Sizing up China's next leader no easy task, WikiLeaks cables show

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 16, 2012 

WASHINGTON — During his visit to the United States this week, China's heir apparent, Xi Jinping, appeared personable to American audiences and resolute to audiences back home.

But how well the Obama administration got to know the man who's expected to rise to China's presidency next year is uncertain. The public appearances were carefully scripted to allow Xi to show a warmer, folksier side than current leader Hu Jintao exhibits in public. Xi's private time with Vice President Joe Biden was, well, private.

But State Department cables that WikiLeaks published last year underscore how difficult it can be to glean meaningful information about China's political elite.

The State Department documents provide insight into how Xi managed to rise to the top of the pack. But there's little firsthand information in the documents that sheds light on the man who's expected to take the reins of the world's second largest economy next year.

More often than not, the documents rely on Chinese academics and leaders of U.S. banks in China. These sources often give competing views, and some proved to be flat wrong.

Take the May 25, 2007, secret document sent by Kenneth Jarrett, then-U.S. consul general in Shanghai. It quoted confidential contacts as saying Xi "was likely out of the running for a top-level job for the next 5-10 years," because two months earlier he'd accepted the job as Communist Party boss in Shanghai.

Instead, Xi would go on join the elite running the country, rising to vice president, the position he holds today. Next month, he's expected to become the supreme leader of the Communist Party, a post from which he's expected to leap to the presidency of China next year.

To better gauge Xi, American diplomats often sought out prominent Chinese scholars for their read on the power structure within China's Communist Party.

In a confidential cable dated Sept. 25, 2009, Beatrice Camp, the U.S. consul general in Shanghai, recounted a number of unimpressive assessments of Xi and his performance in leadership roles in Zhejiang province and as party leader of Shanghai.

Quoting Ding Xinghao, the president of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Camp said Xi's accomplishments came from "doing nothing" and a cautious approach in which Xi simply tried "not to mess things up."

Camp wrote that a prominent Shanghai journalist was predicting that Xi would become the successor to the poker-faced Hu because Xi is "very cautious and sits in the back of the room with his arms folded — he doesn't make mistakes."

That suggests Xi is a seasoned bureaucrat, but it's hardly a profile-in-courage view of China's next leader.

A March 25, 2007, cable sent by Shanghai consulate officer Simon Schuchat was more generous. It was sent days after Xi became the Communist Party secretary in Shanghai, a post few wanted because the prior Shanghai party leader was arrested and the city's political structure was in chaos.

But it was a familiar position for Xi, who in an earlier posting worked in a region socked by one of the largest smuggling scandals ever.

"That he not only emerged unscathed from the scandal but has continued through the ranks pays tribute to his ability, as well as his protected princeling status and the respect afforded his father," Schuchat noted in the confidential cable.

Xi's father is mentioned in several cables. In a confidential cable from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing dated Feb. 5, 2010, dissident Tibetan author Wang Lixiong is quoted as saying, "the Dalai Lama still had great affection for Xi's late father, former State Councilor Xi Zhongxun, and continued to cherish a watch the elder Xi gave him in the 1950s."

It suggested that the Tibetan spiritual leader sees Xi as a man with whom he can work.

Other confidential and secret memos document Xi's growing deftness as a Chinese interlocutor. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo described in a Dec. 16, 2009, confidential memo how Xi deflected controversy over an unscheduled meeting with Japan's reclusive emperor and was studiously aware of protocol and politics.

"Xi bowed 'very deeply' — off camera — before walking towards the emperor, at which point he shook hands — on camera," said the cable, recounting information passed from a Japanese diplomat who was present.

That stands in contrast to a March 10, 2009, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, recounting how Xi lashed out at American criticism of China during a visit to Mexico a month earlier.

"There are some well fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs," Xi said during a lunch meeting. "China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you."

China's business elite seemed to like Xi. Citibank (China) CEO Richard Stanley is quoted in a Dec. 11, 2007, memo as calling Xi a "very impressive person" who's seen as pro-business, which was "not a bad outcome" for American investors.

In a Dec. 4, 2007, memo from the U.S. consulate in Shanghai, JPMorgan Chase's vice chairman in China, Andrew Zhang, is quoted as saying that Xi developed a reputation as "Mr. Clean" for refusing large bribes.

"Xi has no need to risk taking bribes given the amount of money his wife, a famous singer, pulls in," the memo said, describing Xi as "very bland" and "colorless."

Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, is the polar opposite. She's an attractive and younger singer of national fame. She was conspicuous in her absence from the U.S. trip and was presumed to have stayed home to avoid overshadowing her husband.

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