Henry Paulson, U.S. Treasury secretary, once called Xi Jinping "the kind of guy who gets things over the goal line." This month Xi scored the goal of his career. He has emerged as the favorite to become China's most powerful man, startling many analysts. For years they'd assumed Communist Party boss Hu Jintao was grooming prot?g? Li Keqiang to take over once he retired. But when the party reshuffled its personnel deck during its mid-October congress, last-minute horse trading among competing factions was intense. Hu got his satisfaction with Li's appointment to the party's nine-man leadership committee and the retirement of key rival Zeng Qinghong. But Hu had to relinquish something in return, so he signed off on Xi, 54, joining the party's top lineup in a rank above Li. If all goes according to script, Xi will become party chief in 2012, while Li will succeed Prime Minister Wen Jiabao—and in Chinese politics, the party boss outranks the prime minister.
Xi's candidacy got a boost from internal popularity polls. Normally the cards would have been stacked against Xi because he's a "princeling," the derogatory term used to describe pampered offspring of former party leaders. But Xi's rootsy image appealed to top apparatchiks. Xi also racked up a pro-business record while serving in the dynamic provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. (The latter exceeded 13 percent GDP annual growth for 20 years.) When Xi's name appeared in an internal survey of senior leaders shortly before the Party Congress, says Li Datong, a former editor turned political commentator, "Xi got the highest vote."
Mass popularity is not required of the party boss. A clique of seniors have hand-picked China's recent leaders. But that doesn't mean they're deaf to party opinion. The party uses internal polling and a restricted form of balloting to help resolve personnel assignments. In other words, Xi may be the Communist Party leadership's first modern politician. (He even has a superstar wife, singer Peng Liyuan.) Still, Chinese politics can be counterintuitive. His biggest assets are the fact that he is factionally neutral (thus acceptable to all), not flashy (the party stresses clean living), and seen by Westerners as a bit of a bumpkin. ("Clodhopper" is the phrase used in his Wikipedia entry—which, by the way, is blocked in China.) Now all he has to do is survive the next five years without messing up.