Is This China’s Next President?

Rumor has it that the pro-business, anti-corruption Xi Jinping will succeed Hu Jintao as president of China in 2013.

After a four-day convention of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee on Monday, Xi Jinping, already the sixth most powerful member of the Politburo, was named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission; a position that is considered a steppingstone for assuming the highest office. Current President Hu Jintao was awarded the same post in 1999, three years before he became general secretary of the party. Four months after that, Hu was elected president.

The upper echelons of China’s political leadership are a maze of different party and state positions with top members typically occupying several posts in both camps. Xi, for instance, also sits on the party’s Central Secretariat and is President of the Central Party School which trains Communist Party bureaucrats.

Shifts in Chinese leadership are defined in generations. The ruling fourth generation of leadership has been in power since 2003. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are its most prominent members. Both were trained as engineers and rose through the ranks in China’s hinterland. Their generation is regarded as less centralized and more populist in its approach to government than its predecessors with Hu the pragmatic technocrat, defending China’s peaceful rise abroad and Wen publicly championing democratization at home. As his second term is due to expire in a little over two years however it seems doubtful that Wen will be able to make significant progress in this regard yet.

This latest generation, with allies in the Foreign Ministry and business, has occasionally clashed with hardliners in the military and Communist Party schools who still suspect that the West is conniving to deceive China and keep it poor.

Although principal of China’s most prestigious of party schools, Xi is nonetheless an outward looking official who supported Hu’s rise through the ranks and his administration’s policies of economic liberalization. As governor, he promoted private-sector growth in the provinces while styling himself as tough on corruption. Like all of China’s leaders, Xi believes that his country must continue to grow lest inequalities wreck social unrest or upheaval.

China’s mounting public discontent, particularly in the urbanized east, doesn’t so much stem from the gap between rich and poor however. Rather China’s growing middle class is cautiously demanding political freedoms now that they have tasted economic success. Narrowing regional disparities has been one of the cornerstones of Premier Wen’s policies but the greatest threat to China’s peaceful rise comes from the already developed regions. Where Xi stands in this debate is anything but certain and he is unlikely to articulate his views in the years ahead, at least not before he is elected president.

With Xi comes a fifth generation of Chinese leadership that is likely to continue market reforms to attract international trade and investment. Unlike the last generation, the country’s future leaders have mostly been trained as managers and in finance. Some have been active as businessmen before ascending to high positions in the party. Whether Xi, as president, will also tolerate political reforms, possibly at the cost of the Communist Party’s supremacy, remains to be seen.