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with George W. Bush
Xi Jinping became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP or CPC) in November 2012. He became Chinese president in March 2013 and over time claimed other titles to become China’s unquestioned leader to such a degree he has been called a new Mao and a new Emperor.

In October 2010, then Vice President Xi Jinping was appointed vice chairman of the powerful party and government military commissions, moves regarded as signals that he would likely be appointed as Hu Jintao's successor. Jonathan Fenby wrote in The Guardian, “Xi's rise to the top was sealed in October 2010 when a Communist party central committee plenum appointed him vice-chairman of the military affairs committee which oversees China's forces. The appointment means that Xi is perfectly placed to take on the top three jobs of secretary of the Communist party, state president and civilian head of the military. Like Hu, he will often be referred to outside China as "President Xi". But the Communist party post is much more important: China is still a Leninist state in which the party rules over the government.” [Source: Jonathan Fenby, The Guardian, November 7 2010 ~~]

Xi's appointment to the military commission completed a process begun at the last party congresses in 2007 when he received a senior rank on the supreme decision-making body the Politburo Standing Committee. He came in one place ahead of the man regarded as Hu Jintao's chosen successor, Li Keqiang. Xi was then appointed vice-president while Li became senior vice-premier. ~~

The biggest news to come out of the 17th Party Congress in 2007 was the selection of Xi Jinping — then Shanghai Party Boss — and Li Keqiang — then Liaoning Party Boss — as members of the all-powerful Standing Committee. Both men were in their early 50s at the time and were widely seen as possible successors to Hu Jintao. Xi emerged as the favorite in part because he was introduced first and was given a slightly higher rank but the overall message seemed to be that the two men were relatively equal and would fight to be leader over the next five years with the winner being the one who performs the best. Many think that Xi was given a higher ranking because he is more highly regarded among the Communist party elite. By late 2009 Xi Jinping was seen as the favorite to be the next leader of China. Both Xi and Li are seen as ‘safe choices’ who will not deviate from the political line laid down by patriarch Deng Xiaoping, ex-president Jiang Zemin and President Hu.

Fenby wrote: “It was all very neat as the elite sought to avoid one of the pitfalls of one-party states, the succession issue that can lead to running warfare between rival contenders as happened after the death of Mao Zedong. But we have little idea of how Xi was chosen. It appears that he was the most broadly acceptable member of the new fifth generation of Chinese leaders, not just to the present standing committee but to big business, entrenched interest groups and the former party chief, Jiang Zemin. This would be a perpetuation of the consensus style of leadership which has evolved under Hu, in contrast to the individualistic rule of Mao and Deng Xiaoping.” ~~

Being named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, which oversees the People’s Liberation Army and its branches, Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “fills the last remaining gap in Mr. Xi’s résumé and means that he is following the succession track that Mr. Hu took a decade ago on his way to assuming China’s top party, state and military titles.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, October 18, 2010]

How Xi Jinping Became China’s President

with Hillary Clinton in 2012

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Why Mr. Xi emerged from relative obscurity to become heir apparent in 2007 is a matter of mystery and speculation. Some close observers of Chinese politics say the man considered to be Mr. Hu’s personal top choice as successor, Li Keqiang, another provincial leader, failed to win the backing of some members of China’s old guard, headed by the former top leader Jiang Zemin. Mr. Xi was a compromise acceptable to both Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu, these observers say.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, October 18, 2010]

China scholar Willy Wo-Lap Lam told the New York Times: His moment was in 2007, when he won the support of Jiang Zemin and former Vice President Zeng Qinghong. Jiang didn’t go along with Hu Jintao’s choice of Li Keqiang as the next general secretary and wanted an alternative candidate. So he picked Xi precisely because he thought he would be an easy person to manipulate. Xi seemed to be what the Chinese call a laohaoren [a good fellow] in addition to being a team player. This was probably Jiang Zemin’s biggest mistake. Almost immediately, Xi turned on Jiang and his faction. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, June 2, 2015]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “In 2007, he encountered a prime opportunity to show his political skills: a corruption scandal in Shanghai was implicating associates of Jiang Zemin, the powerful former President, who served from 1989 to 2002. Xi was sent to Shanghai to take over. He projected toughness to the public without alienating Jiang. He rejected the villa that had been arranged for him, announcing that it would be better used as a retirement home for veteran comrades.” His timing was fortunate: a few months later, senior Party officials were choosing the next generation of top leaders. Xi was expected to lose to Li Keqiang, a comrade who had no revolutionary family pedigree, and had postgraduate degrees in law and economics from Peking University. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, April 6, 2015 ^^^]

“Since 2002, the highest ranks of Chinese politics had been dominated by men who elbowed their way in on the basis of academic or technocratic merit. President Hu’s father ran a tea shop, and the Premier, Wen Jiabao, was the son of a teacher, but Chen Yun, the late economic czar, had advised his peers that born reds, now known as “second-generation reds,” or princelings, would make more reliable stewards of the Party’s future. One princeling told a Western diplomat, “The feeling among us is: ‘Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, your fathers were selling shoelaces while our fathers were dying for this revolution.’ ” In private, some princelings referred to the President and the Premier as huoji—“hired hands.” In October, 2007, Xi was unveiled as the likely heir apparent. It was not entirely a compliment. “Party leaders prefer weak successors, so they can rule behind the scenes,” Ho Pin, the founder of Mingjing News, an overseas Chinese site, said. Xi’s rise had been so abrupt, in the eyes of the general public, that people joked, “Who is Xi Jinping? He’s Peng Liyuan’s husband.” ^^^

Xi Jinping Tests and Disappearance Before Becoming President

Osnos wrote: “Xi was tested by a pageant of dysfunction that erupted in the run-up to his début as General Secretary, in 2012. In February, Wang Lijun, a former police chief, tried to defect to the U.S. and accused the family of his former patron, Bo Xilai, the Party secretary of Chongqing, of murder and embezzlement. Party leaders feared that Bo might protect himself with the security services at his command, disrupt the transition of power, and tear the Party apart. In September, Ling Jihua, the chief of staff of the outgoing President, was abruptly demoted, and he was later accused of trying to cover up the death of his son, who had crashed a black Ferrari while accompanied by two women. ^^^

“Beset by crises, Xi suddenly disappeared. On September 4, 2012, he cancelled a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and visits with other dignitaries. As the days passed, lurid rumors emerged, ranging from a grave illness to an assassination attempt. When he reappeared, on September 19th, he told American officials that he had injured his back. Analysts of Chinese politics still raise the subject of Xi’s disappearance in the belief that a fuller explanation of why he vanished might illuminate the depth, or fragility, of his support. In dozens of conversations this winter, scholars, officials, journalists, and executives told me that they suspect he did have a health problem, and also reasons to exploit it. They speculate that Xi, in effect, went on strike; he wanted to install key allies, and remove opponents, before taking power, but Party elders ordered him to wait. A former intelligence official told me, “Xi basically says, ‘O.K., fuck you, let’s see you find someone else for this job. I’m going to disappear for two weeks and miss the Secretary of State.’ And that’s what he did. It caused a stir, and they went running and said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ ” The handoff went ahead as planned. On November 15, 2012, Xi became General Secretary.” ^^^

Xi Jinping’s Image Before He Became President

with Hu Jintao

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Before Xi took power, he was described, in China and abroad, as an unremarkable provincial administrator, a fan of American pop culture (“The Godfather,” “Saving Private Ryan”) who cared more about business than about politics, and was selected mainly because he had alienated fewer peers than his competitors. It was an incomplete portrait. He had spent more than three decades in public life, but Chinese politics had exposed him to limited scrutiny. At a press conference, a local reporter once asked Xi to rate his performance: “Would you give yourself a score of a hundred—or a score of ninety?” (Neither, Xi said; a high number would look “boastful,” and a low number would reflect “low self-esteem.”) [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, April 6, 2015 ^^^]

“Xi headed a Politburo Standing Committee of seven men: four were considered princelings by birth or marriage, a larger ratio than in any Politburo in the history of the People’s Republic. Western politicians often note that Xi has the habits of a retail pol: comfort on the rope line, gentle questions for every visitor, homey anecdotes. On a trip to Los Angeles, he told students that he likes to swim, read, and watch sports on television, but rarely has time. “To borrow a title from an American film, it’s like ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ” he said. But Chinese observers tend to mention something else: his guizuqi, or “air of nobility.” It can come off as a reassuring link to the past or, at times, as a distance from his peers. In a meeting at the Great Hall of the People last year, Party officials were chatting and glad-handing during a lengthy break, but Xi never budged. “It went on for hours, and he sat there, staring straight ahead,” a foreign attendee told me. “He never wandered down from the podium to say, ‘How’s it going in Ningxia?’ ”“ ^^^

Fenby of The Guardian wrote: As president-in-waiting, Xi has visited Australia, Germany, Japan and the Americas. According to people who met him on these trips, he was polished, interested in what he was shown and generally affable. However, in Mexico last year, he lashed out at "a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country” China does not export revolution, hunger or poverty; nor does China cause you any headaches. What else do you want?"

Yu Jie on Xi Jinping

Yu Jie

In a piece entitled “Empty Suit” the dissident Yu Jie wrote in Foreign Policy: “Optimism pervades everywhere. Most surprising is the view of Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, who met with Xi in 2007 and concluded: "I would put him in the Nelson Mandela class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings affect his judgment."[Source: Foreign Policy, February 13, 2012]

"Personal misfortunes?" That stunned me. Xi isn't any more like Mandela than Adolf Hitler is like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mandela spent 27 years in a dark prison for the cause of freedom and human rights. Those are Mandela's "personal misfortunes." After getting out of jail, in the spirit of forgiveness and benevolence, he transformed South Africa's society into one where different ethnicities could settle their differences. He was a man worthy of the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Xi, the offspring of a high leader who temporarily fell from power, was engulfed by one of Mao's political campaigns and sent to a poor village in western China. Xi has never publicly questioned or criticized that period. He said that period of "eating bitterness" only increased his loyalty to the Communist Party.

People say Hu and Xi belong to different political factions. They say Hu comes from the Communist Youth League and is therefore more populist, whereas Xi, because he represents the "princelings" — sons and daughters of high officials — works in service of the wealthier coastal provinces. I think they're not that dissimilar. No matter if it's Hu or Xi, they're still only representative of the few-hundred families who make up the Chinese aristocracy. They are not in office thanks to a Western-style election, but are the products of a black-box operation. They didn't rise because they're clever and capable, but precisely because they're mediocre. They are where they are today because they are harmless to the special interest groups that run China.

Like Hu, if Xi has any special ability, it's his ability to balance himself on a steel wire. Xi served in Hubei, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, among other places. Nowhere does he have any political accomplishments worth praising, or any offenses worth condemning. No one knows his real thoughts: He hides them even deeper than Hu did before he became chairman. Unlike Bo Xilai, a fellow princeling who has been conducting Mao-style politics in Chongqing, the city that he runs, Xi has no edges or corners. Xi's family background appeases China's senior statesmen: He's "their man." Xi was in the army; the military and other powerful departments all support him. Xi's father was a liberal, so the groups with reformist aspirations preserve that fantasy in their hearts.

In today's China, where vested interests have solidified like concrete, at most Xi is the country's "chief maintenance officer." As the Communist Party's crisis of rule grows more serious by the day, China needs a charismatic and farsighted leader. Xi is neither. The party's talent-selection mechanism has already rotted — they're no longer able to produce people like Zhao Ziyang or Hu Yaobang, the type of excellent leaders China had in the 1980s (both were deposed by former leader Deng Xiaoping because they wanted to change the system).

They say Xi will rule us for a decade, but can this outwardly strong but inwardly weak regime maintain itself for another 10 years. Economic development cannot continue at this same speed. When Hu passes the power to Xi, he will finally be able to breathe a big sigh of relief knowing that he won't be the last king of a dynasty. Will Xi be able to say the same?

Xi Jinping Pals Around with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden

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with Biden
Willy Lam wrote in China Brief: “Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping took the unusual step of accompanying U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s during five-day visit to China in August 2011 on a side trip to Sichuan Province in western China. According to senior aides traveling with Biden, Xi, who is also Vice Chairman of the policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC), was "very confident, very assured" in his dealing with American officials. "Xi did not refer to notes [when talking to Biden]," one official said. "He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to convey — very strategic in his approach, quite confident in his interaction with his colleagues". [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief (Jamestown Foundation) vol. 11, no. 16 September 2, 2011]

Part of Xi's confidence and sophistication has emerged through having a better grasp on world affairs, especially China-U.S. relations. The Chinese Vice President indicated both countries should "ceaselessly boost Sino-American strategic mutual trust." Xi continued "Both sides should objectively and rationally look at each other's development and make correct judgments on the each other's strategic intentions." Even more significant is that fact that Xi appeared to give a vote of confidence to the American economy. "The U.S. economy is highly resilient and has a strong capacity to repair itself," he said in a forum of Chinese and American businessmen. "We believe that the U.S. economy will achieve even better development as it rises to challenges" This was in sharp contrast to the scores of commentaries in the official Chinese media that expressed a lack of confidence in the Barack Obama administration's ability to pull the U.S. out of the current debt and financial crises.

Tell-tale signals, however, seem to betray Xi's less-than-enthusiastic proclivities toward the United States. Before Biden's arrival in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, a dozen-odd dissidents were either detained briefly or given severe warnings not to try to present any petitions to the American VIP. Xi was nowhere to be found during Biden's speech at Sichuan University in which the veteran U.S. politician made a pitch for "openness, free exchange of ideas, free enterprise and liberty". Xi did accompany Biden to Qingchengshan High School, which had been newly reconstructed after the horrendous 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. However, while Biden engaged in a spirited pep talk with the students, Xi, who was sitting nearby, did not seem to be paying much attention to his guest. He frequently was looking in a different direction and appeared to be either bored or lost in thought.

Xi Jinping in the United States Before He Becomes Leader

In February 2012, Xi Jinping visited the United States for the fifth time in what was billed as his American coming out. The trip was scrutinized for signs of how Xi and a new generation of Chinese leaders plan to govern, and how they might deal with a war-weary and economically wounded America, still struggling to adapt to Beijing's rise. It was “an imprinting opportunity to set an impression of the man who will run China for a decade," Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an American investment banker who advised the Chinese government on the trip, told the Los Angeles Times. [Source: Barbara Demick and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2012]

In Washington Xi was given a red carpet welcome. Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post, “In the vast ballroom of a Washington hotel hundreds of dignitaries gathered at a luncheon to honor Xi. Xi’s status is such that he was introduced by no less than Henry Kissinger. The speech Xi delivered at the luncheon was fairly stilted and anodyne, as one might have expected. He’s not president yet, and clearly he was intent on not making headline news. China wants a “cooperative partnership” with the United States, he said, adding that his meetings with President Obama and Vice President Biden were “fruitful.” Xi referred to the U.S.-China relationship as “an unstoppable river that keeps surging ahead.” [Source: Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, February 17, 2012]

Reuters reported: “President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden appear to nurse some hopes that Xi's ascendance could bring greater Chinese accommodation. They spent plenty of time getting to know him, and he received a high-level reception at the Pentagon. In turn, Xi put a folksy smile on China's usually grim-faced officialdom by returning to Muscatine, a town in Iowa he visited as a young cadre in 1985. [Source: Chris Buckley, Reuters, February 16, 2012]

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with Biden at a tea ceremony

"My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America," he told the people who had hosted him in 1985. He recalled telling the daughter of his hosts, the Dvorchaks, about the Hollywood films he enjoyed, including "The Godfather", reported the China News Service. "She was astonished and wondered how we could have seen so many American movies," recalled Xi. "Although I stayed with the Dvorchaks for only two nights, they were two nights when I directly connected with the American people," he said. "That's something I'll never forget as long as I live."

But despite the shows of bonhomie and China's effusive media coverage, Xi's visit was punctuated by flashes of the tensions. Obama, Biden and senior members of the U.S. Congress plied Xi with demands that Beijing do more to balance trade, help the United States deal with global troublespots, and relax its heavy grip on dissidents and restive Tibet. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney publicly blasted Obama's China policy and called the Democratic president's meetings with Xi "empty pomp and ceremony." It was a reminder that domestic crosscurrents on both sides of the Pacific can complicate attempts to stabilize Sino-American ties.

Xi Jinping in L.A. with Joe Biden

Noaki Schwartz of AP wrote: “Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping began the last day of his U.S. visit Friday by urging closer ties and arguing that Americans benefit from their trade relationship with China. "A prosperous and stable China will not be a threat to any country," Xi said. "It will only be a positive force for world peace and development." [Source: Noaki Schwartz, AP, February 18, 2012]

Xi started his fourth day in the United States at a downtown Los Angeles trade conference hosted by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. His American counterpart, Vice President Joe Biden, joined him later. California Gov. Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa both lauded the U.S.-China relationship. "We've got a great future together," said Brown, who announced plans to open a new trade and investment office in China. China is a major trade partner with Los Angeles, which has greatly benefited from its Pacific Rim position and has courted Chinese businesses and their potential jobs. The New York Times reported that business deals were announced, including one between Chinese companies and DreamWorks Animation, the American film company. In the afternoon in Xi was led on a tour of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, by Mr. Gehry himself.

Xi wrapped up his visit at Staples Center, where he attended a Los Angeles Lakers-Phoenix Suns basketball game Friday night. Following the Lakers 111-99 victory, Xi and his party left for the airport. A day earlier, Xi toured the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest port complex. Nearly 60 percent of the imports moving through the port come from China.Chinese imports have helped Americans improve their standard of living and created more than 3 million new jobs in the U.S. from 2001 to 2010, Xi said.U.S.-China trade is expected to top $500 billion soon, and the countries have moved from "mutual estrangement to a close exchange with increasingly intertwined interests," he said.

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Xi and Biden

Outside the hotel hosting the trade forum, picketers protested Chinese policies in Tibet and its treatment of Falun Gong followers. Two protesters were cited for standing in the roadway but no one was arrested, Los Angeles Police spokesman Cleon Joseph said. After the trade forum, Xi and Biden visited a suburban school in South Gate that specializes in Asian studies to promote more American students studying in China. The vice presidents watched a traditional Chinese "dragon dance" performed by middle- and high-school students at the International Studies Learning Center, a public school that is part of the Asia Society's network of schools across the country. Biden told the students that the U.S.-China relationship is the single most important relationship the country has in the 21st century. Xi, who spoke with a class of high school students learning Chinese, lauded their Mandarin skills, saying it was important to learn the culture as well as the language to avoid misunderstandings.

Biden said he appreciated Xi's candor. "He is very, very direct. When we disagree, there's a clear statement of disagreement," Biden said. "I was impressed by how much he wants to know about how our system works." Xi was accompanied to the NBA game by Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In one photo op Xi was show standing with former NBA great Magic Johnson. Biden told reporters after the school visit that he saw in Mr. Xi a Chinese leader with a distinctive style. “This is unusual for any foreign leader, in particular for a Chinese foreign leader, to want to expose himself this much to the American public,” Mr. Biden said. “His going back to Muscatine was not my idea. It was our idea to do many other things. But this is a guy who wants to feel it and taste it, and he’s prepared to show another side of the Chinese leadership that could be useful for Americans to see as well.”

Mr. Biden said that Mr. Xi also seemed to want to learn everything he could about the American political system. In Los Angeles Xi seemed keen to tell the students about the connection he had made with Americans in his 1985 visit to Iowa. “That trip to the United States was the first trip I made to this country,” he said. “If anything, my trip back to Muscatine the other day reinforced my impressions of 27 years ago.” But Mr. Xi may be engaging in mythmaking. Nicholas Platt, a senior American diplomat, told the New York Times that Mr. Xi had visited Washington in 1980 as part of a delegation led by Geng Biao, a top Chinese general. Mr. Xi was the general’s aide. “He wasn’t on protocol lists,” said Mr. Platt, who organized the general’s visit. “To the best of my knowledge, based on a reliable source, that was his first trip to the U.S.” Jin Zhong, a magazine editor in Hong Kong who has researched Mr. Xi, also said in an earlier interview that Mr. Xi had traveled with General Geng to Washington in 1980.

Image Sources: China.org, Wikimedia Commons, White House

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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