Coming to Dinner
February 3, 2012
Guess who’s coming to dinner, and on Valentine’s Day no less. None other than the future president of China.
No, Vice President Xi (pronounced “shee”) Jinping. He is coming to the White House during the 40th anniversary this month of President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China.
The likely next (s)elected president of China will be the guest of Vice President Biden, after Vice President Xi hosted Biden in China last year. President Obama has asked his vice president to coordinate the administration’s U.S.-China policy.
The current Chinese vice president is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao in a once-a-decade leadership change this year, around the same time the U.S. elections will take place. So while democracy elects, the Chinese Communist Party selects.
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, gathering intelligence for a full picture of China’s leaders and their backgrounds is difficult.
So exactly who is Xi and what will his leadership mean to the world and, most importantly, to the U.S.?
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 ’60s 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 in 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 that 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.
Deng Xiaoping rehabilitated the senior Xi when Deng returned to power after Mao’s death in 1976. Xi Zhongxun was an economic reformer and was 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 from rural villages across China to help make Shenzhen ground zero in China’s rush to become the factory to the world.
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 4, 1989.
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 those attributes to govern the fastest-growing large world economy, home to one-fifth of the world’s population and 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 their dissatisfaction, social order might well quickly become paramount, as the greatest fear of the communist leadership is losing control.
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 Xi Jinping, like his father Xi Zhongxun, become a 21st century reformer? If so, what form will his changes take?
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.
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 and 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 Uyghurs.
Labor unrest in manufacturing regions in south China are feared to be the “spark that could ignite a raging forest fire,” as Mao famously said.
Wherever incoming president Xi looks — internally, around the globe, or to America — he can see the unrest that is sparked by economic decline.
In China, relationships matter. It is important that our leaders develop a deep relationship with the incoming leader of one-fifth of all humanity and a rising economic and military power. May our and China’s leaders find ways to work together in an open and cooperative manner, as though our collective actions impact all of humanity — because they will.
Welcome to America, Vice President Xi Jinping.
Tom Watkins has an eclectic career in both the public and private sectors. He served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and director of the department of mental health. He has held leadership positions in higher education, business and behavioral health. Watkins has a interest and passion in all things China and has written hundreds of article on the value of this most important bilateral relationship in the world today.