Who is China’s President Xi Jinping?

Who is China’s President Xi Jinping?


When Xi Jinping took power in 2012, some observers predicted that he would be the most liberal Communist Party leader in Chinese history, based on his reserved profile, family background and perhaps a degree of misplaced hope.

Ten years later, those projections lie in tatters, proving only how little was understood of the man who looks set to become China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong at a major party convention this month.

Xi has proven ruthless in his ambition, intolerant of dissent, with a desire for control that has infiltrated nearly every aspect of life in modern China.

No longer known primarily as the husband of a prominent singer, he had become someone whose apparent charisma and talent for political storytelling created a cult of personality not seen since Mao’s day.

The colorful details of his early life have been washed out and repackaged into official party histories, but the man himself – and what drives him – remains more of a mystery.

“I challenge the conventional view that Xi Jinping is fighting for power for the sake of power,” Alfred L. Chan, author of a book on Xi’s life, told AFP.

“I would suggest that he seeks power as a tool … to achieve his vision.”

Another biographer, Adrian Geiges, told AFP he does not believe Xi is motivated by a desire for personal enrichment, although international media investigations have revealed his family’s accumulated wealth.

“That’s not his interest,” said Geiges.

“He really has a vision of China, he wants to see China as the most powerful country in the world.”

Central to this vision – what Xi calls the “Chinese dream” or “great revitalization of the Chinese nation” – is the role of the Communist Party (CCP).

“Xi is a man of faith…to him, God is the Communist Party,” wrote Kerry Brown, author of “Xi: A Study in Power.”

“The biggest mistake the rest of the world makes about Xi is not taking that belief seriously.”

– ‘Traumatized’ –

Xi doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate to become a die-hard CCP, despite growing up as a “princechild” or a member of the party’s elite.

His father Xi Zhongxun was a revolutionary hero-turned-vice-premier whose “severity towards his family members was so severe that even those close to him believed it bordered on inhumanity,” according to the elder Xi’s biographer Joseph Torigian.

But when Zhongxun was purged from Mao and targeted during the Cultural Revolution, “[Jinping]and his family were traumatized,” Chan said.

His status vanished overnight and the family was separated. One of his half-sisters is said to have killed herself because of the persecution.

Xi said he was ostracized by his classmates, an experience that political scientist David Shambaugh says contributed to a “sense of emotional and psychological detachment and his autonomy from a very young age.”

At just 15, Xi was ordered to the countryside of central China, where he spent years transporting grain and sleeping in cave houses.

“The intensity of the work shocked me,” he later said.

He also had to attend “fighting sessions” where he had to denounce his father.

“Even if you don’t understand it, you are forced to understand it,” he said, describing the sessions to a Washington Post reporter “with a touch of bitterness” in a 1992 interview.

“It makes you mature earlier.”

Biographer Chan said the experiences of his youth gave him “toughness”.

“He goes all out. He tends to approach problems with two fists. But he also has a certain sense of the arbitrariness of power and therefore also relies on law-based governance.”

– Systematic, unobtrusive –

Nowadays, the cave where Xi slept is a magnet for local tourists, used to emphasize qualities such as his concern for China’s poorest.

When AFP visited in 2016, a local drew a picture of an almost legendary figure who read books between work breaks “so you could see that he was no ordinary man”.

But that didn’t seem obvious at the time. Xi himself said he wasn’t even ranked “as high as women” upon arrival.

His application to join the CCP was repeatedly rejected due to family stigma before finally being approved.

Xi started as a village party leader in 1974 and rose to become governor of coastal Fujian province in 1999, then became party leader of Zhejiang province in 2002 and finally Shanghai in 2007.

“He worked very systematically … to gain experience, starting at a very low level, in a village, then in a prefecture … and so on,” said biographer Geiges.

“And he was very clever in holding back.”

Xi’s father was rehabilitated after Mao’s death in the late 1970s, which massively boosted his son’s standing.

After divorcing his first wife, Xi married superstar soprano Peng Liyuan in 1987, at a time when she was much better known than he was.

Still, his potential wasn’t obvious to everyone, as evidenced by his host’s comments on a trip to the United States in 1985.

“No one in their right mind would ever believe that guy who stayed in my house would become president,” Eleanor Dvorchak was quoted as saying years later in New Yorker magazine.

Cai Xia, a former senior CCP official now in exile in the United States, believes Xi “suffers from an inferiority complex, knowing that he is poorly educated compared to other top CCP leaders.”

As a result, he is “thin-skinned, stubborn, and dictatorial,” she wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs article.

– ‘Legacy of the Revolution’ –

But Xi always saw himself “as the heir to the revolution,” Chan said.

In 2007 he was appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body.

When he succeeded Hu Jintao five years later, there was little in Xi’s past administrative records that foreshadowed his actions after his appointment as leader.

He has cracked down on civil society movements, independent media and academic freedoms, monitored alleged human rights abuses in the northwestern Xinjiang region, and promoted a far more aggressive foreign policy than his predecessor.

In the absence of access to Xi or any of his inner circles, scholars are left to search his earlier writings and speeches for clues as to his motivations.

“The absolute centrality of the Party’s mission to make China a great country again emerges from Xi’s earliest recorded utterances,” Brown wrote.

Xi has harnessed this narrative of a rising China to great effect, using nationalism as a tool for his own and the party’s popular legitimacy.

But there are also indications that he fears the power grab may be fading.

“The fall of the Soviet Union and socialism in Eastern Europe came as a great shock,” Geiges said, adding that Xi blamed his political openness for the collapse.

“So he’s decided that something like this can’t happen to China… that’s why he wants strong leadership in the Communist Party with a strong leader.”

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