During Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington, D.C., this week, the media glossed over several facts about the man expected to be China’s next supreme ruler, including his ties to the Chinese military, his connections to U.S. business interests, and his past role in violations of Tibet’s human rights.
Xi is the most powerful of China’s "princelings," the term for powerful offspring of Chinese communist leaders past and present. Princelings control key sectors of China’s government and economy, drive western luxury cars, and send their spouses and children to the United States to live and work.
Xi is no exception.
At the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), Xi worked as an office secretary under Gen. Geng Biao for three years beginning in 1979. The work for the military commission is significant since it holds the key to power in China.
Geng’s fortunes rose after he was ordered to take control of broadcast and television stations from the communist faction headed by Mao’s wife and three others known as the Gang of Four. The quelling of the gang led to the rise of reformer Deng Xiaoping, who put China on its current modernization path and away from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
Xi’s wife is a singer in the People’s Liberation Army and performs in a PLA uniform, further highlighting his ties to the military. His daughter, Xi Mingze, secretly attends Harvard under a cover name and her two-dozen man security detail may be collecting intelligence for the Chinese, according to U.S. officials.
The son of Xi Zhongxun, a first-generation communist revolutionary who died in 2002, Xi was picked several years ago to become the party’s General Secretary in place of current Secretary Hu Jintao during a major conference expected this fall.
If the communist succession takes place as planned, observers predict Xi likely will get only half the power at first and Hu will remain head of the CMC, the party organ that runs the military and is the ultimate power in China.
Xi is one of a number of several princelings who have come under scrutiny in China from more doctrinaire communists. The power of the hardline element continues to grow in China; though they welcome China’s growing prosperity, they believe the regime is insufficiently Marxist-Leninist as developed under Mao Zedong.
One such hardliner is Bo Xilai, the provincial Party chief in Chongqing accused of corruption by deputy mayor Wang Lijun, a subordinate who tried to defect to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu but was turned away after spending the night in the consulate.
Bo is considered a "neo-Maoist" and is pushing for a seat on the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the collective dictatorship that controls China.
Bo, like Xi, is a princeling and his son, like Xi’s daughter, is a student at Harvard.
Many of the communist princelings live or travel frequently to the United States and are engaged in business dealings, interacting with and influencing American policy analysts and businessmen.
For example, during Xi’s Washington visit, the incoming leader met with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who runs Kissinger Associates and who helps U.S. companies get business deals in China. Xi also met former Clinton administration National Security Adviser Sandy Berger during the visit. Berger’s Stonebridge International also does business in China.
Xi met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and a spokesman said the meeting included a "wide-ranging discussion, with Xi urging the U.S. and China to strengthen military exchanges."
But a U.S. official said that Panetta was surprised by Xi’s lack of candor or response to questions regarding cyber intrusions and advanced weapons, among other issues.
A second U.S. official also said Panetta would travel to China.
Owing in part to his family position and in part to his future place in the Chinese hierarchy, it is difficult to pin down Xi’s exact policy sentiments.
Human rights issues are a stumbling block for Xi and his U.S. counterparts; human rights watchdogs have criticized Xi during the visit for his role in ongoing repression in China.
The group Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) issued a report that said the wining and dining of the communist leader in Washington is taking place at the same time China is cracking down on dissidents.
Tibet has been a major target of the Chinese in recent months, as several Tibetan monks have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese repression.
Xi traveled to Tibet in July with Chen Bignde, chief of the military’s general staff to celebrate the 60th anniversary of what China calls the "peaceful liberation of Tibet." The Chinese takeover involved a military assault on the mountainous region that included mass killings and shelling of Buddhist monasteries.
"This seems a strange time for the U.S. to engage in diplomatic niceties or goodwill overtures to China’s likely future president," said CHRD International Director Renee Xia. "The U.S. should instead hold Xi and other Chinese leaders to account for the Chinese government’s escalating human rights violations at home and its heartless position towards the suffering of the Syrian people."
China vetoed a U.N. resolution earlier this month that would have condemned Syria’s government for the brutal crackdown in Syria.
Xia said the Obama administration should highlight the worsening human rights abuses in China.
President Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made only vague references in public during the Xi visit to China’s human rights abuses, its unfair trade and industrial practices, its military buildup, and its weapons proliferation to rogue states.
The CHRD said that it is "uncertain" whether Xi’s rise to power later this year will lead to improvements in China’s human rights or for future political reform.
CHRD said Xi was Communist Party secretary in Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007, one of the worst periods for democracy and human rights activists in the affluent coastal province, where rampant human rights violations were reported and for which Xi was not held accountable.
"While Xi held a position with the highest authority in the province, the Zhejiang government stood out in its zealous persecution of political dissidents, writers, underground Christians, and human rights activists," the group said.
Xi also directed the round up and repression of democracy and rights advocates in China prior to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.