Xi’s elite background plugged him into to a web of personal connections that were especially important early in his career, ensuring support from Beijing for local projects. As party leader, Xi should easily command the respect of officials and the military, in part because of deference to his father’s status.
At the same time, Xi’s years in the provinces protect him from accusations of pure nepotism and lend him credibility as someone who understands the struggles of working Chinese and private businessmen who are creating the bulk of new jobs. With help from his father, Xi moved in 1985 to a vice mayor position in the port of Xiamen, then at the forefront of economic reforms. Over the next 17 years, he built a reputation for attracting investment and eschewing the banqueting expected of Chinese officials. He hung a banner saying “Get it done” in a provincial office lobby.
He later took the top position in neighboring Zhejiang Province, a hotbed of private industry with a lively civil society and non-communist candidates for local assemblies, as well as a thriving underground church movement. Xi was seen as allowing minor local administrative reforms, while not initiating any of them.
“He’s not going to do anything to weaken party control, but at least you can say he’s concerned with the lives of farmers and ordinary people,” said Li Baiguang (李柏光), a human rights lawyer in Zhejiang at the time.
Xi tried to dramatically reverse the government’s poor reputation for accountability by clearing a backlog of citizen complaints in a one-day blitz in the city of Quzhou. He set up 15 temporary offices to address complaints over land seizures, job benefits and other issues, drawing 300 petitioners and resolving 70 cases.
Former US Treasury secretary Henry Paulson once called him a “guy who really knows how to get over the goal line.”
After a brief spell in charge of Shanghai, Xi was brought to Beijing and handed the high-profile task of overseeing the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He is also in charge of managing relations with the former British colony of Hong Kong. Some evidence of a strong nationalist streak emerged last month when he lectured US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on China’s claim to East China Sea islands administered by Japan.
“China’s neighbors, including the US, should be prepared to see a Chinese government under Xi being more assertive than that under Hu,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Research Institute at Britain’s University of Nottingham.
Xi’s career has been lent a touch of glamor by his wife, folk singer Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛), who for much of their marriage was far better known than he was. Although Xi is not known to have visited his daughter at Harvard, Xi Mingze’s (習明澤) education adds to his unusually rich exposure to the US, having made up to half-a-dozen trips to the country.
Xi Jinping, who likes the Hollywood film Saving Private Ryan, showed a human side during his official visit to the US earlier this year. He took in a Los Angeles Lakers game and stopped in Iowa to visit families who hosted him during a study tour there in 1985. Asked by California schoolchildren about his hobbies, Xi listed reading, swimming and watching sports, but said to laughter that finding more personal time was “mission impossible.”