BEIJING — Xi Jinping succeeded Hu Jintao as China’s leader on Thursday, assuming the top posts in the Communist Party and the powerful military in a once-a-decade political transition unbowed by scandals, a slower economy and public demands for reforms.
Xi was formally appointed as general secretary after a meeting of senior Communists that capped a weeklong congress, events that underlined the party’s determination to remain firmly in power. Xi also was appointed chairman of the military commission after Hu stepped down, breaking with the recent tradition in which departing party leaders hung on to the military post to exert influence over their successors.
In his travels abroad, Xi has often been something unusual for a Chinese communist leader: an ordinary guy.
In Ireland, he stopped at a stadium to kick a soccer ball around. On a key getting-to-know-you visit to the U.S. Xi traveled to Iowa in February as part of his first U.S. trip. While in the state, he reunited with a group he calls the “Old Friends” in Muscatine. The trip was a reunion 27 years after Xi met Iowa farmers and business leaders during a diplomatic exchange to Muscatine.
Gov. Terry Branstad and a group of about 15 Muscatine residents also traveled to China in late May and early June to participate in a reunion banquet with Xi.
And even today in the Great Hall of the People, when he was introduced as the Chinese Communist Party’s new secretary general, the most powerful man in the world’s most populous nation showed some humility. He apologized to the media for running 45 minutes late.
Xi has an ease and affability that have been lacking from China’s leader of the last 10 years, Hu Jintao, though it’s unclear whether that will make him a stronger force for change. He is first among equals in Beijing’s new seven-member collective leadership.
“It’s the people who have created history, and it is the people who are true heroes. The people are the source of our strength,” Xi told reporters packed into a meeting room at the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.
Tall, heavyset and married to a popular folk singer in the military, Xi’s demeanor contrasts with China’s typically stiff and aloof leaders.
“He’s someone who you can connect with,” former U.S. ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman said.
A Xi administration is expected to pursue a more forceful foreign policy based on Beijing’s belief that its chief rival, Washington, is in decline and that China’s rise to global pre-eminence is within reach.
“Xi was chosen in part because he has the large, assertive, confident personality to lead in that kind of strategy,” said Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese politics at New York’s Columbia University.
It is in the nature of China’s politics that relatively little is known about Xi’s policy leanings. He is not associated with any bold reforms. Aspiring officials get promoted by encouraging economic growth, tamping down social unrest and toeing the line set by Beijing, not through charismatic displays of initiative.
Xi has excelled at quietly rising through the ranks by making the most of two facets: He has an elite, educated background with links to communist China’s founding fathers that are a crucial advantage in the country’s politics, and at the same time he has successfully cultivated a common-man mystique that helps him appeal to a broad constituency.
He was sent to a rural hinterland at age 15 to learn peasant virtues after his father fell out of favor with Mao Zedong. At first he tried to escape, but was detained.
His seven years in the remote northern community of Liangjiahe meant toiling alongside villagers by day and sleeping on bricks by night, in stark contrast to his pampered early years in Beijing. He spent much of his youth living in a dug-out cave.
“Knives are sharpened on the stone. People are refined through hardship,” Xi said in a rare 2001 interview with a Chinese magazine. “Whenever I later encountered trouble, I’d just think of how hard it had been to get things done back then and nothing would then seem difficult.”
Rejected for Communist Party membership nine times due to his father’s political problems, Xi finally gained entry in 1974 and then attended the elite Tsinghua University.
Xi went on to earn a chemistry degree, by which time Mao had died and his father had been restored to office. Xi next secured a plum position as secretary to Defense Minister Geng Biao, one of his father’s old comrades.
But Xi took the unusual step three years later of jumping to a lowly post in rural Hebei province, because he wanted to “struggle, work hard, and really take on something big,” Xi told Elite Youth magazine’s now-deceased editor Yang Xiaohuai.
Xi landed in the rural town of Zhengding, where people traveled by horse cart.
While there, he made the most of state broadcaster China Central Television’s plans to film an adaptation of the classical Chinese novel “Dream of Red Mansions.” Hoping to create a tourist attraction, Xi built a full-scale reproduction of the sprawling estate at the heart of the tale.
“He created lots of jobs and lots of revenue for Zhengding back when there was very little here,” said Liang Qiang, a senior caretaker at the film set, which still draws tourists.
Xi’s elite background plugged him into a web of personal connections that were especially important early in his career, ensuring support from Beijing for local projects. At the same time, his 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.
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With help from his father, Xi jumped in 1985 to a vice mayorship 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, a lively civil society, non-communist candidates for local assemblies and 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 the least you can say he’s concerned with the lives of farmers and ordinary people,” said Li Baiguang, 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 U.S. 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 has also managed relations with the former British colony of Hong Kong.
Xi’s career has been lent a touch of glamour by his wife, folk singer Peng Liyuan, who for much of their marriage was far better known than he was. His daughter Xi Mingze studies at Harvard University.
Xi showed a human side during an official visit to the U.S. earlier this year. He took in a Los Angeles Lakers game, visited the Iowa families who hosted him back in 1985 and chatted with California school children about his hobbies and family life.
The new leader will confront daunting challenges. After two decades of fast-paced growth and social change, the economy is slowing and China is under strain. A polarizing gap has left a few wealthy and many struggling and resentful. Rampant corruption is corroding already low reserves of public trust.
Beyond home, China is locked in sharp elbowing over territory with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors. At the same time, Beijing feels hemmed in by the U.S., which is shoring up ties with countries on China’s edge.
Xi’s resume in provincial posts suggest he is open to private industry and some administrative reforms as long as they don’t jeopardize the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Some evidence of a strong nationalist streak emerged recently when he lectured U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on China’s territorial dispute with Japan.
“China’s neighbors, including the U.S., should be prepared to see a Chinese government under Xi being more assertive than that under Hu,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Police Research Institute at Britain’s University of Nottingham.