Xi Jinping, likely China’s next leader, seen as pragmatic, low-key


U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen (L), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks with China's Vice President Xi Jinping, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing July 11, 2011. (POOL/REUTERS)
August 15, 2011

When Vice President Biden visits China this week, his official host will be his counterpart, Vice President Xi Jinping, who has been tapped to take over the leadership of his country and its ruling Communist Party in a carefully managed succession that is to begin next year.

Little is known, beyond the official biography, about Xi’s specific ideas or how he and his cohorts might manage China differently than the current leadership team. But those who have seen Xi’s working style in the two provinces, Fujian and Zhejiang, where he spent more than two decades in various jobs working his way up to the top position, use similar words to describe him: pragmatic, serious, cautious, hard-working, down to earth and low-key. They also say he is a problem-solver and a leader seemingly uninterested in the trappings of high office.

In Fujian province on the east coast, where he served as deputy governor and governor, Xi immersed himself in details of China’s relationship with Taiwan and helped attract Taiwanese investment to the province, say Taiwanese businessmen and Chinese academics.

Li Shih-Wei, a leader of the Taiwanese investment association in Fujian and head of the Tenfu Group, a tea company, recalls having frequent meetings with Xi over the years. “When we discussed some problems we had, he would listen closely, track the issue and try to find a solution,” Li said. “His working efficiency was pretty high. That’s pretty rare among the officials we met here.”

Li said that lunch and dinner meetings were usually held in the government cafeteria, not opulent restaurants. “He didn’t lead a luxurious lifestyle,” Li said.

In neighboring Zhejiang province, where Xi moved after Fujian and served as governor and Communist Party chief from 2002 until March 2007, local businessmen and scholars said that civil society groups enjoyed a rare and prolonged period of openness. Thousands of new groups formed — many of them business associations representing the provinces’ legions of small industries. Independent candidates took seats in the local political bodies, the district congresses.

“When [Xi] was governor here in Zhejiang, the atmosphere here was the most open ever,” said Zhou De Wen, head of the local industry association in Wenzhou city. “Only with that relatively open and relaxed environment could an industry association like mine voice opinions that might differ from the government’s.”

Li Fan, founder of the World and China Institute in Beijing, which studies elections, said the period in Zhejiang from 2002 until 2007 saw the rapid growth of nongovernmental groups, including industry associations and unions, which bargained over wages and kept labor disputes to a minimum. Underground, unsanctioned churches operated relatively peacefully. Also, Li said, in local elections in Wenzhou five years ago, many independents not backed by the party won seats without government interference.

But Li said it was unclear whether Xi backed the openness. “We cannot say Xi Jinping supported this,” Li said. “We can say it happened under Xi Jinping’s leadership.”

U.S. officials have been equally eager for insight into Xi’s views — a main reason for Biden’s visit.

Biden will have up-close contact to Xi throughout trip to China. The two will hold meetings in Beijing, travel together to Chengdu, visit a school affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and eat at a Sichuan restaurant.

“It will be first time a very senior official has spent a substantial amount of time with Vice President Xi Jinping,” said Daniel Russel, senior director for Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council.

During those meetings, Biden plans to sound Xi out on a long list of topics, U.S. officials said, including North Korea, human rights, intellectual property and — what may be one of the most pressing and difficult issues because of the weakened U.S. economy — China’s undervalued currency and its role as the biggest creditor to the United States.

Some of what is known about Xi’s views comes from another “first” he launched while in Zhejiang province: He became a regular newspaper columnist.

Between February 2003 and March 2007, Xi, as Communist Party chief, contributed 232 opinion articles to the Zhejiang Daily, using the pen name Zhe Xin, said the paper’s editors and others familiar with them. The short articles touched on issues such as corruption and the desire for party officials to get closer to ordinary people.

In one column, Xi railed against officials who display “the haughty manner of feudalism.” Xi wrote: “If we stay removed from ordinary people, we will be like a tree cut off from its roots. Officials at all levels should change their working style, get close to ordinary people, try their best to do good things for people, put down the haughty manner and set a good example for ordinary people.”In another piece, he criticized “eggheads,” who he described as “some Party cadres” who “read books without then applying the knowledge.” He wrote: “We should try to link the theory up with the reality, and do things in a down-to-earth way.” To do otherwise, he said, was just putting out a pretty flowerpot “without planting the flowers.”

In an essay against graft, Xi said that “transparency is the best anti-corrosive” and that “as long as we follow democracy, go through a proper process [and] avoid ‘black’ case work . . . fighting against corruption won’t become some empty words.”

Xi’s anti-corruption stance has been notable throughout his rise through the party’s ranks. When he left Zhejiang in 2007, he was sent to Shanghai to replace the party chief, Chen Liangyu, who was sacked from the job and eventually sent to prison for misusing pension funds for real estate investments and for taking bribes.

Li Shi Wei, the Taiwanese businessman, said he remembers in Fujian province that Xi did not want even the appearance of impropriety. Li recalled that a group of businessmen once offered to stop by Xi’s home for a social call and that Xi responded by saying that “business is done in the office.”

Xi belongs to a group of up-and-coming Chinese leaders known here as the “princelings,” the sons of the Mao Zedong-era revolutionaries who are rising to the fore. Xi’s father was Xi Zhongxun, a vice premier and governor of Guangdong province who was credited as the creator of China’s first successful “special economic zone” in Shenzhen. The elder Xi was purged by Mao and also later fell from favor for expressing sympathy with student pro-democracy protesters who converged on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But those who know him said Xi rarely displays the airs commonly associated with those who have been long groomed for power. “In our mind, compared with other Princelings, he’s more approachable, easy-going and pragmatic,” said Li, the businessman.

Many who worked with Xi said they never thought the unassuming provincial politician would emerge as the country’s leader-in-waiting.

Zhang Wensheng, a professor at the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University, recalled when Xi came to the center at the end of the 1990s to meet the researchers and learn more about Taiwan. He confessed to being “a little surprised” when Xi first got appointed vice president, a stepping-stone to the presidency.

“He dealt with the central level pretty effectively,” Zhang said. “That’s why he got promoted so quickly.”

“It was a big surprise for us,” said Li, the Taiwanese businessman. “If I had suspected, I would have gotten even closer to him!”

Staff writer William Wan in Washington and staff researcher Wang Juan in China contributed to this report.

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