What Xi can do to make his mark as a leader

November 04, 2014 09:36
President Xi Jinping will host APEC leaders, including Barack Obama, in Beijing this week. Photo: Reuters

For someone whose public life is an open book, many people are still puzzled by China’s leader Xi Jinping, who became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission two years ago.

His third position, that of president, is largely ceremonial. It is his first two hats that give him the enormous powers that he wields. And in the past two years, he has wielded them as no other leader has since the days of Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping.

Xi makes no secret of his admiration for Mao, even though his father, Xi Zhongxun, was a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution who was rehabilitated after Mao’s death and was eventually elected to the politburo.

It appears that Xi considers himself the third major leader of the People’s Republic of China, following Mao and Deng, the founding father and the chief architect of reforms.

While Xi worked with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao while the two men served as president and premier, he apparently feels that they did not provide the strong leadership needed and which he is determined to provide.

In this, he has taken most people by surprise since, before his elevation, there was little inkling of his vision.

Before assuming power in 2012, Xi rose through the ranks. His ties with the military, built when he was personal secretary to Defense Minister Geng Biao from 1979 to 1982 have also helped.

In a straw poll held in 2007 among the close to 300 members of the party’s central committee, Xi received more votes than anyone else, thus putting him in position to succeed Hu.

Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, were both handpicked by Deng. Before them, Hua Guofeng was Mao’s chosen successful, until he was edged aside by Deng.

Xi is, in fact, the only person since Mao and Deng to become leader largely through his own efforts.

Since 2012, Xi has launched an anti-corruption campaign that has reached into the highest levels of the party and the military. This effort shows no signs of slowing down.

Xi has set an example for others. His father, Xi Zhongxun, had been allocated a house and, after the elder Xi’s death, his widow, Qi Xin, continued to live in it.

Recently, Xi announced that his mother has moved in with him and her house has been returned to the state.

Xi disclosed that, under state regulations, besides his house, his wife, Peng Liyuan, a renowned singer in the People’s Liberation Army, also has her own house. Now, Xi told senior officials, you sort out your own housing affairs.

Before Xi took office, Bloomberg News ran an article about the wealth of his extended family, which ran into many millions of dollars.

However, the article made it clear that no assets were traced to Xi, his wife or their daughter. Moreover, “there is no indication Xi intervened to advance his relatives’ business transactions, or of any wrongdoing by Xi or his extended family”.

It said that most of the extended Xi family’s assets were owned by Xi’s older sister, Qi Qiaoqiao, her husband Deng Jiagui and Qi’s daughter Zhang Yannan.

Since Xi’s elevation, The New York Times has reported, his sister and her husband have sold hundreds of millions of dollars in investments, apparently reflecting Xi’s attempt to rein in his relatives.

Externally, he is leveraging China’s position in the world. This month, he is hosting the APEC forum and will hold bilateral meetings with key leaders including Barack Obama.

Xi has been concentrating power in his hands and there is apprehension that he might create a personality cult. But by and large, his popularity within the country appears high, boosted by strong feelings of nationalism.

So well is Xi doing that some are suggesting that he need not be bound by term limits, with each leader serving two five-year terms at the most.

Xi will be 69 in 2022 and, it has been suggested, if he is in good health, there is no reason why he should step down.

Asia has seen quite a few dictatorships and, in the Philippines and South Korea, the reaction has been to limit presidents to one term. Not surprisingly, some leaders have toyed with the idea of changing the constitution. Benigno Aquino has just decided, wisely, against it.

It will be in China’s interest if Xi does not let success go to his head and conclude that he is indispensable, and that rules are made for lesser people. By following the rules, Xi will show himself to be a greater leader.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.