Singer wife more famous than man who'll rule 1.3bn
Published 18/02/2012 | 05:00
THE expected ascendancy of Communist Party darling and former cave-dweller Xi Jinping to China's highest office will likely have little impact on the country's 1.3 billion citizens.
The people have no say on the appointment of the country's top leaders so there are no high-profile campaigns, and the style of political debate we're accustomed to in the West is non-existent.
The 58-year-old heir to the current president, Hu Jintao, is not expected to make any dramatic changes or reforms, but is instead regarded as a safe pair of hands at a time when economic growth is slowing.
His glamorous wife, Peng Liyuan, is probably better recognised in China than he is as she shot to fame as a folk singer with the People's Liberation Army.
Against the backdrop of last year's Arab Spring revolutions, the priority of the ruling Communist Party is to "ensure social harmony and stability". And to do that, maintaining a booming economy is paramount.
To the westerner, China is a bit of a paradox. It has maintained one party rule under communism for 60 years, yet it has embraced capitalism. Many western luxury brands have staked their claim on China's main streets and shopping centres, where the appetite for luxury goods appears insatiable.
What we know of Vice President Xi Jinping, who arrives in Ireland for a three-day visit today, appears similarly conflicting. He is a 'princeling' of the Communist Party -- a term reserved for relatives of revolutionary heroes as his father was a party chief in its early days.
But despite his apparent privileged background, he was sent to labour in the countryside during the brutal years of the Cultural Revolution and supposedly lived in a cave home.
Mr Xi has been consistently tough on corruption, is seen as being pro-business despite being an ardent supporter of the Communist Party and worked hard to attract foreign investment while governor in the country's southeast.
He is known to be a fan of US movies and sent his daughter to study at Harvard, suggesting a personality more open to influences outside of China.
But he has shown himself to be irritated on occasion with international criticisms of his country, signalling there will be little in the way of reform.
Xiaoe Deng, who is living in Dublin and married to an Irishman, said interest in Mr Xi has been growing in China.
"He's been on the public radar for a few years, because he was the governor and the mayor of a few provinces and cities, and he is one of the 'princelings'. Everybody in China knows who his father is," she said.
"But in general, he has been quite low-profile."
Ms Deng, who has family in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong and operates redgate.ie, an Irish website that covers Sino-Irish links, said his biggest mission is to keep stability.
"That's the number one priority for him, and the whole country. But he's going to take over at a time when the economy has slowed down in China and there is a lot of work involved."
China has increasingly opened up to the West in the last 30 years, both economically and as a tourist destination.
Much of old Beijing has been razed to make way for roads and soaring skyscrapers.
Ireland has a growing expat community of over 3,000 in China. There are a number of GAA clubs across the country, the jerseys of which will be displayed at Croke Park when Mr Xi visits there tomorrow.
But despite increased economic prosperity and more freedoms in certain areas, the Chinese government maintains a tight grip on its own people.
Since early 2011, there has been a sustained crackdown on human rights activists. The online community is subject to monitoring and censorship. The 'Great Firewall of China', as it is known, blocks sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as well as politically sensitive webpages. Dissent is punished, and those brave enough to speak out have suffered the consequences, such as the jailed political activist and author Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
Renowned contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, the man behind the design of the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, has also routinely suffered harassment and was arrested as he tried to leave China last year.
'Batman' actor Christian Bale courted controversy among Chinese authorities when he tried to visit an activist under house arrest in December.
Mr Xi's expected promotion will be keenly observed by China-watchers monitoring the country's economic ascent. But will his anticipated elevation ultimately herald any major changes for ordinary Chinese people?