A First Season Recap of China's Still-New Leader

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: China, Xi Jinping

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California-Irvine and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, an updated edition of which, with contributions by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

Twelve months ago, Xi Jinping became part of a Chinese leadership lineage that began with Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng, and Deng Xiaoping and includes Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. So this seems a good time to sum-up some things we’ve learned about him and discovered or re-learned about the opaque world of Chinese elite politics since last November.

We knew only scattered facts about the president before his rise, such as that he had held a variety of important government posts, including briefly serving as party secretary of Shanghai, had visited the United States in 1985, and was the son of Xi Zhongxun (1913-2002). This last fact shaped a lot of speculation, since the elder Xi had been part of the Communist Party before 1949, held high positions early in the Mao years (1949-1976), been purged during the Cultural Revolution, rehabilitated under Deng’s watch, and aligned himself with liberal rather than hardline factions toward the end of his life. Those skeptical early on about the likelihood of the younger Xi moving in bold liberalizing directions tended to emphasize that, as a “princeling” (a descendent of an important early revolutionary), he would want to preserve the status quo, while those who expected him to be more progressive tended to focus on things like the positions his father took as a party elder.

Now, while there is still plenty of room for speculation and counter-speculation, we have more to go on. Enough, at least, to, in the time-honored tradition of bloggers everywhere (and, of course, The Late Show With David Letterman), offer up a Xi Jinping’s First Year Top 10 List. In it, I’ll emphasize comparisons, contrasts, and connections between China’s past and present and between China and the U.S. Some points will be obvious, while others may strike—at least non-specialists—as surprising....

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