Xi Jinping is named China's vice chairman of the central military… (Kazuhiro Nogi, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Beijing — Unless something goes badly wrong for Xi Jinping over the next two years, it looks like a fait accompli that the 57-year-old Communist Party official, who has been groomed his entire career for leadership, will be China's next president.
At the end of a four-day meeting of the party's Central Committee on Monday, Xi was named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, a position overseeing the People's Liberation Army that is considered a steppingstone for assuming the leadership. Hu Jintao was given the same post in 1999, three years before he became secretary-general of the Communist Party. Hu became president in 2003.
"It looks like the case is closed. Based on today's announcement, he'll be the next leader," said Jin Zhong, editor of Hong Kong-based Open Magazine and an analyst of the Communist Party.
Like many in the younger generation of Chinese leaders, Xi is a "princeling'' — the son of a pro-reform official, Xi Zhongxun, who was purged in the early 1960s after a falling-out with Mao Tse-tung. At 15, Xi Jinping was sent off to the countryside, assigned to a rural commune in Shaanxi province where people lived in caves and did hard manual labor, in his case, farming wheat. After the Cultural Revolution, Xi was permitted to resume his education, studying chemical engineering at Beijing's prestigious Qinghua University. He later received a law degree.
Xi rose through the party, serving in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces and in Shanghai, where he was party chief. He earned a reputation for being tough on corruption and friendly toward business, even foreign businesses. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, former head of investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc., once called Xi "a guy who really knows how to get over the goal line.''
Others have described Xi, a large man who has at times struggled with his weight, as unusually personable. "He's extremely warm. He has none of the airs of an official who's impressed with himself,'' said Robert Lawrence Kuhn, who interviewed Xi for a book about the Chinese leadership, "How Chinese Leaders Think." Xi is married to a famous Chinese folk singer, Peng Liyuan.
The party's internal deliberations about the leadership are secret, although it has been widely reported that Xi won a straw poll among party officials in 2007 as the favored candidate of the so-called fifth generation of Chinese leaders.
"He is a safe choice. The party didn't want uncertainty," said Liu Junning, a political scientist based in Beijing. Liu said that Xi's views on sensitive issues — such as whether China should open up for political reform — remain largely unknown since he had not tended to put himself on the line. "I would be surprised though over time to see him become a reformer.''
Hu Jintao is due to retire as party secretary in 2012. Xi, if selected to replace him, would probably assume the presidency the following year.