Argument

The Insider

Meet Xi Jinping, China's heir apparent -- the cleanest, least offensive, most loyal politician the party could find.

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.

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.

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Argument

Bull in the China Shop

The Obama administration is welcoming China's presumptive next leader, Xi Jinping. But how can it make good policy when the strategy is a mess?

Last month, as Barack Obama's administration began to prepare for Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's visit to Washington, someone close to the U.S. vice president leaked that Joe Biden would "take over" China policy. The leaker made the case that Biden had a good rapport with Xi, thus priming the U.S. vice president to add the China mandate to his portfolio. According to a number of administration sources, however, this leak was nothing more than an instance of a Washington-style power play -- or score settling. But the episode does demonstrate how important the China relationship has become in the Washington power game, how the portfolio is troublingly up for grabs, and how wildly elbows swing (or pivot) to take control of it.

How important is the relationship between top U.S. and Chinese leaders? And shouldn't China policy be about more than a single relationship?

If one judges by the seriousness of purpose with which Chinese and U.S. officials are taking Xi's visit, the answer to the first question is that top-level engagement is very important. By all accounts, Xi is the putative next leader of China, and both sides want a successful visit for different reasons.

For Xi, the purpose of his visit is to consolidate his power over an ever more complex Chinese political system. This is no easy feat. Xi needs to demonstrate to rival party factions, to the People's Liberation Army, to the growing business class, and increasingly to the public that he is in command of the most important foreign-policy portfolio. His various constituencies will search for signs that he is 1) tough enough on the Americans; 2) committed to continuing economic reform; but 3) not overly committed -- lest he ignore what China calls "social tensions." Obviously, these tasks are somewhat contradictory, and in the end, form will be more important than substance. It's not as if it's all going to be settled by a day or two in Washington. Chinese leaders will be satisfied if there are no major missteps during the visit.

The Obama administration will look for some of the same things. But true to American political culture, U.S. officials will also always try to divine whether the new leader is "someone we can work with." This is particularly true now, as relations with China have been especially tense during the current term. There have been contretemps over the South China Sea, North Korea, Taiwan, and trade issues. Administration officials have all but given up on President Hu Jintao. They view him as too risk-averse and hope that Xi represents a new kind of leader, one who is more cosmopolitan and open-minded then his predecessors. They hope Xi will finally be the Chinese leader who accepts the U.S. view that China does best by embracing the made-in-America rules of the road.

Alas, U.S. officials are likely to be disappointed. The Chinese system simply will not allow Xi to govern in bold strokes. As the first leader without the blessing of China's revolutionary generation (it cannot bless from the grave), Xi will likely be as risk-averse as Hu and more beholden to consensus within the Politburo Standing Committee, more deferential to the People's Liberation Army, and less likely to undertake liberal reforms given current social conditions. Although he seems to have Hu's support, there are other ambitious politicians who would gladly take advantage if Xi slipped up.

And such missteps are not out of the question. Beijing has been understandably confused about America's China policy. The Obama administration cannot seem to decide whether it thinks America is weak or strong, whether it should accommodate China or confront the country, or whether it wants to deploy more U.S. forces to the Pacific or cut the very forces that would be deployed. That Xi might adopt ill-conceived foreign policies (as Hu did in 2009 and 2010) is not out of the question.

So does Washington's top-level engagement with China matter? Yes, it does. Even though Xi will be limited in what he can accomplish, the need for very close coordination on strategic matters is vital to continued stability in Asia, especially in light of the Obama administration's attempt to focus more attention and resources on the region. U.S. leaders will have made progress if they can put candor before niceties. And it is time to explain how dangerous things can become if direct lines of communication continue to be held hostage to Chinese whim. To increase the likelihood that the Sino-American competition will not lead to conflict, the two countries need sustained dialogue over matters such as military activities by both countries close to China's shores, the risks of the perennial flashpoints (Taiwan, Korea, and now the South China Sea and Indian Ocean), and new domains of warfare -- including cyberspace. These are not topics that China particularly enjoys discussing.

But engagement among top leaders is not enough. China is far more pluralistic than it was when Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon made their secret deals with party leaders or when President George H.W. Bush secretly sent national security advisor Brent Scowcroft to toast the Chinese after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today, China's entrepreneurs want a truly free market. The less privileged want protections from a rapacious state. Reformers want more of a voice. U.S. engagement must expand to all levels of Chinese society, both within the Communist Party's confines and outside them.

Ultimately, the top engager must be the president, with the secretaries of State, Defense, and the Treasury, as well as top military officials, playing a secondary role. That Vice President Biden thinks he has a solid rapport with Xi is of limited importance -- remember how much good it did President George W. Bush, who thought he had looked into Putin's eyes and seen his soul.

The limitations of one-on-one diplomacy mean that real strategy is needed to tie the ends of policy with the means of the relationship. And Washington's China policy is, necessarily, a bit of a muddle. Thus it's little surprise that it has been called the horribly named "congagement," a policy resting on the twin pillars of containment and engagement.

Engagement's objectives are twofold: 1) to encourage China to become a responsible great power, and 2) to press for liberal reform. The aim of containment is to hold the line on a status quo -- a liberalizing Asia -- that has provided decades of peace and prosperity. But strengthening the pillars of congagement is a complicated and, at times, contradictory endeavor. Naturally, different U.S. cabinet officials work at cross-purposes to either contain or engage China. National security officials work to balance China's power while economic officials try to deepen engagement. Somebody needs to orchestrate the cacophony.

That's where strategy comes in. Strategic managers of the China relationship now have to contend with the Treasury's interest in continuing to sell bonds to China, the Agriculture Department's desire to sell more wheat to China, and the Navy's need for more ships to meet the demands of deterrence. On top of that, domestic constituencies -- from business owners to religious groups -- interested in China are growing, commensurate with America's increased interdependence with China. What will the United States do about China's intellectual property theft? Undervalued currency? Treatment of Tibetans?

Even on issues of "high politics" (diplomatic negotiations, force-posture decisions, alliance relationships), where the prime actors are the secretaries of State and Defense and the national security advisor, strategy-making is problematic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has shown great vision and energy in her Asia policy, from demonstrating tough resistance to China's claims to the entire South China Sea to pushing a multilateral Asia-Pacific free trade agreement to instituting a very important new trilateral relationship between Washington, Tokyo, and New Delhi.

But while the United States has deepened its commitments to more players in the region, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been under orders from the president to cut the resources needed to match the country's diplomatic endeavors. For example, he is slowing the acquisition of the much-needed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and shrinking the Navy's surface fleet -- both crucial for force projection in the Pacific. This is classic "strategic insolvency," a term coined by Walter Lippmann that describes a strategy in which one's commitments and one's resources do not match. And insolvency is dangerous because it undercuts deterrence -- aggressors can plainly see when the United States does not have the capabilities needed to follow through on its commitments. Tighter control of strategy-making -- taking care that ends, ways, and means are better held in balance -- would avoid this state of affairs. Strategic choices should be clarified. For example, either the United States makes fewer commitments to its friends and thereby weakens the containment leg of its policy, or it ensures that before it deepens commitments it is prepared to resource them adequately. Biden may have a relationship with Xi, but he has not played much of a role in the making of grand strategy, which is precisely what the China lead must do.

Good strategy, not rapport diplomacy, is critical to making sure containment initiatives serve those of engagement -- and vice versa. Effectively deterring Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, for example, enhances U.S. efforts to encourage peaceful resolution of disputes there. Once Beijing comes to believe that intimidating others will not achieve its goals, engagement with Washington improves. Ultimately, U.S. policy must work to make a responsible China feel welcome as a great power while successfully deterring its attempts to change the status quo. Unfortunately for the White House, Xi will arrive to a Washington that is in a state of confusion about the "what" and the "how" of its policy. At least the confusion will be recognizable to Xi -- China has even less confidence in what it should do about America.

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