Not long ago, China's Communist party would never have picked Xi Jinping as its next boss. For one thing, he's a "princeling"—a derogatory term for the offspring of party leaders, who are resented by many Chinese because they're thought to benefit from guanxi (personal connections) and to put on airs. For another thing, Xi is known for his free-market prowess, not necessarily his ideological purity. Accordingly, when his name first appeared in Party Congress ballots in 1992 and 1997 as a candidate for the Central Committee, Xi got low marks. But over time, his carefully cultivated down-home image began to win over top leaders. They were impressed by Xi's agriculture background (he spent part of his teens on a farm) and the way he shunned Western suits and private cars for windbreakers and riding the bus. Xi seemed competent as well, with a solid record in every region he'd overseen. So by the time senior leaders held a secret poll shortly before this month's 17th Party Congress, Xi, according to Li Datong, a former editor turned political commentator, "got the highest vote."
As a result, Xi has now emerged as front runner to become China's most powerful man. His coming out last week startled many analysts. For some time they'd thought party boss and President Hu Jintao was grooming Li Keqiang to take over when he retired in 2012. Li, like Hu, came out of the clubby Communist Youth League system. But it turns out party elites didn't want Hu 2.0 as heir apparent. When leaders reshuffled the personnel deck last week, last-minute horse trading reportedly grew intense. Hu managed to get Li on to the nine-man leadership committee and to push out a key rival, Vice President Zeng Qinghong. But Hu had to give up something in return—his pick for the top slot. Thus Xi, 54, joined the party's lineup one rank above Li, 52. Now, if all goes according to script, Xi will become party boss in five years, while Li will succeed Wen Jiabao as prime minister.
That Xi rose so far so fast—"helicoptering" to the top, as the Chinese put it—speaks volumes about the changing nature of Chinese party politics. By many accounts, his promotion was based on two things: the economic success of two coastal provinces where he served as party secretary; and his appeal—or at least factional neutrality—within China's Communist Party. Mass popularity is not a traditional prerequisite for power in China, where leaders have been handpicked by a few of their seniors since Mao died.
But the commissars are not deaf to party opinion. The regime lacks political legitimacy and it knows it. Accordingly, it's started using polls to carefully monitor the public mood. And it's begun using "intraparty democracy" to appoint personnel, in order to provide a facsimile of popular input. Xi's election shows just how important peer approval has become in filling top party slots.
Still, his economic acumen made him an unusual pick. Given the stress Beijing puts on the economy, you might think all of China's recent party bosses would have been masters of arcane economic data. In fact, that's never been the case. Since 1998, when Zhu Rongji became prime minister, financial wizards have been relegated to the No. 2 slot, while the top job—party boss and president—has been reserved for the ideologist-in-chief. To become party boss, one needed not financial acumen—which won Zhu support in the West, but always made him suspect in some local eyes—but successful postings in at least two provinces, an ideologically moderate pedigree and no skeletons in the closet. Selection for the post generally had "nothing to do with whether or not someone has an economic background," says commentator Li.
Xi, who's been thinking outside the box since his youth, shows how that's changing. When his father—Xi Zhongxun, a senior communist official—was publicly denounced during the Cultural Revolution, Xi, then 15, was sent to a rural commune in Shaanxi for manual labor. Once there, however, he so impressed the farmers that he became village party chief and won a recommendation to attend college—"which was unheard of at the time," says a retired official who knew him in the 1980s. After studying engineering at Tsinghua University, in 1982 Xi became deputy party secretary of Zhengding County in Hebei province. The place was a backwater. But when the state-TV broadcaster showed up to film an adaptation of the epic novel "Dream of the Red Chamber," Xi saw potential. The series was a megahit, and Xi turned the set into a popular tourist attraction. At a time when central planning still dominated China's economy, such enterprise was rare. "Aside from the Forbidden City, there practically wasn't any tourism" then, recalls the retired official. "Xi really had the pioneering spirit."
Xi's been steeped in the philosophy of economic reform ever since. His father helped design China's "special economic zones"—the country's first major free-market experiments. In 1985, Xi became vice mayor of Xiamen, just across a narrow strait from Taiwan. In 17 years there, Xi greatly increased trade between the two sides. And he became known for his can-do spirit, summed up by his slogan, "Mashang jiu ban": "Do it now."
Xi brought this drive to another thriving coastal province, Zhejiang, in 2002. He set up a council for business leaders to promote links throughout the Yangtze River delta and became a cheerleader for the "Zhejiang model." The province has racked up more than 13 percent GDP growth annually for two decades by tapping into the entrepreneurial zeal of local residents, who've privatized industry and formed unofficial lending networks outside the state-run banking sector. "Xi was on the frontier of China's economic reforms," says Prof. Xie Jian of Wenzhou University.
Zhejiang's high level of private enterprise—accounting for nearly three fourths of its GDP—also caught the eye of U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. On a September 2006 visit to China, Paulson's first stop was dinner with Xi, whom he called "the kind of guy who gets things over the goal line."
Such foreign praise might once have been a black mark. No longer. In Xi, the party has chosen its first modern politician for its top job. Xi is popular with colleagues and ordinary Chinese thanks in part to his superstar wife, the "patriotic folk" soprano Peng Liyuan—described by one Western newspaper as "Vera Lynn, Maria Callas and Posh Spice rolled into one." Still, he sometimes strikes Westerners as a bit of a bumpkin. ("Clodhopper" is the phrase used in his Wikipedia entry—which is blocked in China.) During the recent Party Congress, the pudgy Xi was seen leaning back in his chair, showing off white acrylic socks and unfashionably short trouser hems.
This down-to-earth image has helped Xi to overcome his status as a privileged princeling in a party that still favors humble sobriety. His hardscrabble upbringing made him acceptable to Hu, whose own early career was spent in the poverty-stricken boonies. And his pedigree and record in the dynamic coastal provinces made him appealing to the so-called Shanghai—or GDP—faction, led by Hu's predecessor, the still-influential Jiang Zemin. Xi also helped mop up Fujian and Shanghai after massive high-level corruption scandals in both places, and reportedly called on officials to declare their assets when he took over in Shanghai. As a result, "Xi's considered to be very clean," says a Shanghai-based Western executive who requested anonymity for fear of negative business repercussions. "The one thing people don't want is more corruption." What they've got instead is a new type of communist leader, a modern politician with distinctly Chinese characteristics.