After the hoopla yesterday of the American Presidential election, today brings the quiet, almost secretive ascension of a new Chinese President.
China is about to get a new leader and two thirds of the country’s top decision makers will be replaced. Big news as we push harder and deeper into the Asia Century.
Today at the 18th National Congress in Beijing, 2,000 hand picked delegates representing more than 82 million members of the Chinese Communist Party, will get the show started when they select 200 people for the Central Committee.
These Central Committee members will then choose 25 members of the Politburo – the highest organ of power in China. They’ll also pick who will sit on the Politburo Standing Committee, led by the General Secretary.
That will make him the most powerful man in China.
So who is Xi and how did he get to this point?
It helps to be ”of the party” and Xi, young at 59, is certainly this. His background is fascinating and speaks to what he might bring to the job.
His father Xi Zhonxun was a revolutionary general, amongst the first generation of leaders of the Peoples Republic. He was vice premiere until he fell from grace and was thrown into jail. When he was rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution, he was appointed Governor and political commissar of the Guangdong Military region, where he began a process of economic liberalization which no doubt influenced the son.
But another influence in the young Xi’s life was his time in the Chinese countryside where he was sent during his father’s imprisonment. He said “much of my pragmatic thinking took root back then, and still exerts a constant influence on me.”
He has described the hardships he faced, and how he chose to ensure his survival by becoming, as one academic put it, “redder than red”.
When he returned to Beijing, Xi turned to the giver of all good – the communist party, and after studying chemical engineering, it appointed him to an important post with a powerful military leader. Indeed Xi’s links to and understanding of the Chinese military are said, as a result, to be far deeper than Hu’s were when he ascended to the top post.
It was as an official in the Hebei province that Xi first went on a state visit to the United States. This, presumably, gave him his love of basketball and American war movies, not to mention an appreciation of the merits of western education: his daughter studies at Harvard University.
But Xi had ambitions beyond the provinces. Next up, in 2007, was the top job in Shanghai where he “courted investors and built up business, proving willing to adopt new ideas.”
Within 6 months, he was elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee and a mere three years later he was vice chair of the central military commission.
As the man-in-charge of preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Xi won even more praise. Logistically, the Games worked smoothly. There were no riots or terrorist incidents. Xi made Beijing shine when Beijing wanted and needed to shine.
He comes to power at a time when China’s middle class is burgeoning, a great swathe of people that Australia wants to profit from. But China also faces problems – it’s at war with Taiwan, there are tensions between ideology and entrepreneurial zeal, and its relations with Washington are cautious and cool.
China of course is extremely important to Australia. It’s our largest trading partner. China accounts for 14.7% of the total trade of goods and services and takes one quarter of Australian exports.
No-one doubts that the Australian economy is heavily reliant on China’s.
Recently, Tim Harcourt, a fellow in economics at the Australian School of Business told me that the relationship is deep and growing.
“There are architects like PTW building the Water Cube (National Aquatics Centre) in Beijing or the former Ansett employees at ASC setting up flight monitoring systems at Chinese airports or the Australian aquarium building company (OCEANIS), which is creating Shanghai’s first marine park,” said Harcourt.
“I think ties are expanding and deepening. The figure I see is that of small and medium sized (Australian) enterprises. They will go more to China than Europe and other traditional markets.”
So it’s a relationship Australia needs to tend with care.
But the decision to allow 2,700 US marines to be stationed in the Northern Territory by 2017 is a sticking point.
It hasn’t impressed the old guard in Beijing, which sees it as a US attempt to balance, even contain China’s growing influence in the Pacific.
They see Australia as aiding and abetting Washington and for them – as for the new faces that are about to appear in the leadership – the US will be the number one foreign policy priority. Xi will have to strike a happy balance.
Kevin Rudd, a long time observer of China says Xi Jinping will be more interested than his predecessors in not only pushing through political reform but a new relationship with the US.
And for Australia, that’s good news, especially as the Gillard government shifts its Asia Century proposals into top gear.
As Julia Gillard said, the Asia Century proposals are about having friends in Jakarta, Beijing and Washington. But pleasing everyone can be hard work, especially when some of them don’t see eye to eye.
Xi, with his appreciation of the US, might make this challenge a bit easier for the Prime Minister. He won’t put the party’s rulers at risk but he is believed to be open-minded.
And if he is, the goals of the Asia Century could be more achievable.
MORE ARTICLES BY MONICA ATTARD
*Monica Attard OAM, is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch.She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent.