Meet Xi Jinping, China’s new, possibly friendlier, leader

Photo: Pool/Getty Images/Jay L. Clendenin
Photo: Pool/Getty Images/Jay L. Clendenin

China unveiled its new leadership Thursday, officially naming Vice President Xi Jinping as the seventh leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

China has often been the center of political debate in America, as both Democrats and Republicans often use their opposing party’s relationship with China as a point of criticism. During the presidential debate on foreign policy in October, both President Obama and Mitt Romney took repeated swipes at China, which angered Chinese officials.

Whether Xi’s leadership will have a positive or negative impact on Sino-American relations in the long-term has yet to be determined. “It could go both ways,”  said Scott Kennedy, associate professor and director of the Research Center for Chinese Politics & Business at Indiana University.

Kennedy noted that Xi’s “willinginess to be more open and direct, and not just read off of talking points” could prove to be a refreshing change from the previous “robotic” mannerisms of Hu Jintao.

“Building mutual trust has been a key goal of administrations that have dealt with China, and that’s not easy when the person on the other side of the table is playing things so close to the vest,” Kennedy said.

Previous leader Hu Jintao stepped down Wednesday after a decade as president, saying in a closing statement that the party’s congress had “replaced older leaders with younger ones” and made decisions of “far-reaching historical significance.” Xi, whom Vice President Joe Biden once described as “totally engaging” (the opposite of Hu), has been Hu’s designated successor for five years.

Xi last visited the United States back in February on a five-day tour in preparation to lead the Communist Party, and he told business leaders in Washington that an amicable relationship between China and the U.S. was not impossible and that the two countries would not end any sort of friendship. ”On the contrary, [the relationship] will open wider and wider,” he said.

Xi’s ties to the United States date back to the 1980s when he briefly worked on an Iowa farm, he also has a daughter who attends Harvard University.

Kennedy added that Xi’s need to assert his authority in the beginning of his term could add to global tensions. “China has longstanding disagreements with its neighbors over territorial disputes that has become more public. He will need to manage popular opinion of those issues, so that might lead the Chinese to be more assertive and less compromising on those issues than we like,” he said.

Xi is a Communist Party “princeling,” the son of a former revolutionary hero who served alongside Mao Zedong. His appointment comes at a critical period of transition for China, as the country seeks to sustain its role as a major player in the global economy. Under Hu Jintao, China experienced a decade of economic growth and development, but there are difficulties moving forward.

“China absorbed all of the challenges required to get them into the World Trade Organization, became the world’s factory floor, which resulted in rapid economic growth and the improvement of many lives of Chinese,” Kennedy said.

“But that economic model is wearing and showing its problems. China can’t depend going forward on simply throwing money and more workers at that problem. They need to have a much more efficient economy where they move up the value-added chain, and that means having a more open education system that promotes creativity, a stronger health care system, and greater openness to trade and investment.”

Meet Xi Jinping, China's new, possibly friendlier, leader