during his visit -- is anyone's guess. During a 2009 visit to Latin America, he was caught on record railing against foreigners "with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country." To which he added: "China does not export revolution, hunger, poverty, nor does China cause you any headaches. Just what else do you want?" This rare outburst, however, was the only time he publicly strayed from message. Everything in his background suggests he is a faithful, loyal conventional follower of party orthodoxy who has never been put in a position to question how the party functions or how it might undertake radical internal reform. From what we know, Xi is red -- through and through. There have been no rallying cries like those of Wen Jiabao for deeper political reform and wholesale change to the system.
The Chinese system is set up not for someone with big, bold ideas, but for the ultimate insider, the person with the best networks and the biggest vested interest in making the system work. And that person is Xi. The party elite need someone who can keep the economy humming and keep a lid on social discontent. But while Xi might be the best thing for Beijing, it might not be for the rest of the people of China.