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50 People Who Matter 2010 | 4. Xi Jinping

Chinese kingpin.

The nine men at the top of Chinese politics - members of the standing committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China - have been described as small men grappling with big issues.

The generation that made the revolution is long gone and in its place are the technocrats and the relations of earlier generations: the princelings. Dressed in indistinguishable dark suits, all with dyed black hair, these men of a certain age achieved their positions through hard work, ability, good connections and a talent for not offending those who might sabotage their advance.

Xi Jinping, the 57-year-old tipped to succeed President Hu Jintao in 2012, falls into the princeling category: his father, Xi Zhongxun, was a revolutionary leader in the northern Shanxi Province. Xi Senior was imprisoned in 1962 by Mao Zedong, but re-emerged after Mao's death in 1975. With his father in political disgrace, the young Xi Jinping spent the Cultural Revolution labouring in the Shanxi countryside. When Xi the elder returned to politics to serve as governor of Guangdong Province, Xi Jinping was rescued from peasant life and, after graduating from Tsinghua University, embarked on a political career with his promotion all but guaranteed.

He served as governor of Fujian and then of Zhejiang Province at a time of rapid economic growth, and was transferred to Shanghai to serve as party chief when Hu Jintao had the incumbent, Chen Liangyu, a protégé of Jiang Zemin, purged in a high-profile corruption case. Xi himself was once thought close to the Shanghai faction and owed his early promotion to Jiang Zemin's patronage.

But when Hu Jintao overthrew the Shanghai leadership, Xi demonstrated sufficient loyalty to Hu to win preferment against the trend. In 2009, Xi was promoted to the Politburo standing committee and, in the symbolic theatre of Chinese politics, the order of his appearance on stage suggested that he was first in line for promotion when it was Hu Jintao's turn to step down. In a leadership group that values relative anonymity, the rotund Xi displays a few distinguishing characteristics. He is said, like his father, to be a relative liberal in party terms and an admirer of the late Hu Yaobang (which, if true, signifies reformist leanings).

He is married to a popular folk singer and is a frequent traveller abroad. Some younger, more progressive officials have placed their hopes in the succession of Xi, seen as business-friendly and supportive of a more sustainable model of development in China. If he does take the final step to the presidency, he will lead the world's most populous nation as it moves towards becoming the world's biggest economy. Whether China finally embraces political reform may well depend on Xi Jinping.

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This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.