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.