Contrary to what we want to believe, the most powerful man in the world is not Barack Obama, but China’s Xi Jinping.
He is in charge of probably the biggest political party in the world. And next year he will head the world’s biggest economy (in terms of purchasing power parity). He will soon take over as chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, and be in charge of the world’s fastest-expanding armed forces (the military budget is a well-kept secret).
While the world is expecting him to reform, it seems he is unlikely to steer the country in the democratic direction soon. This is despite his soon-to-be predecessor Hu Jintao having uttered the word “democracy” dozens of times in his penultimate speech at the party congress in 2007.
But Xi – contrary to my hopes – will not change the country and the party’s current political traction, especially in the face of a sluggish economy and the agitated poor.
A Chinese diplomat once told me that their leaders were guided by “patience” and “caution”. Xi will therefore rely on the party’s painstakingly circumspect analysis of the world.
Xi, the son of a revolutionary, is still an enigma, and the world media rely on his tightly controlled and carefully scripted official resumé.
Unlike his predecessors, Hu and Jiang Zenim, he won’t find it difficult to take charge of the military, the crucial source of power in China.
Xi’s CV on the government website states he was secretary at the general office of the state council and general office of the Central Military Commission between 1979 and 1982, with the Wall Street Journal last year also affirming that his power base was in the military.
The party’s central committee plenum, probably the most influential organ, affirmed him in October 2010 as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Traditionally, there is a two-centre of power transitional period (often two years) before the new party boss takes over as chairman of the commission. But Xi is most likely to take over soonest. This will be Xi’s real power. But the world is likely to know him through his presidency of the country next year.
The Guardian claimed that Xi has a reputation as a conciliator, while The New York Times described him as an ideologue who rarely deviates from the party script. He neither accepted interviews nor took questions from the media when he visited South Africa in 2010.
The Washington Post in 2010 said he was more likely to be “cautious and bureaucratic” and preferred the collective. But that’s the character of Chinese leaders, who can appear prickly and prefer to ratchet up jingoism.
Xi was quoted in 2009 in Mexico as having said that “foreigners with full bellies have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country”.
The Christian Science Monitor says Xi is an “efficient administrator and skilled consensus builder”. South Africa witnessed this efficiency when he was here. According to a senior South African official, Xi kept every promise he made. In some cases, he was frustrated by our bureaucracy.
He has studied engineering, a career mostly followed by his predecessors and other Chinese leaders, according to the Foreign Policy journal.