The streets at the centre of Beijing are eerily quiet over the weeklong Chinese New Year holiday, which fell in early February this year, but outside one old house a few blocks from the Forbidden City, a steady stream of cars pulled up.
The holiday is a time to pay respects to family elders and mentors. I know people in their forties and fifties who still visit their -favourite school teacher over the break and among the upper -echelons of the Chinese Communist party, respected older comrades are given their due. The flurry of activity was outside the family home of Hu Yaobang, the former leader of the Chinese -Communist party who died in 1989. Among the dutiful visitors were Xi Jinping, the man slated to be the next president of China, and Li Keqiang, the likely next premier.
Calling on the widow of a former leader might seem run-of-the-mill, but Hu Yaobang is far from a run-of-the-mill figure in Communist party history. During the 1980s, the party split over whether its economic reforms should be combined with political opening. After pushing a liberal line, Hu was dramatically ousted from office in 1987 by more conservative members of the leadership. It was news of his death in April 1989, by then a broken man, that sparked the Tiananmen Square protests. In official celebrations of the party's history, his name is never mentioned. Along with Zhao Ziyang, the leader who succeeded him and who was then purged after Tiananmen, Hu was China's Gorbachev.
Next year, China will start a leadership transition, which will give the country a new president in place of Hu Jintao, who is also the head of the party and the military, and a new premier to replace Wen Jiabao, who runs the day-to-day business of the government. In 2007, a key party meeting in effect chose the next leadership team, when Xi -Jinping (pronounced Shee Jin-ping) and Li Keqiang (pronounced Lee Ke-chiang) were both promoted to the country's top body, the nine-man Politburo Standing Committee. Xi, now aged 57, became vice--president and 55-year-old Li one of four vice-premiers (the most senior, with responsibility for the economy, climate change, health and the environment), giving both five years to play understudy to their bosses.
The names of the next leaders may already be pencilled in, but the easiest way for them to sabotage their promotion would be to start discussing bold ideas now. Instead, they have to spend five years in a form of political purdah, going out of their way to avoid controversial topics. As a result, little is known of their views about many of the big issues that China faces – how to keep the economic boom going, how to manage ties with the US and, perhaps most important of all, whether the Communist party should maintain its iron grip on the country's political system. Politics in China is often expressed through coded gestures, rather than bold statements, which makes their visits to the family home of Hu Yaobang so symbolic. Were China's next leaders behaving as dutiful party members, paying respect to a senior comrade in a system that values displays of loyalty, or are they secret liberal sympathisers who are waiting for the right moment to restart the debate about political reform that died in Tiananmen?
There is always an element of wishful thinking to such discussions. For the past two decades, -western observers and governments have projected these questions on to leadership changes, in the hope of finding the new Chinese Gorbachev figure, one who has yet to appear. Yet this is not just a change in leadership but a shift in generations. The stolid engineers who dominate senior positions in China today will be replaced by a group who -studied law, economics and, in a few cases, journalism, and who came of age during the 1980s, a time when China was assailed by western ideas and influences after the intellectual deep freeze of the Mao years. It will be a new era.
At 6ft 1in and barrel-chested, Xi towers over most of his fellow Chinese. He has an avuncular manner and is good at the sort of glad-handing that is important for political networking, the Communist party version of a good bloke. Among senior party members this makes him more personally popular than Hu Jintao, a dour figure who has cultivated an almost anti-cult of personality. "He is comfortable in his own skin," as one western politician who has spent a lot of time with him puts it.
A self-confessed fan of American movies with a daughter enrolled at Harvard, Xi is married to a popular folk singer, which will bring a touch of glamour to the post. Peng Liyuan, who also holds the rank of major-general in the army's song and dance troupe, used to be a regular on the huge television spectacle that airs every year on the eve of the New Year holiday. Her most famous song, "Mount Everest", has lines such as: "You are warming the Motherland with fresh breezes."
Ever since he was a young official in the provinces in the mid-1980s, when he created a theme park based on the Chinese fable, Journey to the West, Xi has energetically supported reforms to open up the economy. But it is his family history that brings Xi to the house of Hu Yaobang every year – a -history that raises a lot of questions about his real political beliefs. Xi is one of the nearest things there is to aristocracy in China. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a communist guerrilla leader in the 1930s and played an important role in the later stages of the Long March, the central event in the civil war. In the 1950s he became a powerful figure in Mao's China as the youngest vice-premier.