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China Analysis: Introducing President Xi Jinping --- A Princeling Facing "Flies" and "Tigers" (Lin)

Isabel Lin writes for EA:

In China, the new President, Xi Jinping. is referred to as a “Princeling”, the son of a prominent Communist Party official among the first generation of Beijing’s leaders.

That status, however, is not enough to describe Xi and his rise to power. He has succeeded not because the position was handed to him as a legacy, but through a combination of toughness and charisma.

Perhaps more importantly, that status does not guarantee Xi’s success. For, despite all his qualities, Xi faces daunting challenges inside China, both for the country’s future and for that of its top officials.

To establish his authority, Xi must maintain China's economic development while dealing with the "flies", the local officials who have recently faced allegations of corruption, and the "tigers", the senior officials in central Government who may see Xi as a threat to their power.

Can he succeed? And, perhaps more importantly, how will he attempt to do so --- with strong public moves for reform or with a more cautious approach within the Party, even as he cultivates his image with the Chinese people as their representative against corruption?

The fifth General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi enters with the image of a reformer. It is an image that he immediately built up on taking office, with an acceptance speech that demonstrated he would much more approachable than his predecessors.Xi made no direct reference to corruption in that speech, but there was the under-current that he would soon be dealing with the "flies".

His rise to prominence has been built on such encounters --- he became Secretary of the Party committee in Shanghai, after the dismissal of Chen Liangyu in a highly-publicised corruption scandal. In Shanghai and then Zhejiang, Xi's success lay not in extravagant achievement --- he kept a low profile for someone in such important positions --- but in the impression that he was a safe, honest leader.

In another symbolic moment after his rise to the Presidency, Xi chose Shenzhen, a city in southern China, where his father had worked for many years, as the site of his first local inspection. His flower-laying tribute at the sculpture of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who "opened up" the country economically in 1982, was a display of his priority for economic reform.

Beyond the economy, Xi’s promises are re-phrasing of those of his predecessors --- a better justice system, adherence to socialism with Chinese characteristics, the fighting against excessive bureaucracy and corruption, efforts to alleviate poverty --- however, he has delivered them with a determination, raising public expectations.

Yet, at the outset of his Presidency, Xi appears to be moving with caution. The "media critique" case of Southern Weekly, with its New Year's editorial on "constitutionalism" blocked by the Communist Party, and Yunnan Province's decision to stop new admissions to labour camps pose challenges --- does Xi intervene, promoting "reform", or does he hold back and risk the impression that he is all promise and no substance?

Xi, considering this, has to evaluate his position in the Party. The son of a former Party leader, he is a "princeling". He has had a close relationship with former leader Jiang Zemin, since his promotion in 2007, and he maintains a friendship with the family of Hu Yaobang, a former leader in the 1980s.

But there are complications. The high-party corruption case of senior Party official Bo Xilai puts Xi between his immediate successor, Hu Jintao, who favours tough action, and Jiang Zemin, who advocates a gentle penalty.

The influence of Jiang, leader from 1989 to 2002, is also eroding. His name, once ranked third after Xi and Hu, has been moved down alongside other elderly members. And Xi's public declaration, “No one can be above the law”, may carry a subtle message.

Xi has a more profound understanding of media power than any of his predecessors. Besides the the positive propaganda designed for every leader, Xi has built in the image of good husband and football enthusiast. Mysterious accounts in China's biggest social networks are reporting his activities almost instanteously.

Then there is personal celebrity. Xi's second wife, Peng Liyuan, whom he married in 1987, . is a famous military singer in China, enjoying a wider fame than her husband. She was an icon of the annual Spring Festival Gala Evening, until she stopped her appearances in 2008 after her husband was designated as the future Leader.

Now Peng has replaced commercial performances with social campaigns like visits to earthquake-stricken areas and advocacy of the prevention of AIDS. The press is expecting her to behave as a First Lady like Michelle Obama, breaking the rigid “soundless” image of the wives of China’s top leaders.

The personal image carries risks. Before Xi took the Leadership, a report from Bloomberg pointed out that his family members have amassed huge fortunes. Chinese media responded that these fortunes have nothing to do with Xi and were earned before Xi entered the central government. They noted that there was no evidence of illegal activity and that Xi even prevented a deal between a State-owned enterprise and his brother-in-law.

If the following five years are expected to be years of reform, it is the first year that is particularly challenging. If Xi could manoeuvre carefully and reinforce the foundation of his governance, the path will be laid to his follow-up measures. And, if he can maintain focus on the economy --- an economy which continues to grow --- he may go further than any previous Leader on that path.

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