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In China, Hu’s Successor Is Being Quietly Groomed

President Hu Jintao of China returned home this weekend after a trip intended to repair relations with the United States. But the next time the White House marches out the honor guard and polishes the crystal for a Chinese leader, it is unlikely to be for Mr. Hu.

Chinese President Hu Jintao talks with Vice President Xi Jinping at China's Parliament in Beijing, China.
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Chinese President Hu Jintao talks with Vice President Xi Jinping at China's Parliament in Beijing, China.

Following a secretive succession plan sketched out years ago, Mr. Hu has already begun preparing for his departure from power, passing the baton to his presumed successor, a former provincial leader named Xi Jinping, now China’s vice president. While Mr. Xi is expected to formally take the reins next year in China, the world’s second-largest economy and fastest-modernizing military power, he remains a cipher to most people, even in China.

But an extended look at Mr. Xi’s past, taken from wide-ranging interviews and official Chinese publications, shows that his rise has been built on a combination of political acumen, family connections and ideological dexterity. Like the country he will run, he has nimbly maintained the primacy of the Communist Party, while making economic growth the party’s main business.

There is little in his record to suggest that he intends to steer China in a sharply different direction. But some political observers also say that he may have broader support within the party than Mr. Hu, which could give him more leeway to experiment with new ideas. At the same time, there is uncertainty about how he may wield authority in a system where power has grown increasingly diffuse. Mr. Xi also has deeper military ties than his two predecessors, Mr. Hu and Jiang Zemin, had when they took the helm.

For much of his career, Mr. Xi, 57, presided over booming areas on the east coast that have been at the forefront of China’s experimentation with market authoritarianism, which has included attracting foreign investment, putting party cells in private companies and expanding government support for model entrepreneurs. This has given Mr. Xi the kind of political and economic experience that Mr. Hu lacked when he ascended to the top leadership position.

He is less of a dour mandarin than Mr. Hu is. The tall, stocky Mr. Xi is a so-called princeling — a descendant of a member of the revolutionary party elite — and his second marriage is to a celebrity folk singer and army major general, Peng Liyuan.

Unlike the robotic Mr. Hu, Mr. Xi has dropped memorable barbs against the West into a couple of recent speeches: he once warned critics of China’s rise to “stop pointing fingers at us.” But he has enrolled his daughter in Harvard, under a pseudonym.

The Climb Up the Ladder

Mr. Xi (his full name is pronounced Shee Jin-ping) climbed the ladder by building support among top party officials, particularly those in Mr. Jiang’s clique, all while cultivating an image of humility and self-reliance despite his prominent family ties, say officials and other party members who have known him.

His subtle and pragmatic style was seen in the way he handled a landmark power project teetering on the edge of failure in 2002, when he was governor of Fujian, a coastal province. The American company Bechtel and other foreign investors had poured in nearly $700 million. But the investors became mired in a dispute with planning officials.

After ducking foreign executives’ repeated requests for a meeting, Mr. Xi agreed to chat one night in the governor’s compound with an American business consultant on the project whose father had befriended Mr. Xi’s father in the 1940s.

Mr. Xi explained that he could not interfere in a dispute involving other powerful officials. But he showed that he knew the project intimately and supported it, promising to meet the investors “after the two sides have reached an agreement.” That spurred a compromise that allowed the power plant to begin operating.

“I thought, ‘This person is a brilliant politician,’ ” said the consultant, Sidney Rittenberg Jr.

Mr. Xi’s political skills paid their greatest dividend last October, when he was appointed vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, a move that means he will almost certainly succeed Mr. Hu as party secretary in late 2012 and as president in 2013. Mr. Hu, the commission’s chairman, could retain his military post for another few years.

Over the years, Mr. Xi built his appeal on “the way he carried himself in political affairs,” said Zhang Xiaojin, a political scientist at Tsinghua University.

“On economic reforms and development, he proved rather effective,” Mr. Zhang said. “On political reforms, he didn’t take any risks that would catch flak.”

Mr. Xi also emerged as a convenient accommodation to two competing wings of the party: those loyal to Mr. Hu and those allied with Mr. Jiang, who in China’s collective leadership had an important role in naming Mr. Hu’s successor.

A Double-Edged Legacy

Mr. Xi’s elite lineage and career along the prosperous coast have aligned him more closely with Mr. Jiang. But like Mr. Hu, Mr. Xi also spent formative years in the provincial hinterlands. Mr. Hu was once close to Mr. Xi’s father, a top Communist leader during the Chinese civil war.

The father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of the more liberal party leaders and was purged several times under Mao. He was a mastermind in the early 1980s of China’s first special economic zone in Shenzhen. Behind closed party doors, he supported the liberal-leaning leader Hu Yaobang, who was dismissed in 1987, and condemned the military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989.

The younger Mr. Xi grew up in Beijing and went to the premier military-run high school. But he had to fend for himself during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. At age 15, he was sent to labor among peasants in the yellow hills of Shaanxi Province. He stayed seven years in the village of Liangjiahe, which eventually named him party secretary.

Mr. Xi came to hate ideological struggles. In an essay published in 2003, he wrote, “Much of my pragmatic thinking took root back then, and still exerts a constant influence on me.”

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping
Getty Images
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping

Even at that early age, his conciliatory leadership style was evident. “When people had a conflict with each other, they would go to him, and he’d say, ‘Come back in two days,’ ” said Lu Nengzhong, 80, the patriarch of a cave home where Mr. Xi lived for three years. “By then, the problem had solved itself.”

Mr. Xi later relied on family ties to enter Tsinghua University in Beijing. He began his political career as an aide to Geng Biao, a powerful military bureaucrat allied with Mr. Xi’s father.

By the early 1980s, party elders had identified Mr. Xi as one of a brood of prospective future leaders. His first provincial post was in Hebei, where he promoted local tourism and rural enterprise, but ran up against the conservative provincial leader. The party then sent him to Fujian Province, across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan. Mr. Xi bounced through three cities over 17 years.

There, he courted Taiwanese investors. For 14 years, he also supervised the local military command. His exposure to the Taiwan territorial issue “may shade his views on cross-strait relations in the direction of flexibility,” said Alice L. Miller, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Hoover Institution.

Some ambitious investments drew national scrutiny while Mr. Xi governed Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian. City leaders signed a contract with Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong real estate tycoon, to redevelop the old city quarter, but that fizzled after a public outcry. A new international airport grossly overshot its budget.

Nor was Mr. Xi untainted by corruption scandals. One party investigation into bribe-taking in Ningde and Fuzhou, publicized years after he left Fujian, toppled two former city leaders whom Mr. Xi had promoted.

Gaining Beijing’s Notice

But back in Beijing, top leaders were watching out for Mr. Xi. He actually finished last when party delegates voted for the 344 members and alternates of the Party Central Committee in 1997 because of general hostility toward princelings. But Mr. Xi slipped in as an alternate anyway. Mr. Jiang, the party leader, and his power broker, Zeng Qinghong, helped back Mr. Xi’s continued rise, said Cheng Li, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

His next assignment, as provincial party boss up the coast in Zhejiang, was cushier. There, too, the economy was humming. Mr. Xi hewed to Beijing’s initiatives to embrace private entrepreneurs. He also hitched his star to homegrown private start-ups that have since gone global.

Invest China - A CNBC Special Report
Invest China - A CNBC Special Report

Soon after his arrival in late 2002, he visited Geely , then the province’s sole carmaker. The firm’s indefatigable founder, Li Shufu, had just begun to receive some financing from state banks. “If we don’t give additional strong support to companies like Geely, then whom are we going to support?” Mr. Xi remarked.

Last year, Geely bought the carmaker Volvo from Ford.

Mr. Xi bestowed early recognition, too, on Ma Yun, founder of Alibaba , now an e-commerce giant and Yahoo’s partner in China. After he left Zhejiang in 2007 to become the top official in Shanghai, Mr. Xi extended an invitation to Mr. Ma: “Can you come to Shanghai and help us develop?”

At the time, party authorities were pushing private companies to form party cells, part of Mr. Jiang’s central vision to bring companies and the party closer. Officials under Mr. Xi parceled out vanity posts to entrepreneurs, granting some the coveted title of local legislative delegate. Mr. Xi also cautiously supported small-scale political reforms in Zhejiang, where democratic experiments were percolating at the grass roots.

When cadres in one village in Wuyi County allowed villagers to elect three-person committees to supervise their leaders, Mr. Xi took notice. He issued pivotal directives that helped extend the obscure pilot program, said Xiang Hanwu, a county official. The system won praise from the Central Party School, where rising cadres are trained. In August, Zhejiang approved a province-wide rollout, though with additional party controls.

Mr. Xi also got an important career boost from Zhejiang’s push to forge business ties with poorer provinces inland. He led groups of wealthy Zhejiang businessmen who met with officials in western provinces, winning points with other provincial leaders.

A Rising Star

For years before a party congress in October 2007, Mr. Xi was not deemed the front-runner to succeed Hu Jintao as party leader. The favorite was Li Keqiang, a protege of Mr. Hu. But Mr. Xi’s political capital surged in March 2007 when he was handed the job of party boss in Shanghai after a pension fund scandal had toppled the previous leader.

Shanghai was the power base of Mr. Jiang and Mr. Zeng. During his short seven-month stint there, before he joined the elite Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing, Mr. Xi helped ease the aura of scandal on their turf, while stressing Beijing’s prescriptions for the kind of measured growth favored by Mr. Hu.

It was a balancing act of a kind that had served him well for decades.

Since joining the inner sanctum in Beijing, Mr. Xi has reinforced his longstanding posture as a team player. As president of the Central Party School, Mr. Xi recently made a priority of teaching political morality based on Marxist-Leninist and Maoist ideals, a resurgent trend in the bureaucracy.

His views of the West remain difficult to divine. He once told the American ambassador to China over dinner that he enjoyed Hollywood films about World War II because of the American sense of good and evil, according to diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks. He took a swipe at Zhang Yimou, the renowned Chinese director, saying some Chinese filmmakers neglect values they should promote.

But on a visit to Mexico in 2009, when he was defending China’s record in the global financial crisis before an audience of overseas Chinese, he suggested that he was impatient with foreigners wary of China’s new power in the world.

“Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us,” he said. “First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”

Li Bibo and Benjamin Haas contributed research.

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