Skip to main content

China's next top leader: View from Fujian

By Steven Jiang, CNN
February 16, 2012 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (center) is currently in the United States where he met U.S. President Barack Obama.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (center) is currently in the United States where he met U.S. President Barack Obama.
  • Xi Jinping,seen in China President Hu Jintao's heir apparent, is currently visiting the U.S.
  • One entrepreneur remembers his support for private enterprise as governor of Fujian
  • For a long time, the best-known aspect of Xi's life was his wife, a famous folk singer
  • After meetings last year, U.S. officials viewed him as someone America can do business with

Fuzhou, China (CNN) -- The framed photos that adorn Crystal Wang's expansive office are a who's who of China's leadership. In one President Hu Jintao is shaking her hand, while Premier Wen Jiabao smiles next to her in another.

But she looked most relaxed and radiant in a photo taken with Vice President Xi Jinping, seen in China as Hu's heir apparent and currently visiting Washington.

"I feel very comfortable talking to him," said the president of the Newland Group, a high-tech firm based in the southeastern city of Fuzhou. "He's very kind."

It was Xi's help some 20 years ago that first turned Wang's vision into reality. In 1993, when Wang and her partners were struggling with red tape to set up a software startup, she went to see Xi, then the city's Communist Party chief.

"He was far-sighted and realized that China's economic development would have no solid foundation without its own enterprises or innovation," Wang recalled. "He gave us his full backing."

Firm tone, diplomacy in Obama-Xi meeting

When Xi later became the governor of Fujian -- Fuzhou is the provincial capital -- Wang said he continued to support Newland, visiting the company numerous times, as it grew from a one-desk operation to a mini-empire that employs hundreds of engineers and scientists across the country.

In a shiny showroom, Wang proudly pointed to examples of the latest technology developed by Newland, whose portfolio now covers software design, digital television and green technology -- all areas championed by Xi.

Obama: We welcome China's peaceful rise
The rise of China's Xi Jinping
China-U.S relations take center stage
Biden, Xi discuss human rights

"I'm a businesswoman and he's a high-ranking official. I should've felt the status gap between us but I never did," she said.

"He was such a good listener, paying attention to our ideas and nurturing young entrepreneurs like us."

Wang's ascent coincided that of Xi, who rose through the ranks during his 17 years in Fujian. As a politician Xi spent more time in this coastal province than any other places -- and analysts say his policy focus and governing style here may offer some clues to deciphering a largely enigmatic figure.

Son of a Mao-era revolutionary hero and a pro-economic reform statesman, Xi is one of the so-called "princelings" -- children of top Communist leaders. The 58-year-old vice president has kept his head down and worked the system, spending most of his post-university years in the provinces before returning to Beijing in 2007.

For a long time, the best-known aspect of Xi's life was his wife, a famous folk singer who used to perform before millions on state television.

"We don't know much about him. We don't know what he really thinks," said James McGregor, former chief executive of Dow Jones in China and a long-time observer of Chinese politics.

"But one thing you'll see is he's going to be tough -- I think he's going to be tough with a smile on his face."

Such an assessment echoes that of senior U.S. officials who, after meetings between Vice President Joe Biden and Xi in China last summer, described the leader-in-waiting as "tough." But they appreciated Xi's emphasis on Sino-U.S. relations as a policy priority and viewed him as someone America could do business with.

That Xi supported entrepreneurs like Wang -- first in Fujian and later in neighboring Zhejiang, the province that boasts China's most vibrant private sector -- may also be an encouraging sign for those who feel increasingly left behind by China's economic growth model that seems to favor state-owned conglomerates.

A welder's wish

Two hours' drive from Wang's sprawling corporate campus, economic models and foreign policy seem far removed from the minds of residents in Xiabaishi, a seaside town where rows of fishing boats in fading paint are moored by the shore and rusty machinery sits idle in shipyards nearby.

Local media has reported that, under Xi's leadership in the late 1990s, officials moved more than 16,000 poor fishermen and their families who had lived on boats into government subsidized housing, and found land-based jobs for many of them.

More than a decade later, however, poverty remains visible throughout Xiabaishi. Some fishing families still sleep on their boats, while others cram into ramshackle slums on the coast. Even the lucky ones who live in houses have to brave bitter cold winds blown in through cracks in the brick walls.

An old woman weaving fishing nets by her doorway said she has never heard of Xi. Her neighbor agreed -- the last leader both appeared aware of was former President Jiang Zemin, Hu's predecessor who retired a decade ago.

Interrupting the women, a young man nearby indicated he certainly knows who Xi is. Xie Yingling doesn't remember much about Xi's time in Fujian, but the 32-year-old unemployed welder has a clear message for the future leader.

We don't know much about him. We don't know what he really thinks.
James McGregor, China observer

"I want a job," he said. "Nobody wants to hire people like me -- high school dropouts in our 30s -- here or in big cities."

When the shipbuilding industry was booming, Xie said he earned as much as 200 yuan (US$30) a day. Now he can barely afford to buy a bowl of noodles, which costs 3 yuan (50 U.S. cents) at local restaurants.

"When the shipbuilders went out of business, we lost our livelihood," he said.

The bleak scene in Xiabaishi -- and many other towns like it -- may not fit nicely into the image depicted by American politicians of a rising superpower that increasingly poses economic and military threat to the United States.

But analysts say it is part of a China that Xi is going to inherit -- and he and his comrades will have to tackle the myriad of problems, especially the widening income gap in a slowing economy, before mass discontent brewing beneath the surface explodes.

Aware of a poorer and angrier segment of population back home, Xi may be ready to talk tough during his meetings with U.S. officials this week, particularly on the economic and trade front.

"He's still talking to an audience in China," said McGregor, the China observer. "That's the constituency that matters to him, especially in a transition time."

Back in Xiabaishi, a small crowd gathered in a barbershop had nothing but praise for their former governor, complete with tales of his visit to a flooded village nearby.

A poster depicting China's current top Communist leadership -- nine men who effectively rule the country -- was pinned on the wall, with the sixth-ranked Xi almost in the middle.

"He's going to be the big boss," one man offered in a hushed voice, pointing to Xi.

From Fujian to Washington, almost everyone seems to know that much -- but the rest remains anyone's guess.

Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0929 GMT (1729 HKT)
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0538 GMT (1338 HKT)
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 0545 GMT (1345 HKT)
Reforms to the grueling gaokao - the competitive college entrance examination - don't make the grade, says educator Jiang Xueqin.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1218 GMT (2018 HKT)
Beijing grapples with reports from Iraq that a Chinese national fighting for ISIS has been captured.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 0200 GMT (1000 HKT)
CNN's David McKenzie has tasted everything from worms to grasshoppers while on the road; China's cockroaches are his latest culinary adventure.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
Beijing rules only candidates approved by a nominating committee can run for Hong Kong's chief executive.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
China warns the United States to end its military surveillance flights near Chinese territory.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0312 GMT (1112 HKT)
China has produced elite national athletes but some argue the emphasis on winning discourages children. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0513 GMT (1313 HKT)
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0452 GMT (1252 HKT)
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.