Future leader of China Xi Jinping remains something of a mystery in terms of the direction of Chinese internal and foreign policy after Hu Jintao, but many are hoping that this week’s trip to the United States will shed some light on to what we might be able to expect once he takes power this year. However, despite a number of comments he has made and some of the reporting on his meetings, it is important to remember that throughout the year, Xi Jinping will be staying very close to the official line of Beijing’s current President Hu Jintao.
Just as Xi-Jinping has been meeting with with current U.S. President Barack Obama this week, Chinese President Hu Jintao paid a visit to Washington DC to meet George Bush before taking up his position. Hu’s visit to Washington presented to the U.S. a man who was about to become leader of the world’s fastest growing economy. In a similar vein, Xi Jinping’s trip is slated to reveal more about the mysterious man expected to take power of China next year. Both China and Korea watchers will be looking for indicators about how Chinese foreign policy might look once he is in power and, most essentially, NK News viewers might wonder how he will address the problem of North Korea.
Xi on the Koreas
Regarding what is known about Xi’s thoughts on the Koreas, his previous visits to both South and North Korea were made with little comment, leaving his future policy open to interpretation. That said, it is known that Xi is opposed to Lee Myung Bak’s hardline policy on North Korea. Xi blamed the South’s administration for ‘disruptions to the peace’ and for not putting enough effort into improving inter-Korean relations in recent years. On the nuclear crisis, Xi places greater importance on the role of the U.S. in denuclearization over South Korea or China itself, with the hope that it can be resolved through North-U.S. dialogue. But despite some grievances with Lee Myung-bak’s North Korea policy, Xi has said that ‘China sees both Koreas as brothers’.
Though Xi is known to be strictly pro-reformist, for decades North Korea has avoided any major reform in order to maintain stability for the elite, regarding major reform as a threat to regime’s power structure. Chinese policy makers are aware of the difficult situation the North Korean regime is in. Therefore, while Xi might want the DPRK to adopt market liberalization and reform, Pyongyang will likely continue to implement policy extremely slowly to avoid any major shock to the system – and this is something that Xi will be unlikely to press Pyongyang on too hardly.
Other Foreign Policy Objectives
Xi’s overall popularity in the international community is likely to be shaped by his policies on Tibet, Taiwan, climate change and human rights abuses in China. The latter two are some of the well known grey areas of understanding in relation to Xi’s policies, although on the delicate subject of China’s human rights record, Xi diplomatically admitted there was ‘room for improvement’. The former two look unlikely to change much any time soon under Xi, with him stating last year that China will “smash any attempts to destabilise Tibet”.
On relations with the U.S., Xi has been on record as wanting the U.S. to cut its military investment in bases in South Korea and Japan in order to better foster trust between the two countries. In addition, Xi has for a long time underscored how much money U.S. citizens save by buying Chinese made goods. And he has previously urged the U.S. to ease export restrictions for ‘sensitive technology’ to create a more ‘level playing field’. So far during Xi’s trip to the U.S., the importance of U.S.- China relations has been heavily discussed, revealing that Xi is likely to move closer to stabilising relations with the West. Xi also expressed his desire to engage with America about Iran and North Korea, showing that denuclearisation is likely high on his future list of priorities. Other topics so far discussed included the low valuation of the Chinese Yuan, which received no definitive outcome, and relations with Taiwan and Tibet, which resulted in Xi politely explaining that it wasn’t the U.S’s position to interfere, and that the calls for independence would not be honoured.
Xi Jinping comes from a heavily political background. His pro-Communist father was heralded as a hero in the Long March, a strategic military retreat by the Chinese Communist Party against the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek in 1934. Although the Communist forces won that battle, all did not end well for Xi Jinping’s father, who was purged from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and jailed for several years. Like many of his contemporaries, the young Xi was sent to the countryside to advance the Communist movement through mass labour in the countryside.
The degree to which Xi’s background has influenced his political career appears to many to be minimal, as despite his father’s experience of persecution at the hands of the Communist party, Xi has thrown himself deeper into the party than many expected. Proof of his favour in the party, despite family history, comes from the contentious fact that Xi never graduated from high school, but yet was accepted to and gained a degree in chemical engineering at a prestigious Beijing university. Like many countries, in China it is required to sit exams in high school in order to be accepted to university. Xi, however, was accepted for what seems to be his political background. After university, his favor in the party continued as he walked into a graduate job as secretary to the Secretary-general of the Central Military Commission; the command and control body of the Chinese Army.
Xi : Pro-Reform
One thing often focused on by the media is that Xi is pro-market reform. Xi spent a great deal of his career dealing with Chinese exports and making business deals. For this reason, coupled with the hardships he experienced during the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese people regard him as a man of the people.
During the reforms in China under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, Xi Jinping’s father was one of a small number of senior officials pressing for more extreme reforms and an opening of the Chinese economy. Many hope that this will also be the stance of Xi when he comes to power. As mentioned though, it is unlikely that he will press North Korea too hardly on economic reform as stability of the peninsula will remain the over-arching goal of the CCP.
Xi’s Ascendancy to Power
Leadership transitions in China differ from those in democratic countries, with China’s political system having three parts; The Party (the Chinese Communist Party), the State, and the Army. The Party has a rule of power over the other two branches.
Xi Jinping is currently the Chief of the Party Secretariat (the top administrative bureau) and the Principal of the Central Party School of the Politburo Standing Committee; these are both positions that Hu held before becoming the leader of the party.
Xi’s high position in the Politburo Standing Committee has been achieved through his years of experience in the Party’s army and export sectors, and his personal connections to senior figurtes in the Party. These factors help explain why he is seen as the preferential candidate for succession to the leadership.
What is interesting about this ‘election’ is that by the time of the vote, 7 of the 9 members of the Politburo Standing Committee will have reached the retirement age of 68 and will be replaced by younger members when Xi comes to power, completely changing the current centre of control. This may allow for a change in many of China’s main policies with the introduction of ideas from a younger generation. Xi’s age, 58, is one of the main reasons why it is known that he will come to power after Hu Jintao steps down, as he is more experienced than his counterpart, Li Keqiang.
Other political parties in China must have their members voted to positions of power in the Party under CCP law. However, as the other parties have a very minimal support base, this is extremely difficult, allowing the CCP to continue to win every election of Congress and ensuring the election of Xi Jinping as a sure thing.
As for the future, it is unlikely any major changes will be enforced by Xi Jinping soon after he assumes office. On the other hand, it is certain that a man heralded as such a pro-reformist will have to make some form of drastic change in a country where the once repressed citizens are beginning to stir.