Ten Questions for China’s Heir Presumptive

David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs; Director of the China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

February 10, 2012

The visit by China’s vice president, Xi Jinping, to Washington this coming week offers a unique opportunity to take the measure of the man who will lead China for the next decade.

While Xi has traveled the world since being anointed Hu Jintao’s designated successor in 2007, he has not been to the United States during this grooming period (he did visit earlier as a provincial official).

This will be a good opportunity for Xi to familiarize himself with America and vice versa. As he is not well known outside of China and enigmatic even inside the country, observers will be looking for clues to Xi’s domestic and international orientation.

Here are 10 questions China watchers would like to know about Xi Jinping:

1. Will Xi return to a politically reformist path for the Chinese Communist Party?

Since late 2009, the party has retrenched significantly — halting and rolling back reforms by Xi’s predecessor, Zeng Qinghong. Can Xi stand up to the powerful conservative institutions that have blocked reforms — the state security apparatus, the military, the party propaganda system and large state-owned enterprises — or will he be beholden to them, as Hu Jintao has been? Will reformers such as Li Yuanchao, Wang Yang, Bo Xilai, Wang Huning and Liu Yandong be promoted to top Politburo positions along with Xi at the 18th Party Congress in October?
2. Can Xi and the next prime minister (the contenders are reportedly Vice Prime Ministers Li Keqiang and Wang Qishan) turn the rhetoric of economic “rebalancing” into reality?

Many official speeches have been made over the past two years calling for a reorientation of the economy away from the export sector and the coastal regions to domestic consumption and the interior as the basis for a new and more sustainable growth model for China. To date the reality of investment has not matched the rhetoric.

3. Will Xi be able to devise a more humane policy toward Tibet and Xinjiang, where ethnic unrest has steadily risen since 2008 and has spiked in recent weeks?

Government security forces have responded with a heavy hand, resulting in loss of life and heightened instability. A new, softer approach is needed. But will Xi have the political strength to stand up to the repressive apparatus and put in place conditions for a more stable coexistence between restive ethnic groups and the Chinese state?

4. Can Xi and the party apparatus reign in the nationalism that is pushing the government to take extreme positions on territorial disputes with China’s neighbors, to “stand up” to the United States and behave aggressively internationally?

5. Will Xi be sufficiently confident to all the relaxation of tightened controls on mainstream media, social media, the Internet and educational institutions?

6. Can Xi rein in the military, which has demonstrated a worrisome tendency in recent years to undertake actions that provoke China’s neighbors and, seemingly, act independently of civilian party control?

7. Will Xi authorize a foreign policy that is more about substance than rhetoric?

China’s diplomatic platitudes have become increasingly incredulous in a dangerous world where real action is needed from Beijing. One hopeful indicator in this regard is a speech Xi gave at the Central Party School in late 2009, in which he explicitly criticized the pervasive tendency toward sloganeering in domestic and foreign policy, arguing that slogans needed to be replaced by substance and hard work.

8. How will Xi handle the growing discontent across Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America over China’s rapacious and mercantilist energy, aid and trade policies?

9. Will Xi and the Chinese government begin to take more active and less passive, more supportive and less obstructionist, roles in global governance? Will China continue to stand with Russia in the United Nations Security Council against the will of the majority of other nations on issues like Syria and Iran — and become part of the solution instead of part of the problem?

10. Will Xi have the strategic foresight to invest in advancing the relationship with the United States?

There is no more important relationship for either country in the world today, yet strategic mistrust permeates the current relationship. Advancing the relationship requires the active engagement of China’s next leader — and the American president — to build strategic trust between the two great nations.

As Xi’s visit is not likely to provide answers to these 10 questions, time will tell if he is a “transformational” leader who embraces and shapes positive changes for China at home and abroad, or whether he is another risk-averse apparatchik.