Xi Jinping: the ‘big personality’ taking charge in China

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Originally published in The Guardian on November 15, 2012

Xi Jinping, who has been confirmed as the man who will lead China for the next decade, cuts a contrasting figure to his predecessor, Hu Jintao.

While Hu is determinedly anonymous, Xi is “a big personality”, according to those who have met him. Standing over 6ft tall, he is confident and affable. He boasts a ready smile and a glamorous second wife – the renowned People’s Liberation Army singer Peng Liyuan. He has expressed his fondness for US war movies and, perhaps more surprisingly, praised the edgy independent film-maker Jia Zhangke.

This is, in part, a generational and social shift. Xi is 59 and, like the other rising stars in Chinese politics, grew up in the era of reform and opening.

While Hu’s first visit to the US was in 2002, Xi and his peers have travelled frequently and several have personal links with the west. Xi’s daughter is studying at Harvard and a sister is thought to live in Canada. And like many of his peers, he is a “princeling” – someone who has experienced both privilege and prejudice as the child of a powerful Communist party figure.

Xi was born in 1953 to Xi Zhongxun, a Long March hero who later became a vice-premier, and Qi Xin. He grew up in the relative comfort of Zhongnanhai, the party elite’s red-walled Beijing compound.


But when he was only nine his father fell from grace with Mao Zedong. Six years later, as the cultural revolution wreaked havoc, young Xi was dispatched to the dusty, impoverished north-western province of Shaanxi to “learn from the masses”.

He spent seven years living in a cave home in Liangjiahe village. “I ate a lot more bitterness than most people,” he once told a Chinese magazine. He has described struggling with the fleas, the hard physical labour and the sheer loneliness.

There is, of course, a well-established Communist iconography of learning to serve the people. But political commentator Li Datong suggests this “double background” has proved genuinely formative for princelings such as Xi and might even lead them to bolder policy-making.

“One aspect is their family background as children of the country’s founders and the other is their experience of being sent to the countryside, which made them understand China’s real situation better. It gives this generation a strong tradition of idealism and the courage to do something big,” he said.

Although he has openly criticised the cultural revolution, Xi embraced the party; in a WikiLeaks cable an academic who knew Xi as a young man suggested he “chose to survive by becoming redder than red”.

Family links helped him to win a place studying chemical engineering at the elite Tsinghua University, followed by a post as aide to a powerful military leader, Geng Biao – the beginning of his useful People’s Liberation Army (PLA) connections.

Next came a more surprising move – his choice, says political expert Zhang Xiaojin – to an unglamorous post in Hebei province. He may have hoped to shake off suggestions of benefiting from his family name.

It was as deputy secretary of Zhengding county that he visited Muscatine, a US town of 23,000 until now best known for its melons and Mark Twain’s brief sojourn there in 1855.

“He was a very polite and kind guy. I could see someone very devoted to his work – there was no golfing on that trip, that’s for sure,” said Eleanor Dvorchak, who hosted Xi in her son’s old room, where he slept amid football wallpaper and Star Trek figurines. “He was serious. He was a man on a mission.”

Sarah Lande, who organised the trip, said his confidence was obvious even through a translator.

“You could tell he was in charge … he seemed relaxed and welcoming and able to handle things,” she said. “He had the words he wanted to express himself easily.”

The acquaintance who spoke to WikiLeaks claimed Xi always had his “eye on the prize” of a major party post. He transferred to southern Fujian province in 1985, climbing steadily upwards over 17 years. Most of his experience has been earned in China’s relatively prosperous, entrepreneurial coastal areas, where he courted investors and built up business, proving willing to adopt new ideas. The former US treasury secretary Hank Paulson called him “the kind of guy who knows how to get things over the goal line”.

After the toppling of Shanghai’s party secretary, Chen Liangyu, in a corruption scandal, Xi took charge of the city in 2007. Barely six months later his elevation to the politburo standing committee – the top political body – signalled that he was expected to succeed Hu. In October 2010 his appointment as vice-chair of the central military commission cemented his position.

He describes his own thinking as pragmatic, and throughout his rise he has cultivated a down-to-earth image; in the provinces he ate in government canteens and often dressed down.

In a burst of publicity shortly before his 2007 promotion his wife lauded his humble nature and devotion to duty, revealing that on their second date he warned her he would not have much time for family life. And in a system known for corruption, he also has a clean reputation. One friend told the LA Times the worst the paper was likely to find were overdue library books.

But while Xi is well-liked and adept at glad-handing, he appears to give little of importance away. Even his popular wife has retreated into the background as he has assumed increasing prominence.

The US ambassador, Gary Locke, recently observed that he was “very personable” but that US officials “really don’t know that much about him”.

Close association with particular policies or factions has its dangers. Becoming general secretary of the party, and thus leader of China, is “an issue of who opposes you rather than who supports you”, said Kerry Brown, head of the Asia programme at Chatham House.

Beyond his openness to economic reforms, Xi is known primarily as a figure who appeals to different groupings and as a safe pair of hands.

“In recent years he has taken care of large-scale events, including Olympics and anniversaries, and there haven’t been any big mistakes. Xi has steadily been through these tests,” said Zhang.

In 2007 he leapfrogged Li Keqiang – until then seen as likely to succeed Hu, but seen perhaps as too much Hu’s protege – as the consensus candidate in a system built on collective decision-making.

Xi’s networks are unusually broad, according to Brown: “Provincially; through his family; and with the military through Geng Biao. His elevation is in the interests of the widest group of people and opposed by the smallest group.” It is the same relatively small elite who will determine what he can do with the job.


Some hope he shares his father’s liberal sympathies: Xi senior was not only a noted economic reformer, but an ally of reformist leader Hu Yaobang. Some say he criticised the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square’s pro-democracy protests in 1989.

They say that grassroots organisations burgeoned during the vice-president’s stint in Zhejiang, and there was progress in the election of independent candidates at local polls. But the Chinese Human Rights Defenders network has argued the province also saw “zealous persecution” of dissidents, underground Christians and activists: “His track record does not bode well,” it wrote. Other China watchers point to shattered hopes that Hu might prove politically liberal.

Nor does Xi’s confidence in overseas dealings necessarily indicate a more emollient approach to foreign relations. His most-quoted remark to date was made on a trip to Mexico in 2009: “There are some well fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you. What else is there to say?”

In any case, to read Xi as a man in sole control of the agenda is to fundamentally misunderstand the Chinese political system. He will be “first among equals” in the nine-member standing committee, say analysts. Hu and other former leaders will still exert influence; and 2011’s five-year plan has plotted the immediate course.

The system “is in favour of moderation, and nothing can change quickly. Steady as it goes. The political rhythm first has to be installed … significant shifts will come later,” said Dr David Kelly, director of the Beijing-based political thinktank China Policy.

Some think Xi’s networks may allow him to strike out more confidently than Hu. Others think he will struggle to win support for bold decisions needed to tackle the country’s mounting challenges. “I think he’s a more instinctive and gut-driven politician and may surprise us. Others say the system and the vested interests around him are too strong,” said Brown.

His leadership will be shaped by his colleagues and framed by external forces. “What’s very important is the capacity to be on the right side of history,” said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington. “He himself probably does not know what he will do.”

Pocket profile

Born June 1953

Career His father was a revolutionary hero and a steady rise through party ranks, aided by expert networking, is set to take Xi to the very top. His family background has dogged him at times but also speeded him on his course.

High point Emerging as heir apparent to Hu Jintao at the 17th party congress in 2007. Many had expected Li Keqiang – now expected to become premier – to take the position.

Low point Coming last in the vote for membership of the central committee in 1997, amid hostility to princelings. Connections won him a place as an alternate.

What he says “Are you trying to give me a fright?” (when asked by a reporter, in 2002, whether he would be a top leader within the decade).

What they say “He’s more assertive than Hu Jintao. When he enters the room, you know there is a significant presence here … [But] when they rise through their hierarchy, it serves no purpose to indicate differences or even alternative directions.” (Henry Kissinger)


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