Photoseries: Xi Jinping and the West

The Wall Street Journal has published a series of photos capturing a 1980 visit to the United States by a Chinese delegation led by Xi Zhongxun, a former vice-premier and the father of president-in-waiting Xi Jinping:

The 17-day tour was designed to build on the progress made in improving relations during Deng Xiaoping’s landmark visit to the U.S. in 1979, shortly after China launched its market-oriented economic reforms and re-established diplomatic ties with the U.S.

“All of them were outspoken because they had confidence in who they were, but also because of the kind of leader Xi was,” Ms. Berris continued. “This group was one in which he provided the atmosphere that made them feel confident about asking questions and being themselves.”

The photographs are the latest evidence to emerge of the relatively strong links between Xi Jinping’s family and the West, especially compared with the man he is due to replace, Hu Jintao, who only visited the U.S. for the first time in 2002.

Xi, part of the Chinese Communist Party’s 5th generation of leaders which will take the reins during a much-publicized leadership transition expected to begin later this year, will visit the United States next week to meet as he cements his status as President Hu Jintao’s successor. Newsweek has published a profile of Xi, where it discusses his “princeling” roots and the unconventional process by which he was chosen as China’s heir-apparent:

Now, in the run-up to the 2012 transition, the party is composed of two increasingly competitive coalitions, referred to as “populists” and “elitists.” The populists, led by President Hu, rely on a powerful nationwide network of cadres in the Communist Youth League; their policies aim to ameliorate the growing gap between China’s have and have-nots, which is most pronounced in China’s impoverished western regions. Elitists are known for their free-market economic views and favoring coastal export industries; they include many “princelings” like Xi who are offspring of former high-level cadres.

The unusual nature of this rivalry was evident in the way Xi became heir apparent during the 17th Party Congress in 2007. To ensure continued political dominance by the populists, Hu had handpicked a different heir, Li Keqiang. But the elitist camp objected to Li, hoping to find a compromise candidate with greater neutrality. The choice was determined by a secret intraparty poll among grassroots and senior cadres, says political commentator Li Datong, and it turned out that Xi “got the highest vote.” (Li Keqiang wound up being tipped to become premier in the reshuffle.) It was a face-saving solution, and a unique one: Xi essentially won a popularity contest.

In some ways, Xi has been on a leadership trajectory his entire life. He was born in 1953 as a classic “princeling,” growing up as a child among the serene pavilions and heavily guarded crimson gates of Zhongnanhai, the compound where senior Chinese leaders reside. His father, former vice premier Xi Zhongxun, is best known as the architect of China’s wildly successful and quasi-capitalist “special economic zones,” launched more than three decades ago in the era of Deng Xiaoping’s market-based economic reforms. But life wasn’t without its perils for the Xi family. Xi senior was purged three times under Mao Zedong and spent 16 years in detention, much of it in solitary confinement, during the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution. (According to unconfirmed Chinese media accounts, Xi’s half-sister died during the Cultural Revolution, prompting one of the few episodes when he publicly shed tears.) Xi “recognizes the injustice and the travesty of leftist totalitarian ideology during the Cultural Revolution,” says author Robert Kuhn, who has written about China’s top leaders and has met Xi. “But you don’t see bitterness.”

The governor of Iowa, the farm state which will host Xi during one of the stops on his U.S. tour, claimed Xi’s upcoming visit is the biggest thing that’s happened to his state since the Pope visited more than 30 years ago. From AFP:

“I’d say it ranks with the Pope’s visit to Living History Farm and (Soviet premier Nikita) Khrushchev’s visit here to Iowa in 1959,” Governor Terry Branstad told reporters.

The Pope’s visit drew 350,000 people while Khrushchev’s tour of a farm in Coon Rapids, helped humanize the superpowers at the height of the Cold War.

“This one I think for the economic future of our state is even more significant,” Branstad said.