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Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Xi Jinping: A princeling and future king Add to ...

As Xi Jinping rose through the ranks of the Communist Party of China, he has often been defined - and sometimes derided - as a "princeling," one of a clutch of rising party stars who owe at least some of their success to the fact they are children of revolutionary heroes.

Mr. Xi is the princeling who will soon be king. Already a vice-president and a high-ranking Politburo member, on Monday he was named the vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission, a promotion most observers view as the final prerequisite before a stage-managed handover of power when President Hu Jintao steps aside in two years time.

But don't confuse Mr. Xi with Kim Jong-un, the 27-year-old tabbed inherit power from his ailing father in neighbouring North Korea. Unlike the Kim family, it wasn't always a political asset to be the son of Xi Zhongxun.

Mr. Xi was 10 years old when his father, a former comrade-in-arms of Mao Zedong's and a hero of the fabled Long March who rose to be a vice-premier, was suddenly denounced and jailed as an enemy of the revolution. As a teenager, Mr. Xi himself was sent to a rural commune in Shaanxi province to work as a labourer, deemed a "reactionary student" largely because of who his father was. He was jailed four times and publicly humiliated. "I ate a lot more bitterness than most people" during the Cultural Revolution, he once told an interviewer.

After Mao died and Deng Xiaoping rose to replace him, Xi Zhongxun was rehabilitated and entrusted with the key post of governor of the southeastern province of Guangdong during the early 1980s, a time when the region was a laboratory for China's early experiments with market reforms and economic interaction with the rest of the world.

But a decade later, Xi Zhongxun was again a political pariah after speaking out publicly against Mr. Deng's decision to use the army to crush pro-democracy demonstrations on Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Whether Mr. Xi, now 57, shares his father's beliefs about economic and political matters is unclear, but he does seem to have learned one lesson from his father's repeated downfalls: Shut your mouth and keep your politics to yourself.

Astonishingly little is known about what the man who will soon lead the world's emerging superpower actually believes. "We don't know very much about [Mr. Xi]at all. He's probably smart enough politically to know that you don't show your hand too much if you want to a get the position," said David Zweig, director of the Centre for China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The Beijing-born Mr. Xi, who studied both chemical engineering and law at Tsinghua University, is in many ways a blank slate whom the various factions within the Communist Party all appear comfortable with, even as he belongs firmly to none of them. He won the top job largely because he was one of the few acceptable to both the supporters of outgoing President Hu Jintao and the loyalists of his predecessor and rival, Jiang Zemin.

"Xi Jinping was a compromise candidate, a princeling who could be sure to defend the regime's interests," said Victor Shih, a professor of Chinese politics at Northwestern University. "He hasn't announced much of his own agenda yet. We haven't seen, in terms of policies, what he's going to propose."

During his time as a party secretary in Zhejiang province, Mr. Xi was known as a corruption-fighter, as well as being a supporter of private enterprise, but his record is clean of the controversy that brought down his father.

The most outspoken Mr. Xi has been on anything to date was perhaps an address he gave in May to the Party School, which trains China's future leaders and bureaucrats. Lose the long speeches and the political jargon, he implored the class of 900 new cadres. Say what you mean and come up with some new ideas.

But it has largely been through saying little that Mr. Xi has risen so meteorically. He was plucked in 2007 to become the Shanghai Party chief after his predecessor was fired for corruption. Months later, he was named to the Politburo, where he is now the highest-ranked member who isn't retiring in 2012. By the end of 2007, he had gone from relative unknown to being anointed as the likely successor to Mr. Hu.

To boost his profile, Mr. Xi was given the task of overseeing the successful 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He was then given a crash course in China's foreign affairs policy, visiting rivals such as the United States and Japan and allies like North Korea and Myanmar. He was also placed in charge of an internal Communist Party organization that has led a clampdown on dissidents and non-governmental organizations, as well as on Internet content.

But all of that may say more about what his current superiors want him to learn, rather than what he personally believes or might pursue as leader.

Before his rapid ascension, Mr. Xi was best known as the husband of Peng Liyuan, one of China's best-known folk singers and a long-time staple on the televised galas that ring in the Chinese New Year. It's Mr. Xi's second marriage and the couple have a daughter together.

It seems, Ms. Peng, too, was initially unsure what to make of Mr. Xi. "The moment she saw him, she was disappointed. Not only did he look rustic, but he also looked old. However, the first word that he spoke attracted her," the chinanews.com website reported in 2007. Quoting Ms. Peng, the website reported that Mr. Xi asked her an intelligent question about different vocal techniques.

"I was moved at that time," Ms. Peng said. "He has a simple heart but is thoughtful."

And, she might add now, he is also someone who is easily underestimated.

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