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China's vice-president tiptoes on to world stage

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping has tiptoed on to the world stage this Olympics, rubbing shoulders with U.S. President George W. Bush and foreign heirs apparent but making sure he doesn’t steal President Hu Jintao’s thunder.

U.S. President George W. Bush (R) meets with China's Vice President Xi Jinping at the Zhongnanhai Compound in Beijing August 10, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing

China’s parliament re-elected Hu as president in March and gave next generation leader Xi a five-year mandate as vice-president.

Xi, China’s point man on the Olympics, has kept his head low because nothing is certain in the opaque world of successionist politics in China.

Mao Zedong’s first chosen heir fell from grace and died in prison. The second was killed in a mysterious plane crash. The last was ousted by Deng Xiaoping after only a few years in power.

Of Deng’s three successors, the first was purged, another died after 16 years under house arrest. The last, Jiang Zemin, ruled for 13 years before retiring in 2002 in China’s first smooth generational leadership succession since 1949.

Xi made his first overseas trip as vice-president in June, choosing North Korea to hone his Marxist credentials and send a message to the Party that he is a Communist at heart will not dig the Party’s grave by democratising China.

During the Games, Xi met Bush and North Korean parliament chief Kim Yong Nam separately, marking him as heir apparent to Hu, who doubles as Communist Party chief.

But Xi has not been as visible as Hu in the Chinese media.

“Xi Jinping got to where he is because of his relatively low profile,” said Jin Zhong, a veteran China watcher and publisher of Hong Kong’s Open monthly magazine.

News and pictures of Hu’s meetings with Bush, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the presidents of Brazil, Laos and Kazakhstan were splashed on the front pages of the People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Party, and dominated state TV newscasts.

Hu also met French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

Apart from Bush, Xi settled for the B team: Qatar’s crown prince and his Iranian and Kenyan counterparts.

As a “princeling”, or a child of China’s political elite, Xi also hobnobbed with royal family members from Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Qatar, Spain, Thailand and Tonga.

When Hu hosted lunch for visiting dignitaries, Xi was at table No. 6 sitting next to the Mongolian and Swiss presidents.

News of Xi’s meetings was relegated to the inside pages of the People’s Daily with no pictures. Xi, ranked sixth in the Party hierarchy, shied away from TV.

“For him, the risks are high if things go wrong,” Pei Minxin, a senior associate with the China programme of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said at a recent panel discussion.

“But then what if things go right?” he asked. “Then protocol, political protocol, requires that he cede the limelight to Mr. Hu. So he will not take the credit for things...if the Olympics turn out to be a spectacular event.”

Part of Xi’s low-profile strategy has been to allay Western fears of rising Chinese nationalism and temper expectations of many Chinese officials that this will be the greatest Olympics ever.

He also played down anti-Chinese protests which dogged the international leg of the Olympic torch relay in the wake of unrest in Tibet.

“We feel this is nothing out of the ordinary,” Xi said.