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As with all Chinese leaders, government tightly controls details of Xi's life
Xi is the son of a revolutionary hero, grew up a "princeling"
Xi has military ties that predecessors Hu, Jiang don't, one observer notes
Xi received high marks during Washington trip for desire to engage United States
When Xi Jinping, 59, and his “Fifth Generation” of leaders assume power, it will mark a first for China’s post-1949 generation and those who spent their formative years during the Cultural Revolution.
In a series of steps, Xi, the current vice president since 2008, is expected to be named general secretary of the Communist Party during its 18th Congress, which opens Thursday, and then president next March, succeeding incumbent Hu Jintao.
As with all Chinese leaders, details of Xi’s life are tightly controlled by the government, creating a gap that biographies – some written under pseudonyms, given the political sensitivities – have sought to fill. China watchers meanwhile try to discern how he would lead.
“Chinese leaders don’t rise to the top telegraphing what changes they’ll do,” said Bruce J. Dickson, a political science professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “They rise to the top showing how loyal they are to the incumbent. What they’ll do when they rise to the top – that’s the big question.”
Xi was born in 1953, four years after the Chinese Communist Party defeated the ruling Nationalists and established the People’s Republic of China. He is the son of the second marriage of Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary hero whom then-paramount leader Mao Zedong would appoint minister of propaganda and education.
Xi Zhongxun would later become vice premier under Zhou Enlai and secretary general of the State Council, China’s highest administrative body, before being purged in 1962.
Until then, Xi Jinping had grown up a “princeling” in the enclave of power, Zhongnanhai, with other children of China’s first generation of leaders. One childhood peer was Bo Xilai, son of Bo Yibo, the first finance minister who was also purged during the Cultural Revolution. Life was comfortable and far removed from the mass starvation during Mao’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward” campaign (1958-1962), which was designed to transform the nation into an industrial society.
However, a few years later, Xi – his father by then deposed – would be among 30 million “sent-down youth,” forced to leave cities for the countryside and mountains under another of Mao’s policies. From 1969-1975, or most of the Cultural Revolution, Xi was an agricultural laborer in Liangjiahe, Shaanxi, his ancestral province.
“That generation went through a lot of difficulties,” said Cheng Li, director of research at the John L. Thornton Center at the Brookings Institution. “Idealism and pragmatism in a very unique way combined in this generation.”
The experience had a positive influence on Xi’s view of China and the world, according to Guo Yanjun, chairman of CNHK Media, the publisher of “China’s Future: A Biography of Xi Jinping.” “Even after he became a leader, he helped farmers,” Guo said. His favorite story was of the Tsinghua University-bound Xi in 1975 being accompanied by villagers who walked 60 li (30 km) to send him off at a train station.
Mao died in 1976, and Xi’s father was subsequently rehabilitated and became party secretary of Guangdong, where he oversaw China’s first special economic zones near Hong Kong – reforms that would define then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic legacy.
The elder Xi’s connections proved critical. After graduating from Tsinghua with a chemical engineering degree in 1979, Xi Jinping became the personal secretary to his father’s former comrade-in-arms, Geng Biao, and became an active military servicemember. As vice premier, a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee and secretary general of the Central Military Commission, Geng “dominated the Party, government and the army,” according to “China’s Future,” affording Xi a rare vantage point.
Such military ties – familial and professional – give him what neither Hu nor his predecessor Jiang Zemin had, said Chi Wang, president of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation.
“The military takes him as one of the family members.”
It was around this period that Xi was married to his first wife, Ke Lingling, the daughter of Ke Hua, China’s ambassador to Great Britain and a former underling of Xi Zhongxun, according to “China’s Future.”
Not much is known about the marriage except that it ended in divorce within a few years. (In 1987, Xi would marry his current wife, Peng Liyuan, a popular folk singer for the People’s Liberation Army.)
In 1982, when his father entered the ruling Politburo and the Secretariat, Xi became county deputy secretary in Zhengding, Hebei province, his first experience in rural politics.
In this role, he took his first trip to the United States – as part of an agricultural delegation in 1985 to Hebei’s “sister state” of Iowa – and brought back knowledge of farming technology as well as tourism.
This trip had a great impact on Xi, who stayed with a family in Muscatine, said Pin Ho, chairman of Mirror Books, which published a separate “Biography of Xi Jinping” this year.
“Vocally, he’s a nationalist. Psychologically, he greatly hopes to keep good relations with the West, especially the U.S.,” Ho said, noting that Xi’s daughter, Xi Mingze, studies there – at Harvard – under a pseudonym.