In January 1969, a tall 16-year old student from Beijing arrived at a remote village on the windy Loess Plateau of Shaanxi province in northwestern China.
He was about an hour’s drive from Yanan, the dusty provincial town that Mao Zedong had used as his stronghold decades earlier, during the war of resistance against the Japanese (1937-45) and the civil conflict that brought him to power in 1949.
As Xi Jinping surveyed his new surroundings, looking out over the frozen fields of his family’s ancestral region to the rugged, ochre-coloured mountains in the distance, he must have thought about his father.
Xi’s father had been there before him. As a guerrilla fighter, he had established the Shaanxi-Gansu Revolutionary Base. He was there to greet Mao after the torturous Long March that ended in Yanan in 1935. At the time, the area was still struggling to recover from nearly two decades of devastating droughts.
After the People’s Republic was established, Xi’s father became Mao’s propaganda minister and then vice premier. But when Xi was only 9, his father slipped up. He spoke out in favor of a popular novel regarded as a thinly-veiled criticism of the “Great Helmsman,” for which he was quickly purged from the Communist Party, sent to work in a factory, and imprisoned for many years during the Cultural Revolution.
Xi became a victim of circumstance. Labelled a “reactionary” student because his father was an “enemy of the revolution," he was jailed several times and publicly humiliated. Finally, he was sent off to the Wenanyi commune in Liangjiahe under Mao’s Xiafang or “Down to the Countryside” re-education program. Together with 30 other urban youths, he was to live and work with local peasants, to be moulded into the socialist model and cleansed of “unorthodox tendencies.”
Xi spent his days in the village digging wells, repairing dams and working in the fields. He lived with a local farmer in a yaodong, one of the man-made cave dwellings common to the area because they afford refuge from Shaanxi’s harsh winters and hot summers.
“I ate a lot more bitterness than most people” at that time, Xi said in an interview with China Parenting Magazine in 1996.
Xi gained a reputation for extraordinary physical endurance in Liangjiahe. Today, villager elders still laugh at the legends that have built up around him. They say they remember a more ordinary but hard-working boy, someone who had a gift with people and a keen intellectual curiosity.
In the evenings, Xi engrossed himself in study by the dim light of a kerosene lamp. In 1974 he was accepted into the Communist Party and chosen to lead the village’s production brigade. The following year, the Party selected him for chemical engineering studies at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. He left the village, walking his own Long March 30 kilometers to the nearest railway station. Such was his popularity that a group of his peers insisted on accompanying him all the way.
“In the past, when we talked about beliefs, it was very abstract,” Xi told an interviewer in 2003. “It was a mood,” he said, “and when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution couldn’t be realized, it proved an illusion.”
After Mao died, Deng Xiaoping returned Xi’s father to political office. He would become governor of Guangdong, a province at the forefront of China’s economic reform and opening up. Xi regained his position as a taizi or “princeling,” the son of a high-ranking cadre and hero of the revolution.
By then a military officer in active service, Xi was promoted in 1979 to secretary in the general offices of both the State Council and the Central Military Commission, serving under his father’s former subordinate Geng Biao.
He managed to keep his reputation clean. He was rewarded in 1982 by being placed at the head of the CPC’s Zhengding County Committee in Hebei province.
In 1985 he assumed the first of several important political posts in Fujian, a key coastal area across the straits from Taiwan. His progress there would culminate in his governorship of the province in 2000, raising his profile throughout South East Asia. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s former prime minister, described Xi as “a thoughtful man who has gone through many trials and tribulations […] I would put him in the Nelson Mandela class.”
In 1986 Xi was introduced to Peng Liyuan, a renowned Chinese folk singer. Peng was a major-general attached to the PLA’s song and dance troupe. Nicknamed the “Peonny Fairy” after the national flower, her frequent appearances on state television during the annual New Year celebration had made her as popular in China as Jackie Chan. After conversing only 40 minutes with Peng, Xi knew that he wanted to marry her.
Peng was more reserved. At first she thought he was too old and rustic looking, but his thoughtful interest in music and his “simple heart” eventually won her over. Two decades later, rumours began to circulate that the marriage (Xi’s second) was on the rocks, though publicly Peng has always stood by him.
In 1989 Xi’s father spoke out once more, this time against the decision to use the army to suppress pro-democracy demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square. Whatever Xi’s own views were at the time, he kept them private.
Between 1998 and 2002, Xi completed a Doctor of Laws degree in Marxist theory through an on-the-job postgraduate education program.
When Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, he was transferred to Zhejiang province. As Party secretary and acting governor there, he gained a reputation for fighting corruption and promoting private enterprise.
In 2007 a major scandal hit China’s financial capital. Xi was tapped to replace Shanghai’s Party secretary, who had been implicated in misappropriating social security funds. Xi took over, pledging to “be a good learner, a good public servant and a good team leader.”
His successes in Shanghai secured his appointment to the Standing Committee of the Politburo and to the Secretariat of the CPC’s Central Committee in October 2007. He was also made dean of the Central Party School. In December, he urged the Central Committee to “overcome the attitude of being satisfied with the status quo, the inertia of conservative and complaisant thinking, the fear of difficulties and timid thinking.”
Only a few months later, in March 2008, he was elected vice president at the first session of 11th National People’s Congress, China’s parliament.
Xi was given oversight of preparations for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, as well as the celebration marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. He was quickly indoctrinated in the ways of international diplomacy, sent out on missions to Asia, the Middle East, South America, and the United States. His candour and pragmatism won the respect of international dignitaries and business leaders. Henry Paulson, as U.S. Treasury Secretary, said that Xi is a “guy who knows how to get over the goal line.”
At home, however, Xi’s bluntness on the international stage has set the foreign ministry on edge. In February 2010, for instance, while visiting Mexico, he publicly slammed Western nations for singling out China as a scapegoat for their own socio-economic woes.
When the Fifth Plenary Session of the 17th CPC Central Committee came to a close in Beijing in October 2010, a communiqué was issued. Among other things, it announced that Xi had been made vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. There is little doubt that this promotion was intended to position him to take over as the Party’s general secretary when Hu Jintao steps down from that post at the end of the ongling Party Congress in Beijing. As general secretary, he is almost certain to be elected state president by the National People’s Congress in early 2013.
The communiqué also reaffirmed the Party’s gradualist policy toward political reform, apparently signalling a shift away from the liberal approach championed by Wen Jiabao. The focus in coming years, it stated, will be on “enriching the people” and “promoting social equality and justice,” not the further political reforms that Western analysts had been hoping for.
China’s rapid economic development has taken the CPC into uncharted waters. The widening gulf between the pursuit of a “socialist democracy” and the reality of everyday life in China has engendered political tensions that threaten one day to come to a head. The CPC, beleaguered by a string of high-profile corruption scandals, appears to be setting the stage for a reconsolidation of its influence under a new strong but tempered leadership, aiming to avoid being swept over by global capitalism or falling victim to the same fate as the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
In some respects, Xi Jinping is a sort of Forrest Gump figure, embodying the experience of China’s emergent middle class over the course of the nation’s modern history, from the Cultural Revolution to the present day. Many observers initially dismissed him as simply a “compromise” candidate, one of the few acceptable to all Beijing’s competing political factions. But he now seems more than that. He appears to be someone well-suited and carefully chosen to attempt, as he puts it, “the synthesis between the basic principles of Marxism, on the one hand, and China’s concrete realities and contemporary characteristics on the other.”
This article was originally published in Diplomatic Courier