Who Is Xi Jinping? Future Chinese Leader Makes U.S. Debut

By ABC News

Feb 14, 2012 9:13am

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News Analysis by ABC News’ Beijing Bureau:

China’s vice president and future leader Xi Jinping will meet with President Obama today, nearly 40 years to the day after President Nixon arrived in Beijing to radically reshape relations between the two nations.  Xi is in the U.S. for a week’s worth of meetings in Washington, Muscatine, Iowa, and Los Angeles.  

Xi and Obama have some things in common. Xi’s daughter, Xi Mingxe, is a sophomore at Harvard, Obama’s alma mater. Obama is a basketball fan, and word is Xi hopes to catch a Clippers game Friday in L.A., but it is not yet on his official schedule.

Xi is also a fan of American movies, particularly World War II epics such as “Saving Private Ryan” and the gangster film “The Departed.”

Nevertheless, no one expects this visit to be a real game changer.  Instead, this is Xi’s debut as a world leader, and an indication of how China increasingly sees itself on the world stage, according to experts on China-U.S. relations.

The timing — and just about everything else about Xi’s visit — is being carefully orchestrated.  It comes just before China undergoes a massive, once-a-decade leadership change.  Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, made a similar trip in 2002, just before he took over.  Xi Jinping (prounounced Shee Jin Ping) is scheduled to replace Hu Jintao as general secretary of the Communist Party this spring and as president of the People’s Republic in 2013.

As for the U.S.?  The administration has a long list of  topics to discuss with Xi, everything from trade, to the military, to human rights, according to Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

There is also the issue of two American citizens currently detained in China.  Dr. Xue Feng is a geologist serving an eight year prison sentence for purportedly selling state secrets.  Hu Zhicheng, a businessman, is blocked from leaving China under similar accusations.  Obama raised the issue of Feng’s imprisonment when he came to China in 2009 to no avail.  

On this trip, China is not expected to agree to a single request.  That’s expected to be frustrating for the U.S., but symbolic of an increasingly confident China, say long time political observers in China.

Xi embodies both that confidence and a shift; the world hasn’t seen a leader like him in China before.

At 58, Xi is of a generation that came of age at a time when China was no longer receiving major aid from the U.S.  His predecessors grew up during an era, going back to World War II, in which many Chinese could not imagine life without U.S. assistance.  But Xi was just 24 in 1978, the dawn of China’s transformation from a closed, communist economy to the international powerhouse that it is today.  Many Chinese in his generation hold respect for the U.S. but no longer feel as indebted nor, perhaps, as grateful.

Perhaps the most sensitive subject expected to be discussed during Xi’s official visit is the so-called “pivot,” the administration’s intention to bolster security in the Asia-Pacific. The region is a top priority in Obama’s new defense strategy.  The shift comes amidst growing concern over China’s strategic goals and potential effort to reduce U.S. capabilities in the Far East.  But many Chinese see it as nothing more than an effort to contain China.

Still, China is not looking for a fight.  Domestic stability, and the flow of American dollars (to keep purchasing Chinese goods), are key to maintaining China’s economic growth.

The trip marks a return to familiar territory and fond memories for Xi.  He will spend time in Muscatine, Iowa (the “pearl of the Mississippi” and former home to Mark Twain).  In 1985, he traveled to Muscatine to study advanced hog raising techniques and spent two nights with an Iowa family.

While it may be his official “U.S. debut,” what we do know about Xi plays well in China.  He grew up the son of an influential politician.  His family enjoyed the privileges of the elite until his father had a falling out with Chairman Mao and went to prison. As a result, at the formative age of 15, Xi left his life of urban comfort and was sent to the countryside for re-education as part of the Cultural Revolution.

He spent seven years living in a cave and working the land. Many Xi observers in China say this lead to a personal transformation.  During this time he learned to work well with the local community, despite radically different backgrounds and, at times, ideologies.  This would prove to be an enduring, and valuable, trait put to use during his early career in the military and subsequent shift to politics.   

Although a U.S. Embassy memo, made public via Wikileaks, referred to him as “redder than red,”  within China he’s known as more of a centrist than a fervent Maoist.

His visit comes following U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to China last summer, and ahead of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s visit this spring.  By then, Xi will be the head of the Communist Party.

Outside of his professional biography, what is known of his personal life is rather colorful as compared to leaders past. Xi is married to the famous folk singer Peng Liyuan (although while the two were dating he reportedly told her he didn’t know any of her songs because he doesn’t watch much TV). 

ABC News’ Devin Dwyer contributed to this report

 

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