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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