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Fresh Heir

The two politicians who could change the face of Chinese politics.

While the world's attention has been focused on the riots raging on the streets of Tibet, China's legislature gathered earlier this month to choose new officials for the country's top government posts. Unsurprisingly, the assembly of 3,000 government appointees reelected Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. But in what some view as an unexpected blow to Hu, Xi Jinping was elected vice president, rather than Hu's protégé, Li Keqiang, who had to settle for executive vice premier of the cabinet. Though mostly unknown to Americans, these two politicians are now poised to compete for China’s presidency when Hu is expected to step down in 2012. Though such a competition will play out in behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, this marks the first time in modern Chinese politics where two candidates--with significantly different backgrounds and policy orientations--are likely to vie for the country's top post, an outcome that will have important implications for the country's future and its relationship with America.

Despite both being educated at the most elite Chinese universities, these two politicians have taken markedly different professional paths, which has led them to hold divergent opinions on how to steer China's future. Xi’s lineage as the progeny of a prominent military family benefited his political standing and puts him in the camp of the so-called “princelings”--those who in part owe their positions to family ties. After earning his doctorate in law in 1979, Xi took a job with the General Office of the Central Military Commission, a significant early post where he forged military ties that would serve him well in his future ambitions. He quickly climbed the ranks of the Communist Party and bureaucratic ladders in the relatively prosperous southern coastal province of Fujian, eventually becoming its governor. He then took the helm of Zhejiang, another wealthy coastal province, followed by a seven-month stint as head of the Communist Party in Shanghai--the hypermodern economic and financial locus of the country.

On the other hand, Li--an economist by training--chose to spend 16 years ensconced in the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL), a vast organization that cultivates future party officials, engages in indoctrination, and puts its members on a fast track to leadership within the party. President Hu, having served as the head of CCYL in the 1980s, derives much of his support base from the organization; Li, who served under Hu in the CCYL and thus positioned himself as an attractive protégé for Hu, is part of a cadre of current party mandarins who cut their teeth in the organization and fell under Hu’s patronage--a faction called “tuanpai” in Chinese. Like Xi, Li also served as a provincial governor and party chiefs successively; but the provinces he commandeered reside in the relative economic backwaters of central China and the rustbelt in the north, where remnants of a socialist economy lay in tatters.

The vastly different character of the provinces they managed has certainly colored each man’s perspective on economic development and social conditions--particularly important as China grapples with the monumental task of appeasing the millions grumbling about inheriting the social discontents of a growth-at-all-costs model. Xi demonstrated his managerial competence in the richer provinces and views maintaining economic growth--a necessity if the party wants to keep unemployment rates low and maintain its popularity--as an imperative. His policies would thus likely favor business interests, and would probably be more inclined to strengthen ties with Washington.

Li, who oversaw poorer regions and worked on an agricultural commune in his youth, seems to understand the plight of the “losers” in China’s drive toward prosperity. In a year in which domestic issues such as health care, social security, and the Olympics seem to rule the day in China (Premier Wen’s state-of-the-union address hardly referred to foreign policy), Li’s influence may be felt in reshaping China’s growth model to help those left behind amid the country's breakneck development.

Xi’s position as vice president makes him the current front-runner to assume the presidency in 2013. His recent appointment to lead the central government's effort to organize the Beijing Olympics is also sure to increase his political capital. Li, however, remains Hu's top choice for succession; the fact that Xi was not immediately appointed to a position in the powerful Military Commission--a post essential to consolidating power in China--indicates that Hu may be pulling strings in order to sideline him. So with both politicians having some credible chance of securing the presidency, the next five years will be crucial for each to prove their mettle and build powerful coalitions.

But, regardless of who captures the presidency in 2013, the outcome of this month's election appears to have altered the very nature of Chinese politics. The eventual president--unlike previous leaders, like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping--will have difficulty promoting his own agenda unchecked. His opponent, who will likely become premier, and who will have a sizable base of support and powerful political allies, will certainly erect obstacles to policies he is not inclined to support. For arguably the first time in recent Chinese history, the country's two top posts will be filled by politicians, who, while maintaining consensus publicly, are likely to have sharp policy differences privately. This dynamic could create an unprecedented level of checks and balances within the Communist Party, as well as go a long way in vanquishing the “cult of personality” that has defined much of contemporary Chinese politics.

Damien Ma is an editor and China analyst based in Washington, D.C.

By Damien Ma