During the Cold War, scholars would analyze new Russian leaders for clues that they might open up their political system. If they liked jazz and scotch, they were deemed pro-Western reformers. The guessing game has shifted to China and Xi Jinping, 57, who will likely be appointed President in 2012.
You can make the case that Xi has reformist impulses. His father, once a comrade of Mao Zedong's, was purged three times. Xi is an engineer, like most of China's leaders, but he also has a law degree and a breadth of knowledge that many of his colleagues lack. His wife is one of China's most famous singers. His daughter is at Harvard. Who knows? Maybe he even likes jazz and scotch.
The limiting factor, however, might not be his intentions but his power. For the past 40 years, as the strength of the Chinese nation has risen, the power of its top leader has declined. From Mao to Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, each supremo has wielded less power than his predecessor. Whatever Xi's views, he might not be able to impose them on his country. And that, in a sense, is political progress for China.
Zakaria is a TIME columnist and the host of CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS
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