By Wieland Wagner
His Washington hosts knew little about Beijing's future strong man, other than he liked to dance and play table tennis. But the visitor himself was also insecure. For him, the event could already be considered a success if he managed to avoid making any diplomatic gaffes at the White House.
That was about 10 years ago, and the man China was presenting to the world as its future president and party leader was Hu Jintao. "Who is Hu?" the US magazine Newsweek asked, with a mixture of cluelessness and condescension, prior to the visit by the stiff Chinese official. Hu was familiar with Stalinist North Korea, but he had never visited capitalist America.
The introductory ritual will repeat itself at the White House on Tuesday, but this time with different players and in the face of a dramatically different geopolitical balance of power. This time Beijing's future leader is named Xi Jinping. Like Hu before him, Xi also currently holds the position of vice president. But there is a big difference with Hu's visit. Xi now represents a rising superpower that is preparing to challenge the world's current hegemon. Xi was selected by a regime that looked on as ailing Western industrialized nations, which had behaved as proud enemies and occupiers in the past, sought Beijing's assistance during the financial and euro crisis. This helps to explain the self-confidence of today's Chinese visitor to Washington.
The 58-year-old Xi's visit gives the international media an opportunity to take a new look at the balance of power in global politics. For months, the Western media seem to have had nothing more exciting to focus on than the Republican primaries leading up to the American presidential race. Publications are even devoting plenty of attention to the candidates who are trailing behind. But many don't even know how to pronounce the family name of the future ruler of a country of 1.3 billion people, a man who could eventually become the most powerful man in the world. (It's pronounced "She.")
From the Communist Aristocracy
The change in Beijing's leadership, however, is at least as important as any possible switch in Washington. The man visiting the White House this week will be the watchdog over the world's largest foreign currency reserves, worth about $3.2 trillion (2.4 trillion), and he will play a key role in determining how China can most effectively take advantage of the current weaknesses of the United States and the Europeans. At the same time, the future president and party leader will have to come to terms with Asian neighbors like Vietnam, countries that, fearing a militarily strengthened Beijing, are increasingly seeking protection with China's Pacific rival, the United States. Xi will also have to grapple with the biggest challenge to Chinese society, the growing social unrest in a country that produces a large share of the world's goods and whose economic miracle could be seriously threatened as a result.
Like Hu before him, Xi has been silent on all of these issues. But the new leader comes with a completely different presence, partly as a result of his family background. This distinguishes Xi, a relatively tall man, from his predecessor Hu, a stiff politician who rose through the party's ranks and, in almost 10 years in office, never removed the mask of the political functionary.
Xi is from what might be referred to as his party's aristocracy. He is one of the so-called red "princelings." He spent a privileged childhood with other children of high-ranking officials at the court of then dictator Mao Zedong in Beijing.
Most of all, however, Xi embodies the stark contradictions within a communist People's Republic in an era of capitalism. On the one hand, he comes from a relatively liberal family, politically speaking. On the other hand, he has portrayed himself as a model functionary who is true to party principles.
His father Xi Zhongxun (1913 - 2002) participated in guerilla warfare under Mao, later became a state councilor and was eventually made deputy prime minister. But he was thrown out of office before the Cultural Revolution and downgraded to working in a factory, after having permitted the publication of a book critical of Mao. It wasn't until 1978 that his deep fall from grace was followed by rehabilitation.
Under reformer Deng Xiaoping, Xi Zhongxun was named leader of Guangdong province, where he was instrumental in promoting economic development in the southern Chinese export zone. He was critical of the government's bloody suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Xi Jinping has a popular wife, something that also helps China's future leader set himself apart from the political establishment. The flamboyant Peng Liyuan, 49, is known for belting out patriotic songs on television. She is the star of a group of singers within the People's Liberation Army and holds the rank of major general.
The couple's daughter is a student at America's elite Harvard University, where she is enrolled under a pseudonym. Nevertheless, Xi is likely to dash any hopes of a new, more conciliatory China during his visit to Washington. With its recent veto in the United Nations Security Council against a resolution on Syria, Beijing, together with Russia, has once again chosen to protect a bloodthirsty dictator. And even if Xi does secretly harbor reformist ideas, he still has to avoid politically overshadowing his current superior, Hu Jintao.
Political and Intellectual Paralysis
Xi will likely be named head of the Communist Party at its convention this fall, and he will probably replace Hu as president in the spring of 2013. It is still unclear whether Hu will also hand over the chairmanship of the military commission, a position that almost carries more weight than the presidency, because it would make him the commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army. At the same time, the current deputy premier, Li Keqiang, 56, will likely be promoted to premier.
Officially, Beijing is treating the reshuffle as a state secret. Behind the scenes, however, a tug-of-war over power in the Standing Committee of the Politburo is already underway, with seven of the nine posts in the party's most important governing body to be newly filled. Last week, a promising candidate suddenly seemed to falter: Bo Xilai, the colorful Communist Party secretary in the city of Chongqing in southwest China. Bo, known for having citizens of Chongqing sing patriotic Mao songs, has made a name for himself for his tough stance on corruption. But now one of his close associates, the city's police chief, has allegedly tried to seek asylum in the United States.
Until the new leadership duo, Xi and Li, have secured control over the party and the military, and in the provinces, the political and intellectual paralysis that the current regime has imposed on the giant country will likely continue. The rulers in Beijing are nervous. For the Communists, the transition that will bring Xi into power will be only the second change at the top since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 in which existential power struggles within the party did not have to be resolved first. This is why old and new leaders are currently steering clear of all risks. Many writers and lawyers critical of the regime have disappeared or been imprisoned.
The rising superpower doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks about the purges. Chinese security services even prevented German Chancellor Angela Merkel from meeting with prominent critics during her recent trip to China.
The Communists have deprived the media of anything remotely interesting. Many popular TV shows were taken off the air when censors allegedly discovered obscene content. On the Internet, they have tamed the occasionally defiant microblogging website Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, by now requiring users to provider their identity card numbers to register.
Xi's US visit also highlights the contrast between Western democracy and Chinese dictatorship. The Americans don't yet know who will be occupying the White House next January, or what possible effects this could have on the country's political course. The Chinese, on the other hand, can make plans for the long term.
Current President Hu was chosen by Deng, China's last "red emperor," as heir apparent. Xi's political ascent was also quietly arranged more than five years ago in Zhongnanhai, the strictly off-limits leadership compound next to the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Party leader Hu had actually chosen current Deputy Premier Li as his successor. Like Hu, Li derives much of his support from the party's influential youth organization. But Jiang Zemin, Hu's powerful predecessor, thwarted the plan. Jiang, 85 at the time, successfully pushed for Xi to be Hu's successor.
Xi indirectly demonstrated his loyalty to his mentor Jiang on the sidelines of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009. As highly symbolic gifts, he gave Chancellor Merkel two books, both translated into English, by the former party chairman, a trained electrical engineer. The dry treatises were titled: "Research on Energy Issues in China" and "On the Development of Chinese Information Technology."
Xi is a compromise candidate who almost all factions within the party can accept. "He is good at winning the hearts of people; he is natural and down-to-earth," says farmer Lü Housheng, 56. He should know. Lü has known China's future leader since he was 15.
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