What if American political reporters covered the Chinese horse race?
It was a tense moment in the private room at the back of Vice President Xi Jinping's campaign bus.
The bus, nicknamed the Panda Express, sat idled outside his villa in the seaside resort town of Beidaihe. The candidate had just been told that his opponent, Vice Premier Li Keqiang, planned to mention Xi's daughter's enrollment at Harvard University and his first wife's penthouse condominium in London during the October Chairman Debates, ending the campaign's unofficial moratorium on personal attacks.
"This could be a game-changer," Wang Bashou, Xi's campaign manager, warned a gathering of the candidate's top strategists on Aug. 11, according to the accounts of three people in the room at the time. Xi, pulling on a French-made cigarette, rolled up his sleeves as his team of political operatives began to lay out a plan for attacking Li.
This previously undisclosed account of the meeting, featuring detailed interviews with dozens of campaign insiders, provides the most comprehensive portrait yet of how the race is shaping up after the first of three scheduled debates that could decisively shift the campaign narrative and decide who will be the next leader of the world's most populous country.
The most momentous event of the debate was planned beforehand. Guessing correctly that Li would tout that he had "more political experience than Zhou Enlai," Xi personally devised a devastating zinger in reply, according to two senior members of Xi's campaign who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak more candidly about their boss. "Vice premier, I served with Zhou Enlai. I knew Zhou Enlai. Zhou Enlai was a friend of mine. Vice premier, you're no Zhou Enlai," Xi said.
"Li had made the Zhou comparison before, and we wanted to be ready in case he made it again," said a consultant close to the campaign who called the debate a "make-or-break moment," citing Xi's lagging polling in the key swing provinces of Hubei and Liaoning. "We really won the Weibo news cycle with that one."
According to private polls taken after the debate and shared with Foreign Policy's Chinese edition, 58 percent of likely voters think Xi is more "chairman-like," and 63 percent think Xi is "more likely to get tough on Japan." Xi's rhetoric on the Diaoyu Islands dispute is performing particularly well with the "security aunties" that Xi's pollsters believe could decide this election. Seniors particularly appreciated Xi's promise to expand the social safety net and his vow "never, ever, ever" to "throw nainai under the minibus," campaign officials said.
A few of Li's canned one-liners fell flat. His crack about how Xi's first wife living in London testifies to his opponent's disdain for "Chinese exceptionalism" bombed in the 95,000-person auditorium. Li's puzzling decision to break into a few lines of Shakespeare -- in fluent English -- was "intended to show his chops on foreign policy," according to a source close to the Li campaign. But it inadvertently played into the shadowy third-party ads seeking to exploit rumors that the worldly Li was not born in China. ("Disaster," said one Li aide.)
Xi's apparent debate victory could not come at a better time for the former Shanghai Communist Party secretary, whose campaign has been reeling after a bootleg video surfaced in September showing the candidate dismissing supporters of former Chairman Mao Zedong as "noodle eaters" at an off-the-record fundraising dinner in Shenzhen. The 350,000-renminbi-per-plate dinner was hosted by Qian Jinjin, a controversial casino magnate with alleged ties to the Macau underworld.
The Li campaign used the video, which has been viewed more than 25 million times on Youku, to boost its support with the key fangnu ("house slaves") demographic of young urban voters who can't afford to buy their own property and often subsist on cheap instant noodles. One Li advisor said the campaign is "exploring" whether the dinner violated China's strict campaign-fundraising laws.
The video fit perfectly with the profile the Li campaign has been building of Xi -- as a scion of privilege who looks down on ordinary Chinese.
"After last night, nobody cares about that damn video," read an SMS from an exultant Xi aide. But it's not clear whether many in Li's base of blue-collar voters are ready to change horses.
"I wouldn't care if he spoke Japanese" as long as it helped with the slowing economy, tweeted Zhang Dige, a part-time taxi driver with 3 million followers on Weibo who said he plans to vote for Li in November. "I'm sick of these [expletive deleted] princelings."
Li's advisors also attribute his brief September bump to a series of ads he ran in the battleground provinces of Hubei, Shaanxi, and Jilin, highlighting Xi's earlier support for disgraced Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai. The ad features a grainy, black-and-white photo of Xi and Bo with a baritone voiceover intoning ominously, "Xi flip-flopped on Bo; he's flip-flopped on the economy. Is this the man you want running the People's Republic?" (A spokesman for the Xi campaign called the ads "grossly misleading," and the Xinhua fact-checking department has rated some of Li's claims "four broken chopsticks.")
After Wednesday night's debate, however, the Xi camp is riding high, insiders say, and experts caution that the likelihood of an "October surprise" is slim. "We knew that if Xi took off the gloves, winning the debate would be easier than beating a donkey," Cui Nongye, Xi's chief of outreach to rural voters, said in the spin room after the debate as he munched on a spicy pig trotter.
It remains to be seen, however, whether newspaper endorsements like that of the Global Times, which announced Thursday it was supporting Xi, will sway undecided voters, who are largely illiterate. "China has more than 5,000 years of history; now in the 21st century, it is a historical inevitability that China not become one of several equally balanced global powers," the nationalistic broadsheet's endorsement said. "It needs a leader who doesn't apologize for China."
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images