Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping

ON NOVEMBER 15, Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of its Central Military Commission. In March, he will become the president of China as well. How does China’s new leader see the world, and how will he handle the country’s foreign policy? Do his style and preferences differ from those of his predecessor, Hu Jintao? The answers will determine China’s relations with the world for the next decade.

China’s leaders approach power in a very different way from political leaders in, say, the US. US politicians must sell their ideas and values to voters; China’s leaders do not need to inform the press and the public directly about anything, including their foreign-policy positions. Indeed, with the notable exceptions of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, China’s leaders have seldom imposed their personalities on Chinese diplomacy. Xi’s leadership style will most likely continue in the tradition of his predecessors. Nevertheless, Xi’s outlook and world view are surely different from Hu’s.

For starters, Xi is part of a generation raised and educated mostly in China’s reform era, which has been a decisive influence. China opened itself to the world in 1978, when Xi and his contemporaries were young men eager to understand the world outside China. It is a generation inspired by Deng’s realistic approach to shattering the walls radical leftists built around China, and one that believes knowledge can change the destiny of the country. When this generation assumes leadership, its members will turn their passion and curiosity about knowledge and innovation into real work. They are surely willing to learn from the wider world as they seek to promote China’s national interests abroad and encourage gradual change at home.

Xi may address Chinese diplomacy’s thorniest issues — particularly Sino-US relations — with more realism and flexibility than in recent years. His visit to the US in February was widely regarded as a sequel to Deng’s visit in 1979. Xi talked to President Barack Obama and visited the Pentagon. He saw old friends from his brief stay in Iowa as a young man.

Instead of spending countless hours drearily discussing political and strategic topics, he spoke directly and vigorously about the current state of Sino-US relations. "The Pacific Ocean is wide enough to accommodate the two major countries of China and the US," he declared. Unhappy with the US’s "pivot" to Asia, Xi remained calm but said "one cannot rely too much on military power regarding Asia-Pacific diplomacy".

Similarly, he tried to avoid major arguments on human rights, saying simply that "there’s no best, only better". In essence, he sought to demonstrate that however many potential conflicts exist between China and the US, both countries’ leaders should address them with an attitude of co-operation and sincerity.

Xi’s confidence extends to China’s domestic politics. His generation is more certain of reform than previous leadership cohorts because of the country’s enormous achievements in the past three decades. In practice, Xi may well prove to be a nationalist; certainly, his generation dreams of turning China into a stronger, more prosperous country. The country’s new leaders want the world’s applause, but are eager for domestic ovations.

Like previous Chinese leaders, Xi firmly believes that the world should respect China’s authority to manage its own affairs. Thus, he is willing to show diplomatic muscle if China is challenged on a core area of concern. His speech in Mexico in 2009 demonstrated this. "Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us," he said. "First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and, third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?"

Xi understands the world expects a better China and a China committed to constructing a better world. He will be a tough and strong-minded leader but one who understands the world in a pragmatic way and knows how to work well with his foreign counterparts.

Indeed, his visit to the US this year left two impressions. First, he is a leader at ease both in front of and away from the TV cameras. Second, he is not afraid to have a little fun. With those simple touches of humanity, Xi could bring a revolution to China’s diplomacy.

© Project Syndicate, 2012. www.project-syndicate.org.

Feng is deputy director of the Centre for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.