Why you should care

Because the leader of one-fifth of the world’s people and of its largest fighting force deserves a little of your time.

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President Obama should’ve been the star of the show at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in Bali this week. But with Obama at home dealing with a prolonged government shutdown, another world leader has stepped to the forefront, China’s Xi Jinping. The APEC group photo says it all: There’s Xi, standing in the center next to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In many ways, Xi Jinping (pronounced SHEE jin-PING) is the perfect leader for modern China, a country straddling multiple identities — between communism and capitalism, multilateralism and isolation. Like the country he leads, the 59-year-old, who was elected president by the country’s National People’s Congress to a 10-year term in March by a whopping 2,952 to 1 vote, is enigmatic to say the least.

For many in China and abroad, Xi signifies a mere continuation of the old guard and a doubling down on its economic and social policies. His father was one of the founders of the Communist Party and rose to be a vice premier, and young Xi — often known as a “princeling” for his esteemed heritage — grew up in the elite Beijing neighborhood of Zhongnanhai, his father’s vast political connections aiding his rise to power.

But others see a far different Xi Jinping, someone they think (or at least hope) can usher in a new era of modernization in China. They see an affable, beer-drinking six-footer who is married to a rock star — literally. China’s first lady is Peng Liyuan, the fashionable and beloved People’s Liberation Army (PLA) singer who also happens to be a major general. They also see a leader who has some experience with Western ways, from his first visit to Muscatine, Iowa, in 1985 as a member of a visiting agricultural commission to having a daughter enrolled at Harvard (under a pseudonym).

Those finding a liberal side to Xi point to the fact that his illustrious father (a reformer who later criticized the regime for its response to Tiananmen Square) fell from grace with Mao Zeodong when Xi was only 9. Because of the family’s diminished status, Xi, who would later earn a chemical engineering degree at the prestigious Tsinghua University, spent seven years in a remote Chinese province living in a cave house and working alongside its rural poor. He once told a Chinese magazine about how he struggled with the loneliness, the labor, and the fleas during this period in his life, remarking that he “ate a lot more bitterness than most people.”

Despite his lengthy government career, Xi has kept his nose clean — during a time when most other prominent Chinese politicians were getting much more than that dirty. Perhaps, though, Xi’s greatest feature is his poker face. Even the U.S. ambassador Gary Locke recently admitted that American officials “really don’t know that much about him” other than that he is “very personable.”

China's President Xi Jinping (L) and his wife Peng Liyuan (R) arrive at Ngurah Rai Airport in Denpasar on Indonesia's resort island of Bali on October 5, 2013.

China’s President Xi Jinping (L) and his wife Peng Liyuan (R) arrive at Ngurah Rai Airport in Denpasar on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali on October 5, 2013.

Xi, not unlike a Western politician, has emphasized “a great rejuvenation” of the “China Dream.”

But reading the tea leaves coming out of Beijing is not easy. Will China’s challenging of the “arrogant” tech heavyweight Apple regarding its allegedly anti-Chinese warranty policies signal a more combative stance with Western businesses? Will this mean a closer alliance with Russia, with whom China recently signed a series of energy deals that may pave the way for massive oil and gas pipelines connecting the two powers? And will that economic alliance lead to a strategic one?

At home, Xi, not unlike a Western politician, has emphasized “a great rejuvenation” of the “China Dream” and focused on bridging the gap between what might be called the two Chinas, the poor rural one and the wealthy urban one. Is this just rhetoric, a plea for increased nationalism or the start of a fundamental reorganization of economic and political power in China?

Scholar Robert Lawrence Kuhn, author of How China’s Leaders Think and someone who has met Xi repeatedly, considers such nationalistic political speech as necessary cover for significant internal reforms. “It inoculates him against internal criticism,” claims Khun, “that he is too liberal or too soft on America, because that’s what [previous leaders] were said to be when they pursued economic reforms.”

But perhaps this is not just a cover. According to a recent Washington Post story, lately Xi has been ”behaving like a leader more interested in consolidating his power and ensuring the survival of an authoritarian system than in adopting significant political reforms.”

Perhaps the real question though is whether all this talk of the China dream and revitalization will awaken sections of Chinese society that Xi and his party would prefer to remain asleep. If you thought the Arab Spring in 2011 was momentous, just imagine what a Chinese Summer might look like a decade from now. Thus far, all signs suggest that this kind of “rejuvenation” will not occur under Xi Jinping’s watch.

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