Xi’s five-day visit, which begins Tuesday when he meets President Obama, is an essential step in the world’s most important power relationship. Xi needs to show officials back home that the Americans will treat him with respect; the White House wants to gauge Xi’s style before it has to deal with him as the Chinese leader.
Xi, 58, who has been China’s vice president since 2008, is expected to replace Hu Jintao as Communist Party leader this year, and next year as president, a post he would be expected to hold for a decade.
With the U.S., and the world, about to catch its first high-profile glimpse of China’s next leader, fascination with the man, about which little is known, is at an all-time high. An abundance of newspaper profiles have compiled whatever information reporters can cull on his background, his political views, and his suitability for high office. A Guardian article looks at his privileged and painful childhood as the son of a Communist revolutionary who was later persecuted by Mao Zedong, and how that may impact his policy-making:
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.
All this, of course, fits into classic Communist party narratives 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.
For China’s next leader, such a father is a mixed blessing. It connects him with the party’s heroic early years. But it also brings risks at a time of deep public resentment toward so-called “princelings.” Membership in this revolutionary aristocracy “is a serious liability” in terms of public image, said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Xi’s daughter, like the offspring of many senior Communist officials, studies in the United States, at Harvard.
Xi nonetheless has a reputation for probity, and his close relatives are not known to be multimillionaires. He was raised, according to biographer Jia, on frugal values: The elder Xi, after taking a bath, made his son bathe in the same water. In an interview with Chinese television, Xi Jinping recalled having to wear flowery hand-me-down clothes from his sisters. As a teenager, after his father’s fall, he was banished to a poor village in Shaanxi.
He “takes after his father’s excellent qualities,” the official biographer said.
A big question, though, is whether those include his father’s political outlook, or whether his father’s troubles left Xi convinced that unwavering toughness and extreme caution offer the best hope for survival. Although respected by crusty conservatives and neo-Maoist firebrands, Xi senior is particularly popular with many liberals, who remember him as unusually open-minded and tolerant — and hope that his son, under a carapace of political rectitude, is perhaps similar.
On Sunday, the Washington Post published a written interview with Xi, for which the Chinese government ignored many of the questions provided by the paper and instead wrote their own questions and answers. Meanwhile, in the New York Times, China expert David Shambaugh poses ten hypothetical questions (without answers) for Xi. See also a Foreign Policy profile: “The Insider.” In the New York Times, writer and publisher Ho Pin writes an op-ed calling into question Xi’s ability to effect change within the constraints of the system:
Economic growth has offered Mr. Hu a temporary reprieve; Mr. Xi will not be so lucky. The economy is showing signs of stalling, the real estate bubble could burst and the financial system is being undermined by unregulated and corrupt lending. Meanwhile, protests against corruption and social injustice are intensifying as the country’s environmental resources are depleted without any consideration of future generations.
Inaction isn’t an option for Mr. Xi. He will have to combat corruption, improve protections for peasants and migrant workers and rejuvenate private enterprise. Given that his father was once persecuted for supporting a banned book, Mr. Xi should grasp the importance of free speech, and one hopes he will work to regain the trust of intellectuals. But without free elections, a free press and independent judges, the government can’t fulfill its promise to stamp out corruption and build a fair and just society.
Update: The New York Times Lede blog points out that in China, Xi Jinping is not as famous as his wife, military folk singer Peng Liyuan. In a country where first ladies usually stay low-key and out of the news, Ms. Peng may rewrite the template once she takes on the position:
It is not uncommon for Chinese leaders to leave their wives at home, but a report in The Wall Street Journal speculated that Ms. Peng stayed home in part to avoid outshining her husband as he steps onto the world stage. As the BBC noted, “When he was first announced as China’s next leader-in-waiting, he was already vice president, but people still joked: ‘Who is Xi Jinping? He is Peng Liyuan’s husband.’”
Ms. Peng, who holds the rank of major general in the army, has kept a low profile since her husband’s promotion into China’s senior leadership. Ms. Peng is Mr. Xi’s second wife.
Watch Ms. Peng perform “The Land of China” (在中国的大地上):