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The man who could be China's next president

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
  • Xi Jinping is expected to assume the presidency when Hu Jintao steps down in 2012
  • Little is known about Xi's views, but he is said to be market-friendly and cautious on political reform
  • Xi spent more than a decade working his way up the party ladder
  • Xi and his comrades -- the Fifth Generation of leaders -- will have to tackle a host of challenges

"Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- When the Communist Party's elite meet in Beijing this weekend for the Central Committee's 5th plenary session, all eyes will be on China's Vice President Xi Jinping.

Xi, 57, is expected to assume the presidency when Hu Jintao steps down after his second and final term in 2012.

But whether Xi is on track to succeed Hu will depend on whether the plenum elects him vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, a powerful group that oversees the 2 million-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA).

The post is important symbolically and practically. Without it, Xi will remain an outsider in military affairs. If appointed, it will follow an old tradition --- Hu was also promoted to the position years before he got the party's top job.

But who is Xi Jinping (pronounced Shee Jeen Ping) and what kind of leader would he be?

Little is known about Xi's political views. Analysts say he appears to be market-friendly but cautious on political reform and that he shares concerns about maintaining the rule of the Communist Party and the need to keep social stability.

"The general impression of Xi Jinping is, he is a very circumspect person," said Gao Zhikai, a political commentator in Beijing. "In public he is very careful, very prudent. He is not a very emotional person, at least in public."

Xi's detractors say he lacks charisma. He is portly and far from being a household name. In fact, he is better known in China because of his wife, Peng Lijuan, a popular folk singer in the 1980s.

However, Xi boasts an impeccable political pedigree. He comes from an elite group known as the "princelings," the children of powerful officials. His father was a revolutionary hero who served as vice premier and vice chairman of China's legislature.

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In the late 1960s, when his father was purged during the Cultural Revolution, Xi worked on a farming commune in the countryside.

He went on to become a local party chief and, in 1975, enrolled at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University --- Hu's alma mater -- and he has earned chemical engineering and law degrees. He is known to have served in the PLA, but only briefly.

With his political background and technocratic education, he would be what the Chinese call "you hong you zhuan" (both red --- or communist -- and expert).

Like other Chinese leaders of his generation, Xi spent more than a decade working his way up the party ladder. He pushed for market reforms and headed a special economic zone in Fujian, a booming coastal province facing Taiwan.

In 2002, he was appointed party chief of Zhejiang province, a breeding ground of private enterprises in China. In September 2006, he was abruptly transferred to Shanghai to replace Chen Liangyu, the local party chief who was sacked over alleged corruption. His task: clean up the mess.

Xi has been Hu's understudy since October 2007, when he was appointed a member of the nine-man Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful policy-making body in the People's Republic.

A year later, he was elected vice president of China. Since then, he has taken up important portfolios, serving as China's point-man during the Olympic Games in 2008. He has traveled overseas many times, bringing a retinue of business executives and signing multi-million-dollar trade deals.

In his dealings with others, Xi is said to be calm and unemotional. One rare exception was when he criticized foreigners while visiting Mexico last year. Speaking to Mexico's Chinese community, Xi was caught in a video clip chastising foreign critics.

"Some foreigners who are bored and have nothing better to do than point their fingers at our affairs," he said, according to Chinese-language media in Hong Kong. "(But) China does not, first, export revolution, second, export poverty and hunger, and third, cause unnecessary trouble for them. What else is there to say?"

The bi-annual meeting of the Communist Party's 300-member Central Committee will try to reach a consensus on how the handover of power will play out in 2012.

Xi is expected to come out of it with an additional title of vice chairman of the military commission.

"This way, Xi will have two years in training before taking over from Hu," said Wenran Jiang, professor of political science at the University of Alberta. "Not to promote him now may leave more speculation on whether or not the transfer of power is going smoothly."

The policy-making body is also expected to discuss China's next five-year plan. Sources say it will put forward the goal of "inclusive growth," spreading the wealth generated by economic growth among all sectors and to achieve balance in economic and social progress -- as recently expounded upon by Hu.

The blueprint, Chinese media reports say, will call for development of strategic industries, including information technology, biotech and energy-saving technologies.

Despite 30 years of astonishing economic growth, China today faces a host of intractable challenges -- a growing gap between the rich and poor, rising unemployment, environmental issues and corruption. Xi and his comrades, the so-called Fifth Generation of leaders, are going to inherit them, and more.

The country's leaders are also currently under political pressure. Supporters of jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo are agitating for his release after he was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Earlier, a group of prominent Chinese intellectuals published a strongly-worded open letter, calling for freedom of speech.

The number of "mass incidents" -- large demonstrations, labor strikes, farmer protests -- are on the rise, too. Often, they deteriorate into violence, disorder and greater repression. China grapples with growing labor discontent

But corruption will remain one of the toughest challenges for China's next leader. Corruption drains the public coffers. It also undermines the legitimacy of the Communist Party and fuels social unrest.

The party leaders are discussing measures -- it's not clear if they will finalize them at their upcoming meeting -- to improve "good governance" that will help curb corruption. By setting such goals, Hu and Xi intend to reinforce Communist Party control by adapting to the changing times.