Rarely has the word-of-mouth surrounding a new Chinese star differed so dramatically from his official résumé. Xi Jinping was anointed in October as the likely successor to President Hu Jintao as party chief in 2012, and his canned bio says little about his family history. But China's gossip mills have been churning overtime. Turns out Xi's dad, revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun, was purged three times by Mao Zedong and later became a pro-market reformer. He was also one of the few leaders to defend Hu Yaobang, a progressive party chief sacked in 1986, and to condemn the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre—after which he was rarely seen in public again.
Were such facts better known, they might raise awkward questions for his son. Thus China's state-run media has avoided the subject, and Xi Jinping has deflected questions about his dad—and his influence on Xi's philosophy. That's left China's new boss a mystery. About the only things analysts can agree on is that he's market-friendly, prudent, and married to a famous singer. Where Xi's heart really lies is unknown.
What is clear is that Xi is popular within the party. His selection as heir apparent this fall surprised many, and came at the expense of Li Keqiang, Hu's handpicked successor. Seems that the president's rivals thought Li was too similar to his mentor in outlook and style. So Xi, who topped a shortlist of up-and-comers in intraparty polling, emerged as the consensus pick instead.
Xi owes much of his popularity to his man-of-the-people image, which he came by early. During the Cultural Revolution in 1968, the 15-year-old Xi was sent to the countryside for a stint of manual labor. Down in rural Hebei province, while his father was being publicly denounced back home, the young Xi impressed the locals with his modesty and hard work—so much so that, by 21, they'd made him a local party chief and recommended him for university.
Xi, now 54, has carried this history as a badge of honor ever since and avoided signs he's a pampered son of the elite. When he was vice mayor of Xiamen in 1987, for example, he sometimes favored simple windbreakers over Western business suits and mini-buses over chauffeured cars. "He was unusually easygoing and down to earth," one official recalls.
This manner has won Xi plaudits from no less a figure than Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, who declared on a recent visit that Xi was "a thoughtful man who has gone through many trials and tribulations." "I would put him in the Nelson Mandela class," Lee declared. That may be, but Xi's shown no signs he plans to follow his dad's principled example—much less risk prison for his ideals, like Mandela. China's leaders have become less and less bold since Tiananmen, as the party has placed increasing emphasis on consultation and consensus. It's thus hard to imagine any of them attempting big changes in the near future, says Jin Zhong, editor of Open Magazine in Hong Kong. "Even if they wanted to, they wouldn't dare."
Sure enough, Xi's recent record has been carefully conservative. During a brief stint as Shanghai party secretary from last March to October, Xi "didn't touch any of the sensitive, thorny issues," says Jin, such as the massive pension-fund scandal that had toppled his predecessor or the detention of local activists. Instead, Xi dutifully promoted Beijing's policies, including its prescriptions for more measured growth.
Expect more of the same in Xi's new roles, which include being party point man on Hong Kong. Democrats there have been clamoring for full suffrage, and the city's tabloids are following Xi's every move to see what he might deliver. Brookings scholar Cheng Li notes that Xi "has not been impressive" in recent ventures. Still, he has an "open-minded leadership style." And under the circumstances—with an uptight, micromanaging Hu Jintao still in charge of China—open-minded is probably the most anyone should hope for.