BEIJING // Xi Jinping, the vice president of China, will complete a foreign tour on Thursday that will have taken him through Laos, Bangladesh, New Zealand and Australia. During the trip he has held talks with a series of prime ministers and speakers of parliaments, adding to the list of high-powered foreign leaders he has met before, among them George W Bush while he was US president.
It is no surprise heads of state and government are queuing up to meet Mr Xi because he is not only one of the most powerful men in the world's most populous nation; he is almost certainto become China's leader in two years' time . Since emerging ahead of his rivals after the ruling Community Party's congress in 2007, Mr Xi has cemented his position as the heir apparent to the current president, Hu Jintao. Mr Xi became vice president in 2008, the same year as the Beijing Olympics, which he successfully managed.
As he moved up through the party ranks, holding senior postings in several provinces, Mr Xi developed a reputation for being tough on the corruption that has plagued China's bureaucracy. As the son of Xi Zhongxun, a communist revolutionary who went on to become a vice premier, he also has impeccable family credentials. But while his father's liberal attitudes regarding political reform eventually caused him to be sidelined by the former leader Deng Xiaoping, observers say Mr Xi's own ideological and political positions are difficult to gauge.
Joseph Wong, an honourary professor in the department of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, said that despite the foreign visits, Mr Xi, 57, who was born in Beijing, had generally kept a low profile and there were few indications about where he stood with respect to issues such as political reform. "It's not the Chinese political tradition for the successor in waiting to assume a high profile," he said.
Zhang Baohui, an associate professor in the department of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said Mr Xi's relatively low-key approach began earlier in his career, which included spells as Communist Party secretary in Zhejiang province, and deputy party secretary and governor in Fujian province. Before the Olympics, he said, Mr Xi had not completed any big, showy projects. "like many local officials like to do".
"A lot of people say that's a good sign, that [it shows] he's a responsible official. But the problem is, he doesn't really have a track record on the political side, [on] whether he's going to be more willing to embrace political reform," Mr Zhang said. Regardless of Mr Xi's own leanings, the influence he will have as president will be less than that enjoyed by some of his predecessors. Zheng Yongnian and Chen Gang from the National University of Singapore wrote in an academic paper published last year titled "Xi Jinping's rise and political implications" that the power of China's leader had progressively decreased since the era of Mao Zedong, who had almost complete control of the party.
Now, they said, leaders were chosen collectively and tended to be compromise candidates between different competing factions and power bases, which currently include the "Shanghai gang" close to the former president Jiang Zemin, and the group of former Communist Youth League members, among them Mr Hu. In addition, power is spread between several leaders, including the premier, limiting the influence of individuals. The favourite to succeed the populist current premier, Wen Jiabao, is Li Keqiang, a protégé of Mr Hu.
Chan Che-po, an assistant professor in the department of political science at Lingnan University, said: "It's definitely a kind of collective leadership now. I don't see that the collective leadership pattern will change." China today is "very different" from, for example, the Soviet Union that Mikhail Gorbachev took control of, Mr Zhang said. "Gorbachev was able to reshuffle the top leadership between 1985 and 1988 and transform the membership of the politburo and put his allies in position. It is unlikely Mr Xi will have the ability to reshape the top tier of China's politics."
Aside from the constraints imposed by China's collective leadership system, Mr Zhang said, political factors mean that whoever becomes president when the "fifth generation" of communist China's leadership takes control from 2012 is unlikely to favour radical change. "The political system is more status quo-minded because of the increasing instability, the rising societal discontent, the public anger over corruption and the abuse of power," he said. "These issues have started a massive stability issue for the Chinese regime. No matter who is in charge, the next government will try to preserve the so-called stability."
But Jerome Cohen of New York University's law school, who is co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute, said during a recent visit to Beijing that history also shows that those who toe the line on the way up sometimes exhibit an appetite for reform once they secure the top job. Nikita Khrushchev's liberal reformist tendencies made themselves apparent only after he became Soviet leader, Mr Cohen said: "Until someone becomes a dominant leader, you don't really know what they think."