Xi Jinping has been called “the most powerful person in the world” by Forbes Magazine. Kevin Rudd, Australia’s ambassador to the US and the author of “The Avoidable War” put it this way: “Mr. Xi has in effect become the ‘Chairman of everything’ across the machinery of the [Chinese] state, the party and the military.”
As another expert said in “The Prince,” a recent series of podcasts on Xi’s life: “The future of China’s 1.4 billion people, and maybe world peace, hinge on the mind of one man.”
When that one man was born in 1953, his father Xi Zhongxun was China’s propaganda minister. Like almost all senior leaders in China at that time, Xi’s father had fought under Mao Zedong in the Chinese Revolution. That gave the younger Xi a unique privileged position as a potential leader of the next generation, what the Chinese call a “princeling.” He lived in an affluent private community, and went to a school where students “compared one another on the basis of whose father had a higher rank [and] whose father rode in a better car.”
All that began to change when Xi was nine, and his father was accused of supporting a novel about the Chinese revolution that was not sufficiently enthusiastic about Mao’s role. The elder Xi was purged from senior leadership and sent to manage a tractor factory hundreds of miles away from his four children.
Four years later, when Xi was 13, life got worse again at the start of China’s “Cultural Revolution” to root out intellectuals and enemies of the people who threatened the socialist revolution. Mao said that many senior leaders and intellectuals had become bourgeois, and he urged China’s students to rise up against them. Which they did, with a vengeance.
Many students formed groups of Red Guards to enforce Mao’s wishes by attacking everyone they suspected for any reason, no matter how flimsy. They gleefully shut down schools and attacked first their professors and personal enemies, and later attacked other competing Red Guard groups. It was a dream come true for teenaged bullies and anyone with a grudge. The military stood aside and it seemed there were no longer any adults in charge.
Hundreds of thousands of people, or maybe millions, were killed in the ensuing chaos; no one will ever know the true death toll. Countless others, including Xi Jinping’s father, were publicly beaten, tortured and humiliated in “struggle sessions” in which they were forced to describe their crimes, real and imagined, while large crowds shouted slogans and taunted them.
Xi Jinping’s entire family was targeted so frequently that, according to the New York Times, one of his sisters committed suicide. Xi himself became the target of struggle sessions with crowds shouting ‘Down with Xi Jinping!’ His own mother was sometimes required to attend and when the crowd “yelled, his mother was forced to raise her arm and shout the slogan along with everyone [else].”
The impact on Xi was overwhelming. “When the pandemonium of the Cultural Revolution erupted, he was a slight, softly spoken 13-year-old who loved classical Chinese poetry. Two years later, adrift in a city torn apart by warring Red Guards, Xi Jinping had hardened into a combative street survivor.”
By 1968 the entire Cultural Revolution had spun out of control. To avoid further disorder “Mao ordered the Red Guards and other students to the countryside, to be ‘reeducated by the poor and lower-middle-class peasants.’” Xi was sent to Liangjiahe, a small village in northwest China where he “lived in a cave dwelling with villagers, slept on a kang, a traditional Chinese bed made of bricks and clay, endured flea bites, carried manure, built dams and repaired roads.”
The story of Xi’s years of back breaking peasant labor in Liangjiahe have become a key to the myth of Xi Jinping, protector of the peasants and man of the people. Patriotic tourists now flock there on vacation to see such sites as “an underground chamber that Xi is said to have hand-dug, a place to ferment human and cow feces into natural gas.”
The Cultural Revolution led many Chinese at home and abroad to question their faith in Communism. Xi went in the other direction and re-dedicated himself to the CCP. “When I went to the countryside as a 15-year-old, I was perplexed and lost,” Xi wrote in a 2002 essay. “By the time I left at the age of 22, I had a clear life goal and was filled with confidence.” As one analyst summed it up in The Prince podcasts, Xi “does not want the chaos he saw as a young person to return to China, and he sees the Party as the one institution that can prevent that from happening.”
When Xi was still in the countryside, he applied to join the Communist Youth League of China and was rejected due to his father’s history. So he applied again. And again. On his eight try, he was accepted. His path to becoming a full Party member was no easier, with nine applications rejected before he finally became a member in 1974 on his tenth try. From there, his rise in the party proceeded slowly and steadily, including a series of increasingly important political posts around the country.
In his personal life, at the age of 33 Xi married Peng Liyuan, one of the most famous singers in China. It was the Chinese equivalent of Joe Biden marrying Beyonce or Taylor Swift back when he was a virtually unknown junior senator from Delaware. (An aside: for historical realism, a better analogy might be to say it was as if Biden had married Stevie Nicks or Dolly Parton, since they were both famous when he was 33. Neither Beyonce nor Swift had been born yet.) These days, both Xi’s wife and his daughter and only child keep a low public profile. The daughter – Xi Mingzhe – currently lives in the US. She earned a BA in psychology from Harvard in 2014 (using a pseudonym), then returned to China until 2019, when she re-enrolled in Harvard’s graduate program.
Back in the world of politics, Xi ascended to the national stage in 2002, when he became a member of China’s 200 person Central Committee. In 2007, Xi was elected to the highest political group in China, the CCP Politburo, which then had nine members, and in 2012 he ascended to the top position.
A few years later, a profile in the New Yorker described Xi’s “essential project as a rescue: he must save the People’s Republic and the Communist Party before they are swamped by corruption; environmental pollution; unrest in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and other regions; and the pressures imposed by an economy that is growing more slowly than at any time since 1990.”
Xi has also been obsessed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and avoiding a similar scenario in China. In 2009, he commissioned a study of the topic, which included this joke: When Leonid Brezhnev was one of the last General Secretary’s of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he proudly gave his mother a tour of his Kremlin apartment, his limousine, and his many luxuries. “I’m so proud of you, Leonid Ilyich,” his mother said, “but what happens if the Communists find out?”
This is one mistake Xi will not make. Instead, he has “associated himself with an earthier generation of Communists, a military caste that emphasized ‘hard work and plain living.’”
When Xi first took over the country’s top position in 2012, the Chinese constitution limited the presidency to two five year terms. So Xi had the constitution changed, and on March 10 he was officially elected to an unprecedented third term by the National People’s Congress by a vote of 2,952 to 0.
As a recent Foreign Affairs article summed up the current situation: “Now, as under Mao, China is a one-man show.”
Who will come after Xi, and how will it affect China and the world? The US may have to survive several decades of co-existing with Xi before we find out. There is no sign that he has chosen a successor, and “as a lifelong student and practitioner of Chinese politics, he knows full well that if he did leave office, he and his family would be vulnerable to retribution from his successors. So Xi is likely to lead the country for the rest of his life.”
At “just” 69, Xi is younger than 1/3 of the members of the US Senate. If he lives as long as his 96 year old mother, it could be the 2050s before there is a change in leadership.