Xi Jinping: From Disgraced Son to China’s ‘Paramount Leader’
What the life, politics and leadership style of the Chinese president may mean for the Sunshine Summit
Xi Jinping spent his early childhood inside the Forbidden City as the son of one of the most important leaders of China’s communist revolution. His father, Xi Zhongxun, had joined the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s, was a guerilla fighter in the 30s, a revolutionary in the 40s, and by the 50s, when Xi was a young boy, was propaganda chief and then a deputy prime minister under the Chinese Communist Party chairman and leader of the Republic of China, Mao Zedong, the greatest mass murderer in the history of the world.
“[Xi] has been very forthright and candid—privately and publicly—about the fact that the Chinese are rejecting Western values and multiparty democracy.”
But by the 1960s, the older Xi had been purged and exiled, and was under house arrest for many years in a far-flung province. His “good name” was restored in 1978, however, and visitors to a statue of Xi, who died in 2002, are now required to bow three times before it.
As President Donald Trump prepares to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping to the United States on Thursday, for a crucial meeting just two and a half months into his own presidency, a look at some of the major events of Xi’s life could indicate how he will approach the summit with his new American counter-part.
Xi grew up as the son of a disgraced communist revolutionary
Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping’s father, belonged to the first generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders, and he served as the party’s chief propaganda minister beginning in 1952. In 1956, he was elected to the party’s Central Committee. While propaganda minister, the elder Xi oversaw cultural and education policies. He ascended to the role of deputy prime minister in 1959 while directing the State Council’s functions.
But Xi Zhongxun suffered a mortifying setback when he was accused in 1962 of supporting an anti-communist book, removed from all his posts, and forced to work in a factory as penance. During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, which included a purge of all traditional and capitalist policies in order to form a cohesive Maoist ideology, Xi’s father was persecuted and jailed.
Xi was just 10 when his father was removed from the CPC and 15 when his father was jailed. Although Xi Zhongxun would eventually be rehabilitated back into the party, the years of disgrace to the family took their toll on Xi, his education and his career prospects.
In fact, Xi was forced to denounce his father
When he was 14, the Red Guards, China’s secret police at the time, detained Xi and forced him to publicly denounce his disgraced father. While recounting his capture to journalist Yang Xiaohuai in 2000, Xi described the following chilling exchange between himself and the Red Guards:
“How serious do you yourself think your crimes are?”
“You can estimate it yourselves,” Xi replied. “Is it enough to execute me?”
“We can execute you a hundred times,” the Red Guards said.
Xi noted, “To my mind there was no difference between being executed a hundred times or once, so why be afraid of a hundred times? The Red Guards wanted to scare me, saying that now I was to feel the democratic dictatorship of the people, and that I only had five minutes left. But in the end, they told me, instead, to read quotations from Chairman Mao every day until late at night.”
But Xi did not allow his family’s misfortunes at the hands of the CPC to drive him away from his allegiance to the party.
“Xi describes his 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,” Evan Osnos wrote in a lengthy profile of Xi published in 2015 in The New Yorker.
Xi worked his way up from disgraced son to “Paramount Leader”
As the Cultural Revolution came to an end, Xi continued his formal education, which had been delayed for nearly a decade, and studied chemical engineering at Tsinghua University from 1975 to 1979. There, Xi studied agricultural practices, which would come in handy during his first visit to the U.S.
Xi joined the Communist Youth League in 1971 and the Chinese Communist Party in 1974. He proceeded to serve as deputy party secretary of Zhengding County in 1982 before serving as its secretary in 1983.
Ultimately, Xi ascended to positions of leadership throughout four of China’s provinces before being promoted to the nine-person Politburo Standing Committee in 2007. In 2008, Xi became China’s vice president under President Hu Jintao.
Finally, in 2012 and 2013, Xi became the “Paramount Leader” of China, when he assumed the combined titles of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission.
When Xi thinks of America, Iowa comes to mind
For his first trip to the United States, Xi spent two weeks in 1985 in the farming town of Muscatine, Iowa, where he represented the Shijiazhuang Feed Association as part of a Chinese delegation sent to learn about American agriculture. During his visit, Xi stayed in a spare bedroom in the home of Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak and interacted with Doyle Tubandt, president of Muscatine Foods Corporation. At the time, Xi was an official in the Communist Party.
When Xi returned to the United States 27 years later, in 2012, he attended the expected high-level meetings in D.C. and California, watched a basketball game and paid a visit to Muscatine, where he held a meeting with 14 Americans he’d met during his 1985 visit.
“You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with,” Xi told the Iowans, according to CNN. “To me, you are America.”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad welcomed Xi in 2012, saying, “We consider you a great friend of Iowa,” according to The Muscatine Journal. “We are so appreciative you chose to come to Muscatine and to Iowa.”
Indeed, Branstad, who is Trump’s nominee to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to China, said that Xi’s visit to Muscatine as president was the most significant foreign visit Iowa had hosted since Pope John Paul II graced Des Moines with his presence in 1979.
According to Xi’s own acknowledgment, Iowans and the U.S. agriculture industry left an indelible imprint on his understanding of the country and its capitalist economy.
Xi made himself China’s center
The New Yorker profile called Xi “the most authoritarian leader since Chairman Mao,” writing that he has investigated “tens of thousands” of Chinese citizens, “on charges ranging from corruption to leaking state secrets and inciting the overthrow of the state.”
The Chinese president holds at least 10 official titles, several of which he created for himself in his consolidation of power. Xi’s moves to increase his power and influence are a marked departure from the last 30 years, following Mao’s controversial reign, after which the Chinese had called for a “collective presidency” instead of a cult of personality.
Xi now oversees national security, the Internet, government and military reform, the courts, the police, and the secret police. He advocates for national unity and strength operating on a communist base with the goal of economic prosperity. He has initiated scores of reforms, including a relaxation of China's infamous "one-child policy" — not on moral grounds, but because China suddenly finds it hasn't enough workers to support its aging population.
And yet, Xi views American democracy with unabashed disapproval and suspicion — even as he admires many elements of the American way of life. The careful grooming and consolidation of Chinese thought while stamping out diversity of opinion has surely carried over from Mao until now.
"[Xi] has been very forthright and candid — privately and publicly — about the fact that the Chinese are rejecting Western values and multiparty democracy," Henry Paulson, the former Treasury Secretary, told Osnos. "To Westerners, it seems very incongruous to be, on the one hand, so committed to fostering more competition and market-driven flexibility in the economy and, on the other hand, to be seeking more control in the political sphere, the media, and the Internet."
"But that's the key: He sees a strong party as essential to stability, and the only institution that's strong enough to help him accomplish his other goals," Paulson added.