Xi Jinping is tough-minded but charming


Leader in waiting:Irish people are familiar with Xi Jinping, who is due to be appointed general secretary of the Communist Party of China this week, after he made a landmark visit in February which advanced Sino-Irish relations dramatically.

When Chinese readers saw pictures of him kicking a football at Croke Park, they praised his physical energy, and said Hu Jintao, who starts to hand over the reins to Mr Xi at the party congress, would never have done that.

The man who will be China’s next top leader is a “princeling”, the son of a veteran revolutionary and a member of the elite, but he is seen as a candidate that bridges the bitterly divided factions at the top of the party.

He spent much of his youth sleeping on bricks in a cave after his father, Xi Zhongxun, who was deputy prime minister from 1959 to 1962, fell out with Mao Zedong and was banished to the countryside.

Possessed of considerable political savvy, he rose through the ranks of the party, balancing his princeling privilege with a common touch that means he is liked by the grassroots membership.

He has a daughter at Harvard and is known as a charming figure with a sharp mind. When Taoiseach Enda Kenny came to China, it was clear that he also found this charm appealing. The regard was reciprocated when Mr Kenny arrived in Beijing for talks with Mr Xi , the third time the two leaders had met, which is a phenomenal achievement.

But he can be a tough figure too. He also has a reputation as a graft-buster, having taken over as party boss in Shanghai in 2007 when his predecessor Chen Liangyu was felled in a corruption scandal.

Mr Xi earned his stripes when he deftly handled a smuggling scandal in Fujian province and presided over strong economic expansion in Zhejiang province. He also did well in managing the Olympic Games in 2008.

The jury is still out about whether he will be a reformer, though early indications are that he probably will try to introduce changes in how the economy functions.

Softened image

His leadership looks set to try to soften China’s image abroad, all the while staying firm on domestic political issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan.

He can certainly be direct and is much more outspoken that Mr Hu. In 2009, he rounded on China’s critics. “There are some foreigners out there with full bellies, with nothing better to do than to point their fingers at us. Firstly, China does not export revolution. Secondly, it does not export famine and poverty. Thirdly, it doesn’t cause you any trouble. What more do you want?”

The party has been riven by tensions over purged former rising star Bo Xilai, and he will have to oversee efforts to kickstart the flagging economy. There are international issues to be dealt with too, including a major flare-up with Japan over a chain of remote islands which both Tokyo and Beijing claim as their own.

And there will always be the question about what really happened when he disappeared for a fortnight in September. An injured back? An assassination attempt? We’ll never know, though it was serious enough to force Mr Xi to cancel meetings with the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.