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China's interregnum of boring ends with personable Xi

China's interregnum of boring ends with personable Xi


On Thursday, the seven men who will rule China for the next five to 10 years filed onto a stage at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Here are four of the most important things to know about the men shaping China's future.

They're not engineers anymore.

In 2006, each of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee had trained as an engineer; then-President Hu Jintao studied hydropower while his Premier Wen Jiabao was an expert in geology. This started to shift with the ascension in 2007 of China's new leader Xi Jinping (he studied law along with chemical engineering) and his deputy Li Keqiang (who studied law and received a Ph.D. in economics). The latest lineup features a far more diverse band of former economists, research fellows and even a journalist. Without reading too much into how career background affects leadership styles - a 2006 article comparing U.S. and Chinese leaders in Bloomberg said that "engineers strive for 'better,' while lawyers prepare for the worst" - it does mean that they bring a more varied set of experiences to the job.

China's new leader is far more personable than the last chairman.

By smiling and seeming relaxed, Xi already proved himself a far more natural presence than Hu Jintao, the faceless, stiflingly boring bureaucrat who stepped down Thursday. Hu and his interregnum of boringness was the exception rather than the rule. The despotic Mao Zedong astounded people with his charisma; the 4-foot-11 Deng Xiaoping, who ran China in the 1980s and 1990s, charmed with his smile. Even though nature bestowed Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao's predecessor as president of China, with less of an ability to appear at ease, he at least tried to be likable. If we're lucky, Xi will end the last decade's tradition of devastatingly boring speeches.

The party forgives, even if it does not forget.

Yu Zhengsheng, named the fourth-ranking member of the Standing Committee, was a rising star in the 1980s. But in 1985 his brother, formerly the director of the Beijing National Security Bureau, defected to the United States. As I wrote in an article in May, the defection not only brought down a Chinese spy in the CIA but also nearly torpedoed Yu's career. He spent the next dozen years working his way up through relatively low-level positions in the coastal province of Shandong, joining the Politburo in 2002 and replacing Xi as party secretary of Shanghai in 2007. The whereabouts of his brother are unknown; as are details about how Yu proved his loyalty after his brother "fled and betrayed the country."

We know so little about them.

In a 2009 speech in Mexico, Xi Jinping said that "some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us." He then added, "First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?" This quote has shown up dozens of times in media outlets around the world, in part because it's by far the most interesting thing Xi has said since he started appearing on the national scene in 2007.

In a 2010 interview, Bo Zhiyue of the National University of Singapore told me that the seventh-ranking man on the Standing Committee, Zhang Gaoli, was low profile, even for a Chinese leader. "In China they say if you try to stick your head out you might be a target," Bo said. It's advice that Chinese leaders - from Xi Jinping down - know very well, and that's one of the reasons they remain such a mystery.

Issac Stone Fish is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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