The rise and rise of Xi Jinping

The rise and rise of Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a press conference at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen on Sep 5, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool)

BEIJING: On Oct 18, Chinese President Xi Jinping will open the most important event in the country's political calendar - the 19th Communist Party congress.

It is a key meet where large-scale changes to the party are expected.

But while details about the meeting are still under wraps, there has been speculation that a draft amendment to the constitution of the Communist Party of China will possibly enshrine President Xi's doctrine in its charter.

If the amendment is made, it will cement Xi's status as one of the strongest Chinese leaders in decades.

After all, he has already been anointed as a “core” leader, putting him on par with past strongmen like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

And if he has his name written into the party constitution as a guiding theory at this year’s congress, he will be the first Chinese leader since Mao to have done so while in power.

Ahead of the big meet, we take a look at Xi's rise to power and attempt to find out what makes his tick.


The dusty loess plateau in Shaanxi, north-central China, is one of the country's poorest regions. The earth is yellow and dry, and cave dwellings line the hillside.

And yet, Xi was sent as a teenager to Liangjiahe, an impoverished village in the plateau, to labour in the countryside.

Liu Jielian, a resident of Liangjiahe, remembers Xi fondly.

"While he was the party secretary in Liangjiahe, he treated us well though life was tough and he had to do hard work, but he knew how to plan and he did a good job, so we all chose him as party secretary," she said.

Xi was ordered to Liangjiahe in 1969 when he was 15 as part of a campaign by Mao Zedong to force educated urban youths to experience peasant lives. He was put to work in the fields, and at night, he slept on straw mats in a flea-infested caves.

But he had been born into a very different life. The son of Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary hero and former vice premier, young Xi was seen by many observers as a communist “princeling”.

But when his father fell out of favour during the Cultural Revolution, Xi was sent to Liangjiahe for "re-education". Today though, the time he spent in Liangjiahe has become an important part of his personal narrative.

As a teenager, Chinese President Xi Jinping was sent to the remote village of Liangjiahe during the Cultural Revolution in 1969, where he worked in the fields and slept on straw mats in flea-infested caves. 

It has also fuelled tourism.

The villagers in Liangjiahe now drive tourist buggies and sell souvenirs to the 100,000 visitors who come to Liangjiahe every year.

Yang He, a tourist who visited Liangjiahe, said: "The conditions were extremely tough in the past. Both Yanchuan and Liangjiahe’s development weren’t good then, so for this place to produce a person like Xi, it’s really good."

Some analysts think that the current promotion of Liangjiahe as a "sacred site" is part of an effort to bolster Xi’s image as a man of the people.

Tom Rafferty, a Beijing-based analyst for The Economist Intelligence Unit said: "I think what Xi has been able to do with his personal history, which is now being leveraged by the state media is really focusing on how maybe he comes from a privileged background but he’s also faced personal difficulties in his career.

"So we’ve had a big focus on the work he’s done in rural areas of China, especially in the early parts of his career, and before he really developed his career on his eastern seaboard."

But beyond that, others think Xi’s years in Liangjiahe have shaped his political views.

Zhang Lifan, a political commentator and historian said: “As a young man growing up during the Mao era, his experiences growing up, his knowledge and his world view are marked by the Mao era.

"So while responding to some issues, he may have a habit of adopting a Mao mindset. One is that power comes from a gun. He believes in ruling with an iron fist, and also a unified leadership, which is to emphasise a unity of thought."


It is also a goal of Xi's to push for a peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

Though his family hails from the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi, Fujian was one of the coastal provinces where Xi rose through the ranks.

And as he noted at the recent BRICs summit, Xiamen in Fujian province was where he started off.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to push for a peaceful reunification with Taiwan - but cross-strait ties between Taiwan and mainland China have chilled considerably since Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s successor Tsai Ing-wen came to power. 

Some analysts say that Xi’s stint in Fujian, which is just a 30-minute ferry ride from the Taiwanese-ruled island of Kinmen, has helped to shape his perceptions of cross-strait relations.

Dr Shi Yinhong from Renmin University of China said: “His long stint in Fujian will invariably give him more experience and knowledge on the Taiwan issue.”

Huang Bin, a 44-year-old Xiamen resident, has family on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. His grandmother was born in the Taiwanese-ruled island of Kinmen, just off the coast of Xiamen. But she was abandoned as an infant and brought up in Xiamen.

Huang grew up not knowing about his relatives in Kinmen, but today, he has reunited with them. For him, the topic of reunification is close to his heart, even though he rarely discusses politics with his Taiwanese relatives.

He said: "At the political level, if you ask most Chinese, they’ll want reunification between China and Taiwan. Because the Chinese nation cannot be split."

Kinmen used to be Taiwan's frontline against China when the two sides were still at war, and local residents used to see the other side as an arch-enemy. However, times have changed and their feelings towards China have also changed, as Channel NewsAsia's Jeremy Koh and Victoria Jen discover.

While much of the attention on Xi’s five-year rule has focused on his foreign policy and anti-corruption drive, Taiwan is never far off the radar.

After all, he once said that a political solution for Taiwan cannot be postponed forever.

Professor Alexander Huang from Taiwan's Tamkang University said: “Xi has to achieve something regarding Taiwan during his term.

“This might mean tightening the screws on Taiwan to force it to comply, or he might relax his approach towards Taiwan after he consolidates his power, to entice Taiwan to work with China to maintain the same framework.”

Since Tsai Ing-wen from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party took office in 2016, Beijing has frozen official communications and engagement with Taipei.

And it has also increased the diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, barring its representatives from attending the World Health Organization’s annual conference and other international gatherings.

"During his tenure, Xi Jinping will definitely vigorously promote a path towards reunification,” said Dr Shi. "But reunification will probably not take place during his tenure."


But Xi also has to deal with issues on the mainland. Among them, displacement and unemployment resulting from new developments and industries. 

The main job for residents in Guzhuangtou village in northern Hebei province was producing plastic bags.

But many of them have been sitting idle since the government announced it was building a new city called the Xiongan New Area in their province, which, when completed, will cover an area nearly three times that of New York.

Zhao Xiaogui, a resident of the village said: “To build this Xiongan New Area, we’ve lost our livelihood. They put us out of work. This area mainly produces plastic bags, and all the factories have stopped work, which is why we’ve nothing to do now.

"There's no compensation and we’re just waiting here."

The Xiongan New Area covers the counties of Xiong, Anxin and Rongcheng in Hebei.

But the province is one of the most air-polluted in China. It also suffers from water and soil pollution.

Since April, when the move to create the new area was announced, thousands of polluting companies have been shut down.

So officials in the new area have been ordered to put the environment first and to observe green development guidelines.

Xiongan New Area in Hebei is the brainchild of Chinese President Xi Jinping who hopes to make it like Shenzhen's special economic zone and Shanghai’s Pudong New District - but it also means many factories in the area had to be shut down, costing residents their jobs. 

The three counties are located about 100km south of Beijing, but in the coming years, state owned enterprises, universities, hospitals, research institutions and other less important state organisations are expected to be relocated to the area.

The Xiongan New Area is the brainchild of Xi.

State media has lauded its development as a strategy "crucial for a thousand years to come", though details remain sketchy.

With this new city, the government plans to create a match for the Shenzhen special economic zone and Shanghai’s Pudong New District. It is also hoped that Xiongan will take some of the pressure off Beijing, China’s car-clogged and crowded capital.

But more than that, analysts say Xi is seeking to create a legacy project in Xiongan.

“He wants a legacy project the same way that Deng Xiaoping had in Shenzhen as well, and that helps secure Deng’s status within the sort of pantheon of Chinese communist leaders," said Rafferty from the Economist Intelligence Unit.

"So Xi wants the same thing as well so there is some political pressure there for him to deliver on Xiongan and to show that it can replicate Shenzhen and it can replicate Shanghai."

It is still early days for the project, and property sales in the area have been stopped to curb speculation.

So residents in the area have yet to see any direct benefits.

Still, 34-year-old shop owner Cui Xiaowei, who has a 12-year-old child, is brimming with hope.

“In the future, be it in terms of schools or other things, it will be better than it is now,” he said.

Retiree Peng Yulan, 68, shares the same sentiments.

"Xi has improved the lives of many Chinese," she said. "And he really cares about poor people, he’s really quite good. He’s still young, hope he can work more years."

There has been speculation that Xi is looking to stay in power after his second term as party leader ends in 2022. The launch of Xiongan, coming at the end of his first term, has stoked the speculation.

"Most people assume he’ll step down in five years in 2022," said Rafferty. "But if he wants to see results from Xiongan while he’s still in power, then he may have to extend his tenure a bit, perhaps into 2027."

But success is far from certain. Xiongan’s landlocked setting is a transportation disadvantage. And while the Shenzhen and Shanghai economic zones have thrived, other similar schemes in China have fallen short of expectations.

Xi's ambition for Xiongan could turn out to be a dream city or a costly failure, which could be a blow to his reputation.

Source: CNA/rw