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Columns
Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins

America Elects,
China Selects


November 16, 2012

BEIJING, CHINA—”She.” Vice President Xi (pronounced “shee”) Jinping was picked to replace current President Hu (pronounced “who”) Jintao as China’s next “selected” President when Communist Party leaders gathered two days after we voted to to elect our leader.

Why should we care? Because going forward ALL major issues impacting the world will intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, DC.

As with many issues in China, including their leaders, gathering intelligence for a full picture of China’s leaders’ backgrounds is difficult.

So exactly who is Xi?
We do know him as a ‘Chinese princeling’, the son of Revolutionary hero and former Mao Zedong comrade, Xi Zhongxun. He will be the first ‘princeling’ to lead the country.

Xi Zhongxun, like Deng Xiaoping, China’s former leader who opened China to the world, was purged three times by Mao. He served as deputy prime minister from 1959 until 1962 and his falling out with Mao for the first time.

As a teenager, Xi Jinping suffered like many youth in the 60′s during the Cultural Revolution, having his education interrupted seven years when he was sent to the countryside to learn from the masses. And, Xi, like most of China’s leaders, is an engineer. He also has a law degree. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is one of China’s most famous and celebrated folk singers and an army major general.

Part of the new fifth generation of Chinese leaders, Xi was born June 1953, in Shaanxi province, a poor region of northwestern China. His rise to the top was apparent when a Communist Party Central Committee plenum appointed him vice-chair of the military affairs committee which oversees China’s armed forces.

The appointment means that Xi is on target for the top three jobs in China: Secretary of the Communist Party, State president and civilian head of the military.

The Communist Party rules over all in China. He will be known outside China as “President Xi”. However, the Communist Party post is where the true power lies.

Past As Prologue?
Deng Xiaoping, rehabilitated the senior Xi when Deng returned to power after Mao’s death in 1976. His “Ba Ba”, father, Xi Zhongxun, was an economic reformer and appointed governor of Guangdong province by Deng Xiaoping in southern China, leading the liberal economic policies launched by Deng at the end of 1978.

The elder Xi is credited with the creation of the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Shenzhen, which grew from a small fishing village near Hong Kong to a bustling super modern city and manufacturing center.

Today, Shenzhen’s population exceeds 10 million as migrants pour in from rural villages across China to help make Shenzhen ground zero in China’s rush to become the factory to the world.

Xi Zhongxun reportedly said to Deng Xiaoping in the early days of market reform “We need to reform China and implement this economic zone even if it means that we have to pave a bloody road ahead and I am to be responsible for it.”

The incoming president’s father, ever a reformer, sided with former Community Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who had been purged for his support of political liberalization and whose death triggered the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989.

Xi Zhongxun, later condemned the military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters on June 4th, 1989. Xi Zhongxun’s support for Hu Yaobang was courageous but expected as Hu’s family had helped shelter the Xi family during the Cultural Revolution turmoil.

Incoming president Xi was described in a 2011 Washington Post column as “pragmatic, serious, cautious, hard-working, down to earth and low-key”… and “a problem-solver and a leader.”

Xi Jinping, will need all these attributes to govern the fastest growing large world economy, home to one-fifth of the world’s population where, as Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution says, “The Chinese public is particularly resentful about the princelings’ control of both political and economic wealth.”

If the people become disenfranchised and subsequently act out on their dissatisfaction, social order might well quickly become paramount as the greatest fear of the Communist leadership is losing control.

How Will Xi Lead?
Xi Jinping will need to heed the words of Deng Xiaoping who responded, when asked about his plans of steering the Chinese economy after Mao’s death, “We will cross the river by feeling for the stones.” President Xi needs to step carefully to navigate the various hazards internal and external to China.

Will the apple fall close to the tree?

Will Xi Jinping like his father, Xi Zhongxun, become a 21st century reformer? If so, what form will his changes bring?

If he inherited his father’s genes and embraces reformist impulses, the next decade might well prove an interesting ride for China and the rest of the world.

Yet, Xi, came of age during the convulsion of the Cultural Revolution with a bird’s eye view of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, when the People’s Liberation Army turned its guns on its own people, causing pain to a country soon out of control.

There can be little doubt that Xi will continue the focus of retaining the ultimate and complete power of the Communist Party while striving to maintain social control, stability, and expanding economic growth.
Without sustained economic growth and a sense by the people that their lives are improving, the “mandate from heaven”, allowing the Communists complete rule, might begin to unravel.

China’s leaders face several economic and social problems: inflation, credit and housing bubbles that are bursting, slumping housing sales, export markets that are tanking around the globe, and fears of internal unrest sparked by minorities—Mongols, Tibetans and Uygurs. Labor unrest in manufacturing regions in south China are feared to be the “spark that could ignite a raging forest fire” as Mao famously once said.

Incoming president Xi can look internally, around the globe, and to America to see the unrest among people that is sparked by economic decline.

May the leaders of America and China find ways to work together in an open and cooperative manner, as though our collective actions impact all of humanity—because they will.

Tom Watkins has been traveling to and working to build economic, cultural and educational bridges with China for nearly a quarter century. Watkins is once again in China to witness a historical event. He first traveled to China in 1989 and was in Tiananmen Square as millions of Chinese students gathered calling for greater freedom, democracy and and end of government corruption He is a Michigan former state superintendent of schools and currently a US/China business and educational consultant. He can be reached at: tdwatkins88@gmail.com

November 15, 2012 · Filed under Tom Watkins

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ron // Nov 16, 2012 at 8:45 am

    Good article! The future path of China and the USA is paved with many curves and potholes. The more knowledgeable and understanding we have about China and their leaders the smoother the path will be for both our citizens. China can seem like a distant place and their people strange and different from us, but articles like Tom’s will help guide our future travels. I am very confident that with greater knowledge of each other both country’s citizens will soon be traveling the super highway together safely reaching both our goals of a better future.

  • 2 Joe Ross // Nov 16, 2012 at 9:25 am

    Great article Tom. We think China’s economy has turned the corner in recent months. While we may not necessarily see gang buster growth, the risks of a hard landing are diminishing fast. As hedge to our US company investments we are now building a postion in Chinese companies.

  • 3 sara jones // Nov 17, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Tom: you truly are michigan’s pied piper when it comes to understanding and promoting key global issues.. China is such a huge target — both good and bad. Thank you for keeping a focus on it for us… We learn each time w eread your column.

  • 4 Angie // Nov 17, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    China is so linked to the US and vice versa. AM glad someone took time to write about what isw going on in another place. Things we all need to know that will held our kids and future generations

  • 5 KP CHEN // Nov 18, 2012 at 11:02 am

    2012, after a long year of tests, choices and struggles, our world now looks a little ObamaXirish …

    It is not really about 2 leaders, or, perhaps, about 2 countries, it is rather, about a still under-developed spirit …

    A long movement or journey or progressing…

  • 6 Jon // Nov 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Good article Tom, hopefully Xi will be a good influence on CHina and the US will wizen up and become partners with China, instead of viewing them as a competitor.

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