With his photogenic wife at his side and a willingness to make eye contact and engage in small talk, Xi Jinping looks more like an American politician than the gray suits who populate the upper ranks of Chinese politics.
One of his first acts as head of the Chinese Communist Party last year was to ban long speeches, banquets and red carpets.
But during his first months in power, Xi has proved himself more hard-line on a number of issues than his recent predecessors. He has tightened censorship in academia and the media, and spearheaded China’s territorial assertions in the South China and East China seas. His first trip upon ascending to the presidency was to Russia.
Many analysts still believe that Xi, leader of the Communist Party for seven months and president for fewer than 100 days, is at heart a reformer, and they predict that side of him will emerge after he is established in office. But so far, the reformist element of the Communist Party is bitterly disappointed.
The U.S. hopes some personal chemistry will develop out of the two-day summit that began Friday between Xi and President Obama at California’s Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage.
At times, Xi seems to echo American political rhetoric, the “Chinese dream” being his latest slogan. But he refers not to aspirations for individual wealth, but for a revival of a strong, Chinese nation.
“He is falling back on nationalism, talking about making China the No. 1 superpower of the world,” said Zhang Lifan, a Communist Party historian with ties to the leadership. “My generation has heard all these slogans before, and it really makes him sound like Mao again.”
At a Politburo meeting in April, Xi announced an effort to reeducate party cadres, using language that harked back to Mao’s “rectification” campaigns of the 1940s when he was consolidating power at his revolutionary base in Yanan.
Trying to boost morale in the military, Xi decreed all generals and officers above the rank of lieutenant colonel must do stints of at least 15 days as rank-and-file soldiers. Mao used almost exactly the same tactic in 1958.
In public speeches, Xi tends to elevate the Communist Party above the nation and even above the Chinese people. He’s tried to clamp down on criticism of Mao.
“To completely negate Mao Tse-tung would lead to the demise of the Chinese Communist Party and to great chaos in China,” Xi told a high-level forum in January, according to an article last month in Study Times, an official publication of the Central Party School in Beijing.
Just to show that he is not Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Xi blames the collapse of the Soviet Union on wavering from Communist convictions.
“It’s a profound lesson for us. To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the party’s organizations on all levels,” he said in another unpublished speech from December that was widely leaked.
Xi’s predecessor for the last decade, Hu Jintao, was a bland figure. But political analysts believe he may have been more inclined toward political reform.
“Xi Jinping is very good at public relations, much better than Hu, who acted like a robot,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst based in Hong Kong. “But ideologically he is really a Maoist, who wants to maintain tight control over the party and the military and to put a freeze on Western values.”
Nobody expects Xi to reverse the opening of China’s economy and, in fact, many are predicting reforms this year to loosen the grip of state-owned enterprises. But unlike Hu, he rarely speaks about rule of law.
Tighter controls were in evidence June 4, a sensitive day marking the anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989. To much ridicule, censors deleted all references to the anniversary on the Chinese Internet -- including a doctored photograph of yellow rubber ducks marching like tanks toward the square. Hong Kong journalists were detained briefly and prevented from filming the daily ceremony for the raising of the Chinese flag.
Authorities made sure no commemorations took place, rounding up activists and putting others under house arrest.
“Before, when the June 4 anniversary came around, they would just call you up and tell you not to go anywhere, not to leave your home, and to tell them where you were going if you did, and not to arrange any gatherings -- that sort of thing,” Anhui-based activist Qian Jin said in an interview with Radio Free Asia. “This year, I have had the local brigade chief of the state security police come round to my house with a bunch of regular police.”
Most controversial was an order in mid-May by the Communist Party’s central affairs office, which comes directly under Xi’s control, that reportedly prohibited the teaching of what academics are calling “seven unmentionables” -- topics not to be discussed in the classroom. They are: universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, human rights, the Communist Party’s historical errors, the rich elite, and judicial independence.
Xi is the son of a prominent early Communist, Xi Zhongxun, who rose to vice premier, making Xi what Chinese call a “princeling.” Like many prominent Chinese, Xi is educating the next generation abroad. His daughter is an undergraduate student at Harvard.
And like many of his generation, he was exiled to the countryside as a teenager in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution under Mao -- one reason why he speaks little English or any other foreign language. The only Chinese president who spoke English was Jiang Zemin, who liked to show off by reciting the Gettysburg Address.
The current Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, however, does speak English.
Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, also is steeped in Communist tradition. She gained national fame belting out ballads to the Communist Party such as “My Mother Country” and “People from Our Village.” As an official singer for the People’s Liberation Army, she serenaded troops participating in the Tiananmen crackdown.
During the political infighting that preceded Xi’s ascension to the party leadership last year, Xi was seen as a representative of the liberal wing -- in contrast to his now-disgraced rival Bo Xilai, who led a revival of “red songs” as party chairman of Chongqing.
Xi’s father became a leading liberal late in life, supporting Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and opposing the use of force at Tiananmen Square. “It’s in his blood,” said scholar Chong-pin Lin, a former Taiwanese defense minister.
But Deng Yuwen, a former editor of Study Times, said Xi is limited by his education and background.
“He might be sincere in wanting to get rid of corruption, but the only way he knows how to do it is through the Maoist campaigns about purifying the minds of Communist cadres,” Deng said. “He doesn’t know how to apply Western democratic ideas.”
Zhang, the historian, was even more pessimistic.
“The window for reform is dead,” he said. “It took us five years to see what kind of ruler Hu Jintao would be. We’ve had Xi for only six months, but we already know.”