True Agenda of China’s New Leader Still a Mystery

Five years ago, Xi Jinping, 59, the man expected to shortly become one of the two most powerful men in China, was having dinner with the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, when he brought up his love of Hollywood movies. In particular, he expressed a great admiration of Steven Spielberg's World War II epic "Saving Private Ryan."

True Agenda of China’s New Leader Still a Mystery
Peter Muhly | AFP | Getty Images

"Hollywood makes those (World War II) movies well, and such Hollywood movies are grand and truthful," a U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks in 2010 quoted Xi as saying. "Americans have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil. In American movies, good usually prevails."

Such a soft, deft touch – winning favor while avoiding anything that could be construed as controversial – is the hallmark of a politician who has been groomed from birth as a leader of the world's most populous nation, China watchers said.

Beyond his affection for blockbusters, little is known of the political and economic bent of Xi, currently China's vice president and a member of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party's most powerful decision-making body.

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During the 18th National Congress set to begin on Thursday in China, Xi is likely to replace Hu Jintao as general secretary of the Communist party. That, political analysts said, will be the first step towards him taking up the role of president as well at the National People's Congress in March next year. Li Keqiang is expected to replace Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

In His Father's Footsteps?

Xi is one of China's "princelings," a man born into a politically powerful family. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a very liberal and outspoken cadre during the Mao era, leading to considerable hardship, including being stripped of all his party positions in 1962.

In 1965 he was sent to work as deputy manager of a tractor factory. Xi Zhongxun also went on to condemn the decision to use force to suppress the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, China experts told CNBC. He died in 2002.

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But whether the younger Xi will aim to push ahead with a reformist approach similar to his father's, or whether he reads his father's experience as a warning of what happens if you are too outspoken, was not yet clear, said China watchers.

"Some people are like their fathers and some are consciously the opposite," Patrick Chovanec, professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said. "He may think his dad was totally right and that Tiananmen Square was wrong. Some people say he had to be redder than red to compensate for the problems with his father."

So far, Xi has deliberately avoided controversy, China analysts said, instead choosing to repeat policies laid down by Hu Jintao or former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, who is widely viewed by experts on Chinese politics as Xi's patron.

Western politics is characterized by strong personalities who make their name by taking a stance on certain issues. That is not the case in the Middle Kingdom, where the role of leaders is very different, people who follow Chinese politics told CNBC.

"They don't want to be known as a standard bearer for a particular set of beliefs. You want to hold your cards very close to your chest as to what it is that you favor or you actually believe in," Chovanec said.

To date, Beijing-born Xi has played the role of loyal party member. He spent the early part of his career in Fujian Province - where he spent 18 years rising to the rank of governor - before a transfer to Zhejiang Province just south of Shanghai, where he spent five years, until 2007, first as governor and then as party chief, the top post in the province.

He then took up the party chief role in Shanghai and became one of the most influential figures governing party affairs. That means he has been managing internal Communist Party issues, rather than tackling tougher issues involving the economy or public policy that might have given more of a clue to his political or business bent, according to China analyst Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Xi is much lower profile than his current wife, Peng Liyuan, a renowned folk singer who has spent most of her career as a singer in the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) famous song and dance troop. Although a civilian in the PLA, she holds a rank equivalent to that of a major general, and has performed at almost every CCTV (state television broadcaster) New Year Gala. Peng is Xi's second wife, after an earlier union ended in divorce in the 1980s.

A Friend of the US?

Xi has visited the United States some six times. He and Peng have one child, a daughter, Xi Mingze, who is currently studying at Harvard University under an assumed name, to avoid publicity, according to Lam.

His apparent affection for the United States may result in closer ties on the economic front, Lam said. It is unlikely, however, to result in closer political ties or to see any thawing of the frosty relationship between the two countries over military issues.

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"People expect Xi to be quite aggressive in power protection, in foreign policy," Lam said. "That might result in some sort of confrontation with the U.S., which is natural -- China is the growing power and is anxious to exert itself. Xi is also a nationalist and is very close friends with some of the generals, so the generals might have a bigger say on foreign policy under Xi Jinping."

No Path Breaker

Li Kui-wai, a professor who teaches Chinese economy at the City University of Hong Kong, does not expect massive structural changes under Xi, at least not in his first five-year term.

While there may be stimulus, increased bank lending and some relaxation of rules in industries such as real estate when the new administration comes in, Xi is unlikely to tackle issues such as the endemic corruption within the Chinese political system, particularly rife on a local and regional level. Such a move would risk Xi making powerful enemies within his own party, analysts said.

"It is too risky to do anything new," Li said. "On top of that there are a lot of grievances in society already. That will make them even more cautious in handling the economy."

Andy Xie, an independent economist who specializes on China, said Xi will face a tough task, trying to martial disparate groups in a system caught somewhere between an imperial system that has no emperor and a democracy without true voting.

Xie added that Xi will find his power diminished, because the top posts, like that of the president and premier are no longer as powerful as they were. Instead, with power split between different factions, Xi will have to manage powerful groups that govern the country in secret, behind closed doors. Xie is not certain that the new leader will have the guts or gumption to remove his rivals when necessary.

"Monarchy without a monarch is no different from the mafia," Xie said. "The structure is similar to Sicilian mobs. If you want to understand Chinese politics, you should watch The Godfather."