Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Xi Jinping: China's new boss a man with a dream

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
updated 4:19 AM EDT, Sat March 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Xi Jinping endorsed as Chinese president in leadership handover
  • So far Xi has taken steps to set him apart from predecessor Hu Jintao
  • Pledged that his government would "strive to achieve the Chinese dream"
  • Analyst: "He has surprising credibility and abundant political capital"

Beijing (CNN) -- Xi Jinping has taken the center stage as China's undisputed paramount leader.

The National People's Congress this week confirmed Xi as the new state president and chairman of the State Central Military Commission, making him the Communist party chief, head of state and commander-in-chief.

This completes the handover of power from Hu Jintao, 70, who ruled China for 10 years, to the 59-year-old Xi, who was announced as the country's presumptive leader last November.

READ: Xi formally elected Chinese president

Conventional wisdom had it that Xi would be a weak leader because he had not been hand-picked by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, as had Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

What's next for China's foreign policy?
China names Li Keqiang as new premier
Pomp, party politics for Xi Jinping

Pundits also predicted that Xi would need two or three years to consolidate power because Jiang and Hu, his predecessors, were "looking over his shoulder."

Xi is proving conventional wisdom wrong.

READ: From 'princeling' to president

In the past four months, Xi has taken steps to set him apart from his predecessor, signaling that change may be afoot.

He has, for example, directed officials to minimize pomp and privilege, eschew ostentatious banquets and refrain from "empty talk."

In his speech to close the National People's Congress at the weekend, Xi vowed to "always listen to the voice of the people and respond to the expectations of the people." He pledged that his government would "strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

On assuming the Party leadership last year, Xi symbolically made his first out-of-town trip not to a Maoist or revolutionary shrine, but to Shenzhen, the first laboratory of market reform which in a mere 30 years has evolved from a sleepy backwater village into a vibrant urban center.

Shenzhen is the product of Xi's late father Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary leader who served as vice premier and governor of Guangdong province. While in Guangdong the elder Xi pioneered market reforms, including the creation of Special Economic Zones, of which Shenzhen was one.

It's not clear what legacy the younger Xi will leave so early into his reign, but analysts say events in the early days of his premiership have already put him to the test.

One of Xi's first challenges came just a month after he took over as party chief. A few days after New Year, staffers of Southern Weekly, a liberal-leaning newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou staged a protest after a local propaganda official rewrote an editorial calling for stronger rule of law.

READ: Three challenges for China's new leaders

The dispute escalated with other journalists and Chinese celebrities giving protesters public support and putting pressure on Xi's new team to respect press freedom and free speech.

Days later a tentative compromise was reached, diffusing the crisis, but not all are impressed.

"The crisis ended in a kind of a draw -- no side really won," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. "The only reform in the pipeline is administrative -- the streamlining of the Chinese cabinet, positive results likely but inconclusive."

Beyond a new way of speaking and a better ability to communicate and create empathy, Xi has not yet spelled out new policies or reforms
Jean-Pierre Cabestan

Cabestan acknowledges Xi's new style but wonders if he brings new substance.

"Beyond a new way of speaking and a better ability to communicate and create empathy, Xi has not yet spelled out new policies or reforms," Cabestan said.

"He has indicated a willingness to deepen the fight against corruption and waste but by relying on the same institutions and methods. He has deepened China's foreign policy assertiveness but not really modified its modus operandi -- so it's old wine in a new bottle!"

Some National People's Congress delegates I interviewed inside the Great Hall of the People are more sanguine.

"He rose up from county chief to the top, step by step," delegate Cai Shijie told me. "Even before he became number one, he knew what's going on in our society, the ordinary people's disappointments and aspirations. He knows what needs to be done to meet people's expectations."

Cai is the CEO of Xin Chang'an Group, a private pharmaceutical company based in Xi'an. He hopes Xi's team can boost the private sector.

"Private enterprises generate jobs but we find it difficult to get loans," he explained. "State-owned enterprises enjoy monopoly and have easier access to capital and resources so they make easy profits. We need equal treatment."

Huang Youyi, a senior editor in a state-run publishing house, likes Xi's background. "Xi is of my age, he also spent years in the countryside as an educated youth, just like me," he said. "At least he knows the real situation then and now."

And Xi's new team? "It's a team of doers," Huang added. "They are quite confident but they also face huge challenges."

Many challenges demand urgent solutions: a slowdown in economic growth, rising joblessness, growing rich-poor divide, rampant corruption, environmental and pollution problems, public discontent and sharp social tension.

On top of these, Xi has to manage a rising China and a surge in nationalism that is pushing China in confrontation with Japan and other neighbors.

All these are causing political, social and economic tensions.

Xi cannot afford put big decisions on hold, analysts said.

"The rising tide of mass resentment, emboldened by social media and ubiquitous communications, and the political scandals of 2012, all combined with Xi's sense and vision to give him a power surge," said China-watcher Robert Lawrence Kuhn.

"He has surprising credibility and abundant political capital. If he is serious about tackling China's entrenched problems, he will need to spend that political capital."

How Xi handle these issues will set the tone for China's 1.3 billion people -- and for the entire world.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:09 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, set off a media kerfuffle this month when he spoke about his next reincarnation.
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
China has no wine-making tradition but the country now uncorks more bottles of red than any other.
updated 5:29 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
updated 1:38 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
updated 1:45 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Reforms to the grueling gaokao - the competitive college entrance examination - don't make the grade, says educator Jiang Xueqin.
updated 8:18 AM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
Beijing grapples with reports from Iraq that a Chinese national fighting for ISIS has been captured.
updated 10:00 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
CNN's David McKenzie has tasted everything from worms to grasshoppers while on the road; China's cockroaches are his latest culinary adventure.
updated 8:57 PM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
Beijing rules only candidates approved by a nominating committee can run for Hong Kong's chief executive.
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
China warns the United States to end its military surveillance flights near Chinese territory.
updated 11:12 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
China has produced elite national athletes but some argue the emphasis on winning discourages children. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports
updated 1:13 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
updated 5:08 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
updated 12:52 AM EDT, Mon August 11, 2014
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
updated 3:42 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
updated 12:10 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
updated 3:12 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
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 the Chinese president 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.
ADVERTISEMENT