Skip to main content

China's mystery man faces struggle at home and abroad

By Stan Grant, CNN
updated 12:00 AM EST, Tue November 6, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China preparing to bring in its next generation of leaders at its party congress
  • Mike Chinoy: Xi Jinping is in many ways an unknown commodity
  • Modern Chinese Communist Party is run by a small collective
  • Xi will face slowing economy, internal friction and regional disputes

Beijing (CNN) -- Xi Jinping is a mystery. So much so that the presumed leader-in-waiting of the world's most populous nation could vanish for more than a week without any explanation being given.

In September this year, Xi disappeared. It sparked a flurry of rumors: he'd had a heart attack, suffered a stroke, was injured swimming, and had even gone on strike.

Xi eventually re-appeared and normal transmission was resumed. But should we be so surprised? Barely an analyst I've spoken to can say they really know him, or what type of leader he would be.

Mike Chinoy, a former CNN correspondent and now a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's U.S-China Institute, has seen China's leaders come and go but concedes Xi is difficult to read.

"Xi Jinping is in many ways an unknown commodity. He's risen to the top of the Chinese system by being very careful not to disclose what he really thinks," Chinoy said.

CNNMoney: Economy key to China's transition

China: U.S. election scapegoat?
On China: Xi Jinping
China to maintain economic momentum?
On China: Bo Xilai
Retracing Chen Guangcheng's escape

But this is not an era characterized by leaders such as Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping, Chinoy added. The China of the 21st century has no supreme leader. The modern Chinese Communist Party is run by a small collective, the nine members of Politburo Standing Committee of which Xi is expected to be the next leader.

Read: Who are China's next leaders?

This is an opaque system. It is a transition worked out behind doors -- nothing is left to chance and little is revealed to the Chinese people.

As the United States prepares to elect its next president this week, a very different, more selective "democracy" is taking place in China. The 18th Communist Party Congress will come together on November 8 to chart a new course for the country, say farewell to the old leadership and usher in a new generation.

More than 2,200 delegates from across China will gather for the Congress, and they in turn select the 200 plus members of the party's Central Committee, who in turn appoint the Politburo and ultimately the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee -- the country's decision makers. But most, if not all, of the outcomes are predetermined.

Read: 'One party, two coalitions'

The Congress itself meets every five years. It is designed to assess the country's progress, and set new directions. Every ten years it selects the new leadership.

This year the legacy of the Hu Jintao years is under the microscope. Under President Hu and his Premier, Wen Jiabao, China's economy has continued to grow, lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty.

China is now entrenched as the world's second biggest economy and closing fast on the United States. But there are disappointments, and Hu's much vaunted "harmonious society" is showing signs of cracking.

"These ten years without them accomplishing anything but following old customs without innovation can even be described as political backwardness. It could be seen as a mark of shame in Communist Party history," said Zhang Ming, an analyst from China's Renmin University.

Historian Zhang Lifan is even more devastating in his assessment. He believes the very future of the party itself is at risk.

I once told someone in the party, 'if your party is to fail one day, when they look for the reason of their failure, this period would be a main part.'
Zhang Lifun, historian

"I once told someone in the party, 'if your party is to fail one day, when they look for the reason of their failure, this period would be a main part,'" he said.

Certainly it has been a tumultuous year. The veil of secrecy around the party itself has been lifted, with reports of rifts and infighting. The purge of party power broker, Bo Xilai, sparked China's biggest political scandal in decades.

Read: Bo Xilai under criminal investigation

Bo, once party chief of the massive metropolis of Chongqing, is now in disgrace awaiting trial. His wife, Gu Kailai, is in prison, convicted of murdering a British business associate.

The case of human rights campaigner Chen Guangcheng made global headlines. The blind activist escaped house arrest and took refuge in the U.S Embassy in Beijing, before fleeing to America where he now lives with his family.

China is treading many fault lines: a widening gap between rich and poor, rising unrest about everything from pollution to land seizures, and a slowing economy that some say is in need of serious reform.

Read: Economy central for China's new leadership

To some China watchers, Xi is going to need to be a traitor to his own class if he is to succeed. Critics say the party and China's elite have lost touch with the people and are facing a crisis of legitimacy. But others warn against looking to Xi for radical change -- as first and foremost he is a son of the party.

"He is part of a consensus to keep the Communist Party as the only ruling party. Any so-called liberty must only be on the condition of the survival of a one-party dictatorship," said historian Zhang.

What happens in China no longer stays in China. In a world still mired in economic crisis, China is an engine of growth. As the Chinese economy slows, alarm bells sound.

China is also rattling nations in its own region. Territorial disputes with the likes of Japan and the Philippines have made China's neighbors nervous.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is pivoting its geo-strategic policy away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to east Asia, strengthening key alliances and even boosting its military presence in the region -- much to the consternation of Beijing.

Internal strife and external tensions -- this is the China that Xi stands to inherit. Kevin Rudd, a former Australian Prime Minister and once a diplomat in Beijing, has met Xi and says he is a man "you can do business with."

Yet Xi remains largely unknowable, a man who could disappear without explanation.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
updated 10:30 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
updated 2:31 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
updated 12:14 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
updated 12:37 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
updated 2:56 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
updated 4:36 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
updated 11:34 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
updated 2:38 AM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
updated 4:12 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
updated 12:14 PM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
updated 8:13 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT