BEIJING--Xi Jinping is nobody's man yet. But even as he solidifies his own support base, that new-boy status makes him vulnerable--and he may use a stern foreign policy to counter it.
It took a prolonged political struggle to establish a new leadership corps in China, and having achieved it, the new general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party will likely want to stay the course set by his predecessor while finding his feet.
At a Nov. 15 meeting of the outgoing and incoming senior cadres, Xi lavished praise on his predecessor, Hu Jintao, and on the other departing members of the Politburo Standing Committee.
"The manner in which the Hu Jintao leadership group willingly handed over their party standing illustrates their lofty dignity and principles," Xi said.
The meeting was attended by party grandees such as Song Ping, but noticeably absent was Jiang Zemin, the former general secretary who was involved in a fierce factional struggle with Hu over selections for the new leadership.
On Nov. 15, Hu handed over not only the post of general secretary to Xi, but also his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission.
Ten years ago, when Jiang gave Hu the post of party general secretary, he held onto his military chairmanship for a further two years.
The decision by Hu to turn over all party posts to Xi in one sweep shows he wants to avoid creating another two-tiered power structure: In the past, Jiang was able to exert influence over personnel and policy decisions long after he left the post of general secretary.
As if to underscore the significance of Hu's decision, state-run China Central Television delivered news reports of the meeting—again and again.
There was speculation that Jiang skipped the meeting because he feared it would criticize his record. There were darker rumors, too: that he had been told to stay away.
Hu's decision to retire completely will help Xi in running the nation. Not least, it will avoid bequeathing him with a three-tiered power structure, comprising Xi, Hu and Jiang.
At the same time, the six Politburo Standing Committee members whom Xi will rely on for support were picked amid fierce fighting between party factions loyal to Hu and Jiang.
Even the new Politburo lacks obvious Xi allies. About the only one who can be considered close to Xi is Li Zhanshu, who as head of the General Office will support the general secretary in handling political matters.
Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of the leading figures of the Chinese Revolution, and Xi himself managed to climb the party ladder without creating political enemies.
For those reasons, Yang Jisheng, vice president of reformist-minded journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, describes Xi as a "white leader." The term refers to Xi's potential vulnerability: although untainted by association with any one faction, enjoying the support of both reformists and conservatives, he is ultimately unprotected because of his lack of a specific political support base.
Xi becomes China's leader at a difficult time for this nation of 1.3 billion people. Social instability is on the rise, due to growing economic disparity.
Until Xi solidifies his own power base, he will have to navigate delicately the course set by Hu while commanding a leadership corps in which the majority retain closer ties to Jiang.
One of the policies that Xi is likely to uphold is a hard-line stance toward Japan over the Senkaku Islands, disputed territory which China calls Diaoyu.
At the Nov. 15 news conference introducing the new leadership corps, Xi took a decidedly nationalistic tone and referred repeatedly to the Chinese nation.
"Our nation is great because it has a history of about 5,000 years and has made contributions to progress in civilization that will never be erased," Xi said. The speech, his first as general secretary, lasted 20 minutes and used the word "people" 16 times.
The tone of the speech was in sharp contrast to the one Hu made five years ago when he introduced his new leadership corps. Hu spoke of "peace" and "cooperation," words that were absent from Xi's speech.
Several party sources said Xi would likely adopt an even sterner diplomatic stance, with special emphasis on maritime policy.
The official report of policies approved on Nov. 14 at the 18th National Congress included for the first time this phrase: "We will resolutely protect the maritime interests of the nation."
A source at a government-affiliated think tank believes its inclusion reflects Xi's own personal conviction. Xi worked for many years in coastal provinces of China, such as Fujian and Zhejiang.
After Xi became secretary of the Shanghai municipal party committee in 2007, one of the first things he did was to dismantle what was then the Shanghai Fisheries University.
"Change the name," Xi said at the time. "We must foster people capable of constructing a strong maritime nation."
A Shanghai municipal government source said that Xi pushed for greater training of specialists in maritime strategy and law.
That led to the establishment of Shanghai Ocean University, created in conjunction with the State Oceanic Administration, an agency which operates surveillance ships.
Even though Xi was only in his Shanghai post for seven months, he made frequent inspection trips to shipbuilding plants.
"He had a stronger interest in ocean affairs than any other leader," said the source, reflecting on Xi's time in Shanghai.
For those reasons, it is unlikely that Beijing will relent in its confrontation with Japan over the Senkakus.
One party source said Xi has in fact been making foreign policy decisions since September, when he was given authority to do so by Hu. Xi heads a team of specialists within the party handling the Senkakus issue.
"We can never allow Japan to get away with its plan," Xi told visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a meeting in September.
Xi was the most vocal critic of Japan among the then nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee.
Analysts said Xi may be easily swayed by hard-line opinions from the military, as well as by activists using the Internet--until he can solidify his own power base.
He will also likely take a stronger stand against the United States, which has pledged to pivot its foreign policy focus to Asia.
During a visit there in February, Xi warned Washington against interfering in regional issues such as the Senkakus and similar disputes in the South China Sea. Those issues were, he said, core interests of China.
(This article was written by Nozomu Hayashi and Kenji Minemura.)
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