Meet Xi Jinping, China's new leader

Beijing correspondent Catherine Mercier examines some of the questions surrounding Xi Jinping and what his leadership may mean for China and the rest of the world.

What appointment of secretive party figure could mean inside and outside China

He took the helm of the world’s second biggest economy on Nov. 15, but much about China's Xi Jinping remains shrouded in secrecy.

"Our responsibility now is to rally and lead the entire party and the people of all ethnic groups in China in taking up this historic baton and in making continued efforts to achieve the great renewal of the Chinese nation, make the Chinese nation stand rock-firm in the family of nations, and make even greater contribution to mankind," Xi said after the announcement.

The Chinese government is a one-party system run by the Chinese Communist Party. The changeover of power took place at the meeting of the 18th National Party Congress in Beijing.

Like Russia, China has both a president who is the head of state, and a premier (also referred to as prime minister) who is the chief administrator, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the nation. Xi Jinping was named China’s general secretary and chairman of the military commission, and will formally take over as president next year. He succeeds Hu Jintao.

CBC News Beijing correspondent Catherine Mercier examines some of the questions surrounding Xi and what his leadership could mean for China and the rest of the world. 

Who is Xi?

Xi Jinping has been groomed to succeed Hu Jintao. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Xi Jinping was born in 1953 and spent his childhood in Beijing.

His father was Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary war hero, which means that the young Xi enjoyed a pampered life with his family in the capital. They had nannies, a cook, a driver, and better food than the general population.

But in 1962, Xi’s father had a falling out with Mao and that privileged life came to an abrupt end.

In the midst of the Cultural Revolution, things only got worse for Xi Jinping.

China's new leaders

China's 18th National Party Congress on Nov. 15 named a new lineup of seven top leaders (down from the previous group of nine) who will manage the super-power's political, economic, social and military strategy for the next decade:

  • Xi Jinping, general secretary and chairman of the military commission, and will formally take over as president next year
  • Li Keqiang, premier and chief economic official
  • Zhang Dejiang, vice-premier
  • Yu Zhengsheng, Shanhai party secretary
  • Liu Yunshan, propaganda chief
  • Zhang Gaoli, Tianjin party secretary
  • Wang Qishan, head of the party's internal watchdog panel

Like most of China’s urban youth, he was sent to the countryside to do hard labour alongside the peasants. The idea was for young people to be re-educated, stripped of their bourgeois tendencies.

Xi ended up in the village of Liangjiahe, in Shaanxi province. He lived in a cave home, a traditional rural dwelling carved out of the dusty, yellow hills. Like the farmers, he led a life of hunger and poverty.

It is at that time Xi joined the Communist Party. 

After coming back to Beijing to attend university, Xi ended up spending most of his political career far away from the poor countryside of his teenage years.

He spent more than two decades in Fujian and Zhejiang, two booming coastal provinces south of Shanghai. There he oversaw economic reforms, which some observers say makes him less conservative in his approach than the current president Hu Jintao. 

Domestic reputation

Xi Jinping is not yet well-known outside of China, but what about inside China itself? 

Peng Liyuan, a well-known singer in China, performs during a gala to celebrate the country's 60th Anniversary on September 29, 2009. (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

When CBC News started researching Xi Jinping, we realized many people in China had only a vague idea of who Xi Jinping was, even in provinces where he had been the leader for years.

Part of the issue is that whereas Xi has been introduced as ‘’the leader-in-waiting" and "China’s presumed next leader" for years in the foreign press, Chinese official media refered to him only as "Vice-President Xi Jinping" (his title at the time).

Surprisingly, what the average Chinese know best about Xi is actually his wife.

He is married to Peng Liyuan, a famous People’s Liberation Army singer. She is so popular that for a long time he was jokingly defined by his significant other. "Who is Xi Jinping?," people would ask, and the answer would often be "He is Peng Liyuan’s husband!"

What kind of leader is he likely to be?

The answer is, nobody really knows. That is just the nature of Chinese politics.

Professor Orville Schell, an veteran China specialist, followed Xi Jinping as he visited the United States in February 2012. Here’s what he found striking about the leader-in-waiting:  "It was very clear that Xi didn’t have permission to give anything away about who he was, what he would stand for. The whole system, the way it works in China now, is that you have a much better chance of rising if you don’t enunciate too clearly what you stand for, if you don’t stick your head up too high."

Xi Jinping did clearly speak his mind once at a public event. It was in Mexico in 2009, as he was touring Latin America.

He said, "there are some bored foreigners, with full stomachs, who have nothing better to do than point fingers at us [China]. First, China doesn't export revolution. Second, China doesn't export hunger and poverty. Third, China doesn't come and cause you headaches. What more is there to be said?"

He later said his comments were meant as a joke. 

Recently, the epithet that is most commonly used to describe his style is "pragmatic."

Many Chinese political analysts point to his experience living with peasants during the Cultural Revolution, saying it has given him a unique taste of the tough challenges faced by the lower classes of Chinese society. 

What will some of his biggest challenges be?

Xi Jinping will have his plate full with a number of thorny issues.

After years of unabated growth, the Chinese economy is showing signs of slowing down. This year, Premier Wen Jiabao set the economic growth target to 7.5 per cent, far from the double-digit numbers that China boasted for much of the past decade.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (left) chats with Vice President Xi Jinping as they leave after a March plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Andy Wong/AP)

Maintaining economic growth is crucial, because so much in China depends on it.

The social stability that the Chinese leaders cherish so much could be threatened by a rise in the unemployment rate, for example. Millions of disenfranchised people with time on their hands would not bode well for the authorities. 

Already, popular unrest is on the rise in China as people take to the streets to protest against issues such as polluting industrial projects, land grabs and corruption. On average, 500 protests occur in China every day. That’s enough to keep the leadership pretty busy … and pretty concerned. 

For the Communist Party, maintaining a healthy economic growth is also key to maintaining power. For years, there’s been an unwritten pact between the Party and the people:  You keep us in power and we will make sure your lives get better. If this promise fails, the Party could be in trouble, because people could start questioning the legitimacy of the one-party rule.

As the new leader, Xi Jinping has the next decade to make sure that doesn't happen.