The Straits Times
Published on Nov 04, 2012

Leaders in waiting

Ahead of China's Communist Party's 18th Congress on Thursday, China correspondents Kor Kian Beng and Grace Ng profile two faces to watch.


The politics of Xi Jinping

When a young and lanky Xi Jinping was sent to Fujian province to become the party boss of Ningde town in 1988, his arrival raised the local people's expectations.

Many hoped that the princeling from the north, whose father was a Communist Party elder and a former vice-premier, would bring big changes - and riches - to the town by using his connections to secure projects from the central government.

But Mr Xi declined and gifted them with an old saying about patience and perseverance instead. Di shui chuan shi, or water dripping steadily will eventually wear a hole in the rock.

Now, over 20 years later, with Mr Xi set to assume the highest office in China, expectations have risen again.

Observers hope that he would emulate his late father Xi Zhongxun, who is held in deep respect for his open-mindedness, honesty and courage.

His father was a prime mover behind China's first Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen, which spearheaded the country's market reforms in 1980.

Xi senior also spoke out bravely against the sacking of reformist Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang in 1987 by conservative party elders opposed to his market reforms.

The late Xi also called for a softer approach towards Tibet and reconciliation with the Dalai Lama, the region's exiled spiritual leader.

Those who wish the son will take after the father want to see big changes under Mr Xi, 59, such as more intra-party democracy, a reappraisal of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Incident and a more moderate policy towards restive Tibet and Xinjiang.

Of late, there have been signs Mr Xi could be keen to pursue a reform agenda.

His recent meeting with Mr Hu Deping, a prominent reformer and son of the late Hu Yaobang, raised hopes.

There is also the proposed 10-part documentary on Singapore's development in various aspects such as economy, health care and politics.

Sources told The Sunday Times the project by China Central Television (CCTV) is personally endorsed by Mr Xi as a blueprint for China's renewed push for reforms.

However, there are those who are not so sanguine.

Some observers believe that Mr Xi will prefer a slow and steady approach after he succeeds President Hu Jintao. So do not expect any big bangs, they say.

As University of Nottingham analyst Steve Tsang puts it: "Bloodline and heritage don't count for much."

The observers also point to Mr Xi's 33-year track record in politics which, they say, has been much more conservative than his father's. Nothing stands out by way of political reform.

Such cautiousness comes from having witnessed first-hand the brutality of power struggles. His father was among the first communists to be purged by Mao Zedong in 1962.

The purge upended the Xi family's privileged lifestyle in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound. Xi senior was banished to work in a factory and later detained and tortured when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

His son, only 13, was sent to a poor village in northern China where, for the next seven years, he worked among peasants, survived on corn-chaff bread and slept on a flea-infested bed.

It took repeated attempts before he managed to join the Communist Party and enrol at the prestigious Tsinghua University to study chemical engineering. After he graduated in 1979, his family - by then politically rehabilitated - got him a plum job as secretary to then Defence Minister Geng Biao.

Still, it was not all smooth sailing for the young Mr Xi, who was dealt several early setbacks that perhaps helped to cement his cautious and conservative nature.

His first marriage failed in the early 1980s when his wife Ke Lingling, youngest daughter of former ambassador to Britain Ke Hua, left him.

During his three years from 1982 in Zhengding, in Hebei province, Mr Xi never became its party boss because provincial chief Gao Yang, peeved that princelings were being parachuted into leadership posts, reportedly blocked his promotion.

Says analyst Chen Gang of Singapore's East Asian Institute: "Those setbacks made him more cautious and also taught him the importance of compromise and of not provoking people, important traits that have helped him rise to the top."

Making compromises will limit the things Mr Xi can do even if he really wants to do them, say analysts.

"There are powerful forces in favour of, if not maintaining, the status quo, then making only minor readjustments," says Professor June Teufel Dreyer from University of Miami.

Any tweaks, if they come, are likely to be in three areas - intra-party democracy, the fight against corruption and reducing the state's role in the economy.

And much of these will be made out of necessity rather than by the force of Mr Xi's personality, experts say.

With the days of strongman rule long gone in China, new leaders like Mr Xi will need to justify their power, which means intra-democratic measures like voting may be beefed up, says Dr Chen.

Corruption is entrenched in the party and Mr Xi, who has a clean reputation, must be seen to be fighting the "cancer" rigorously.

Similarly, the dominance of the state has long stifled private enterprise in China. Many will expect Mr Xi to back a supporting role for the government in business.

The more than two decades he spent running coastal provinces Fujian and Zhejiang, and also Shanghai are believed to have helped make Mr Xi more inclined towards the private sector.

Overall, it is a good bet Mr Xi will at least be more liberal than Mr Hu Jintao, says University of Chicago analyst Yang Dali. Another factor, he adds, is Mr Xi's exposure to a wider social circle, thanks to his second wife Peng Liyuan, 50, a famous singer whom he met in 1986. The couple has a daughter Xi Mingze, 20, who is studying at Harvard University.

But Mr Xi will get things done without causing too big a ripple, like water dripping on a rock.

"As a new leader, it's easy to make rousing speeches and attempt big things while people's spirits are high," he was quoted as saying years after leaving Ningde.

"But once you've raised expectations, it means a huge disappointment for them. I cannot do such a thing."

The economics of Li Keqiang

When a report in February warned that China will face a crisis unless it reins in powerful state monopolies, it attracted global attention not just because of the politically sensitive topic, but also because Mr Li Keqiang supported it.

Until then, the man tipped to be China's next premier had given few indications whether he would be more reform-minded than current Premier Wen Jiabao.

When he met World Bank president Robert Zoellick, who was in Beijing to present the 468-page report co-written with a Chinese state think-tank, it seemed that he was open to shaking things up.

Mr Li was "instrumental in facilitating the report on reforms of state-owned enterprises", noted Royal Bank of Scotland's China economist Louis Kuijs. And "many elements of the reform agenda discussed by the World Bank appeared to have his agreement and support", added the former World Bank economist in Beijing.

But does Mr Li have the dynamism and political will to push through tough reforms?

As economist Yolanda Fernandez Lommen of the Asian Development Bank's China resident mission warns: "Rebalancing is unlikely to occur in the absence of bolder policy adjustments."

Mr Wen pledged to do those things. He did not get very far. Mr Li, 57, will have to be even more aggressive to make things work in the next decade.

Many analysts are not optimistic.

"His track record has been quite lacklustre. It's unclear whether it is because he does not have power (to push through reforms) or he is not competent enough, or a combination of both," says Chinese University of Hong Kong analyst Willy Lam.

When he was in charge of central Henan province, he was criticised for covering up a scandal in which government-run blood banks caused an outbreak of Aids among blood-sellers. The infections mostly took place before he arrived, but he was said to be slow to react.

When he moved to north-eastern Liaoning in 2004 to revitalise its loss-making state-owned enterprises, it sparked a spate of labour protests.

Some critics say Mr Li "lacks former premier Zhu Rongji's political courage and Wen Jiabao's charisma", according to China politics expert Li Cheng.

So his policies thus far have been tepid. They have been more defined by his strong support of mentor and President Hu Jintao's "harmonious society" principles to improve social equity, rather than by radical reforms to boost private enterprises.

All these had led some to see Vice-Premier Wang Qishan, 64, as a preferred candidate to succeed Mr Wen instead.

The rumour arose after former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, a renowned China watcher, was quoted in a 2009 United States diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks as saying Mr Wang, a protege of Mr Zhu, was preferred.

But Mr Wang's chances of becoming executive vice-premier, Mr Li's No. 2, in the new team appear to be fading, say some China analysts.

There are concerns that Mr Wang's vast experience and forceful personality may overshadow the more subdued Mr Li. The latter is said to have a more academic style - poring over copious reports - to meeting China's challenges.

Still, there is cause for optimism based on his history. Most officials who have risen to the top did so by toeing the line and making conservative moves, notes Tsinghua University professor Patrick Chovanec. "It could well be that once Li is in charge, he may not feel the constraints he had in the past," he says.

The son of a minor party official in eastern Anhui had shown an inclination for radical ideas when he read law.

After working as a manual labourer in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, he enrolled in the prestigious Peking University in 1977. That was a time of intellectual and political ferment.

Mr Li was known to have mingled with liberals at a student-run intellectual "salon", which later participated in the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Among the liberals was prominent dissident Chen Ziming, who later described Mr Li as "very ambitious and knowledgeable".

He also took an interest in Western or international standards. In his college days, he translated a law book by a famous British judge, Lord Denning. In recent years, he has made several speeches in fluent English - a rare trait among top Chinese leaders.

His proficiency is partly helped by his wife Cheng Hong, a professor of English in a top Beijing university. Two years younger than her husband, she is an authority in China on American nature writing. The couple have a daughter, who graduated from Peking University and is reportedly studying medicine in the US.

Little is known about Mr Li's extended family, although his brother Li Keming is the top official at China's state-owned tobacco monopoly, according to elite politics expert Li Cheng.

Mr Li Keqiang can be a smooth political operator, having built a network which may help garner support for tough policies. For a start, he is likely to target inflated housing prices, which have been partly blamed on speculative activity by some officials and state-linked enterprises.

"One of his urgent tasks is to resolve the housing bubble and allow ordinary folk to afford to buy homes," says Chinese Academy of Social Sciences professor Yi Xianrong.

Mr Li has already made state-subsidised housing for the masses a pet project. This interest dates back to his days as Liaoning provincial chief, a 2008 essay on the official People's Daily website claims.

Pained by the squalid conditions of a local shanty town, he exclaimed: "Even if we have to smelt pots to sell iron (a Chinese idiom meaning to sell everything one has to raise cash), we must help the people move out of these shanty towns!"

That sparked a drive to move 1.4 million shanty inhabitants into new homes - an unprecedented scale in China's history, the essay grandly adds.

For Mr Li to accomplish more historical feats, he will have to draw upon the connections he built while working closely with 86 of the more than 350 members in the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

More importantly, he is a known close ally of Mr Hu. "If Mr Hu stays on as head of the Central Military Commission, he should be able to provide some backing for Mr Li, especially if there is a power struggle behind the scenes between him and Mr Wang," said Prof Lam.