THE contrast could not have been starker. When US president Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term in November, the image that symbolised the moment was of him hugging his wife Michelle.
When Xi Jinping was named the new leader of China the same month, he stood on a stage with his fellow Politburo members dressed in identikit dark suits with slicked back hair and expressionless faces. Although both men take over positions of immense power at a time of great change and uncertainty for both countries – Xi’s position will formally be anointed by Communist party chiefs next week – that’s where the similarities begin and end.
Xi is about to take over the reins of power of the world’s second largest economy, but relatively little is known about the man who will be among the world’s most powerful leaders or what he intends to do in office.
Chinese politics is a shadowy affair with decisions made by a small group of men behind closed doors. It is not known how decisions are arrived at and, unlike the drama of a US election, there are no debates, campaigning or rousing speeches. There is no “getting to know” the candidates and no examination of their backgrounds by the media. Chinese politicians don’t lay out their policies for examination, instead there are vague hints and mentions, leaving much room for speculation.
But while Xi may seem somewhat stiff in contrast to the charismatic US president, in comparison with the robotic persona of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, Xi is positively outgoing. A tall man, he carries himself with an air of easy confidence and his face often shows a hint of a smile. “I think he is a lot more comfortable with himself,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. “I think that this self-confidence is going to have a significant impact on his leadership style.”
That self-confidence was displayed during an international visit last year to the US, Ireland and Turkey. Reporters and politicians commented on his openness and approachability, describing him as easygoing. He was photographed kicking a football in Ireland and cracked jokes with students during a visit to a school in the US. During a visit to the Southern Chinese province of Guangdong in December, Chinese-state news agency Xinhua reported that the leader-to-be went “tieless” and had a “casual chat” with crowds who had gathered to meet him in the city of Shenzhen.
Born in 1953, Xi is what is known as a “princeling”, the son of veteran revolutionary Xi Zhongxun and a member of the political and social elite. But he is also seen as being in touch with the people and much is made of his teenage Cultural Revolution experiences in a remote village in Shaanxi province. In stark contrast with his early, privileged upbringing in Beijing, Xi worked on a farm in the village of Liangjiahe.
Xi has publicly acknowledged that working alongside the villagers was a key experience in his life. Lü Nengzhong, a farmer who Xi had spent some time living with, told the New York Times last February that he liked reading books. “They were thick books, but I don’t know what they were about. He read until he fell asleep,” said Lü. But just like all Chinese politicians the Communist party tightly control the image and information available about Xi and a number of journalists reported last year that officials in Liangjiahe had been ordered to prevent them from poking around the village.
It has been reported that Xi was rejected for membership of the Communist party nine times and eventually was admitted in 1974. He went on to study at Tsinghua University in Beijing and later began his political career as secretary to the defence minister, Geng Biao, an old comrade of his father. He returned to a rural area and was involved in politics in Zhengding in Hebei province, pushing through market-orientated reforms.
In 1985, Xi spent two weeks in Iowa in the US on an agricultural research trip. He stayed in the home of Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak who he met again during his 2012 trip. “He did not complain,” Eleanor Dvorchak recalled about the visiting Chinese student. “Everything, no matter what, was very acceptable to him – he was humble.”
Xi spent 17 years as an official in Fujian province and later spent a brief time in charge of Shanghai. He was then brought to Beijing where he was given the high-profile position of overseeing the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This required him to tour the country and he frequently travelled overseas representing China.
While much has been recorded of his political career, just like Chinese politicians before him, not much is known of Xi’s personal interests, apart from a penchant for Hollywood movies. Unlike other Chinese politicians however, much is known about his wife, Peng Liyuan who is famous in her own right as a glamorous and popular folk singer. In fact until Xi’s rise to power, Peng was much more well-known than her husband.
She has frequently appeared on Chinese state television’s New Year Gala, the most watched television programme of the year, singing nationalist Chinese songs. She is the first high-profile political spouse at such a high level since the wife of Mao Zedong, Jiang Qing. Generally, the wives of leaders stay behind the scenes and are rarely seen. But it is not yet known whether Peng is likely to be seen more in public, taking on a role more like America’s first lady.
“My bet is she will be a lot more visible than the wives of recent Chinese leaders. But she will not be allowed to become a major political force in her own right,” said Steve Tsang. “I think her public appearances will now be much more restricted to big special events. But she might well accompany Xi a lot more on foreign visits and be more visible.”
Xi will take over as president during the National People’s Congress, which starts on 5 March. He steps into the role as China faces growing discontent about corruption, environmental concerns and income inequality. His first speech as leader-to-be in November, while not inspiring on an Obama level, was relatively free of Communist rhetoric and there was no mention of the usual “harmonious society”. It was instead filled with references to “the people” and he vowed to address their “desire for a happy life”, saying they “expect better education, more stable jobs, better income, more reliable social security, medical care of a higher standard, more comfortable living conditions, and a more beautiful environment”.
Corruption is an ongoing problem in China and one which Xi has said he will urgently address at all levels, from powerful leaders to small-time officials or “tigers” and “flies” as he called them. Tsang said, while there is no doubting Xi’s sincerity, the campaign “will only be only be credible if and when real tigers are hunted down and we haven’t seen that yet”.
The big question remains whether there will be real reform during Xi’s ten-year tenure. In any case, it is unlikely to bring democracy. Tsang confirms the suspicion: any reforms will be to “give the party the credibility and legitimacy to stay in power for 10,000 years. Reform is not going to lead to democracy”.