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A Son of the Yellow Earth

Like US presidents with their log cabin stories, China's incoming head of state, Xi Jinping has a tale of humble beginnings.

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IF EVERY modern president needs a creation myth, then Xi Jinping's begins on the dusty Loess Plateau of north-west China. It was here that Xi spent seven formative years, working among the peasants and living in a lice-infested cave dug into the silty clay that extends around the Yellow River. Gradually, the selfless peasants and the unforgiving ''Yellow Earth'' transformed this pale, skinny and nervous-looking teenager into the man who will next month take control of the world's second most powerful nation for the coming decade.

''When I arrived at the Yellow Earth, at 15, I was anxious and confused,'' wrote Xi in 1998, by which time he was working his way to the top of the hierarchy in a prosperous coastal province. ''When I left the Yellow Earth, at 22, my life goals were firm and I was filled with confidence.''

When Xi describes himself as ''always a son of the Yellow Earth'', as he did in that rare biographical essay, he was not only setting up his personal narrative as a leader who has toiled with the masses, in contrast to an increasingly corrupt and hypocritical governing elite. He was also alluding to the idealistic creation story of the Chinese Communist Party, in which his own father played a starring role in setting up the wartime bastion of Yan'an, just down the road. Yan'an, as the local museum puts it, ''is the holy land of the Chinese revolution'' and ''birthplace of New China''.

Xi Jinping at the banquet in Beijing last month commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the People's Republic of China.

Xi Jinping at the banquet in Beijing last month commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the People's Republic of China. Photo: Getty Images

''Having the masses on side, having the Yan'an and Yellow Earth story does matter,'' says Geremie Barme, director of the Australian National University's Centre on China in the World. ''It is part of the mental and cultural wallpaper of China, akin to the log cabin of American politics, and Xi Jinping can claim it.''

If all goes to plan, China's 1.3 billion people will be officially told on November 15 that Vice-President Xi Jinping has been ''elected'' general secretary of the Communist Party for the next decade, in the first and most important leg of a three-stage transition from President Hu Jintao. In March he will take the title of president and, depending on the outcome of some apparently fraught backroom negotiations, he will also take control of the military at some point in the next three years.

Officials, analysts and business people in and outside China are desperate to get a handle on the incoming leader and what he might mean, as the rising power continues to transform the world's economic and geopolitical arena. This year China has bought nearly 30 per cent of all Australian merchandise exports. Soon it will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy, if Xi can keep the juggernaut on track. Almost all nations in the region are scrambling to adjust to the security implications of China's rise.

Xi Jinping (centre) when he returned in 1983 to the village of Liangjiahe. Click for more photos

Xi Jinping: Then and now

Xi Jinping (centre) when he returned in 1983 to the village of Liangjiahe.

  • Xi Jinping (centre) when he returned in 1983 to the village of Liangjiahe.
  • Xi Jinping with his father, Xi Zhongxun.
  • Xi Jinping's father being purged during the Cultural Revolution.
  • Xi Jinping and younger brother Xi Yuanping with their father.
  • Xi Jinping (centre)  pictured in 1993 in front of the cave  where he spent his teenage years. An older sister, Qi Qiaoqiao, is second from left, and younger brother Xi Yuanping is second from right.
  • Xi Jinping at the banquet in Beijing last month commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the People's Republic of China.

Awkwardly, in a once-in-40-year coincidence, China's leadership transition will be juxtaposed against the world's most heavily contested and scrutinised election, on November 6. And while there has been an endless flood of news, commentary and images about President Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, Mr Xi's policy preferences, his record in government and even his family circumstances are closely guarded secrets.

''Everything we say about Xi Jinping is prefaced with ' I guess', or 'he might be','' says Dai Qing, an independently minded writer and activist, who shares a similar revolutionary pedigree to Xi. ''We can never judge an official on what they say … it's all empty talk in the official circle and nobody pays attention.''

Xi has managed to rise to where he is by avoiding offending important people and not standing out. If he is responsible for any significant achievements, or egregious mistakes, then they have been submerged beneath the party's insistence on collective leadership. His great political achievement is to have risen without a trace.

Xi has occasionally shown himself to be a capable politician by appealing to multiple constituencies. He has been willing to play the anti-Western card, and the Maoist card, while being seen as a defender of private enterprise and sending his daughter, Xi Mingze, to study under a false name at Harvard.

But the opacity and contradictions do not stop people from forming a view on whatever slivers of information they can glean.

''He's spent his whole career pretending he could not threaten anybody,'' says an influential Chinese economist, who did not wish to be named. ''We cannot, therefore, rule out the possibility that he is very smart.''

Beyond China, diplomats, multinational chief executives and world leaders are often impressed - perhaps overly impressed - by Xi's presence, his willingness to set aside talking points and hold a genuine conversation, and even the way he likes to place his large frame in the middle of a spacious room and greet his guests with a slow, deep and mellifluous ''nihao''. The relief, after a decade struggling to connect with President Hu Jintao, is sometimes palpable.

Nobody has gone further out on a limb than the former Beijing diplomat and Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who spent three days with Xi in Australia in 2010, moments before being dumped from the job. Last week Rudd told foreign journalists in Sydney that Xi, with his ''vast experience'' and ''inquiring mind'', was ''the man for the times''.

He predicted wide-ranging economic and political reforms, accompanied by a historic security accommodation with the United States. Earlier, Rudd placed Xi just one notch down from the most influential world leader of modern times, Deng Xiaoping: ''Because of his political pedigree, Xi is likely to have more influence on China's future policy direction than any other individual political leader since Deng.''

The key distinction between Xi and the incumbent leader he will replace, Hu Jintao, which makes Xi far less guarded and more accessible, is that he was born into the upper tier of the Communist aristocracy. Xi has the space to act, communicate and relate to people with a confidence that comes from living a life in which power and resources have always flowed his way.

His pedigree helped, for example, securing the attention of a glamorous second wife. For most of Xi's career he has been outshone by Peng Liyuan, a high-ranking singer in the People's Liberation Army who performs on the state television gala each Chinese New Year. Peng, who specialises in patriotic songs, has not been shy about adding specks of colour to her husband's biography.

''The first time I met him my heart pounded and I felt immediately that this was my ideal husband, he was so pure and thoughtful,'' she told a state-run magazine.

Within the Chinese elite, however, estimations of Xi's character and capabilities are mostly derived directly from perceptions of his parents. On that measure, Xi will be a force to be reckoned with.

Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, joined the Communist Party in 1928 when he was 15 years old - while he was in prison for political crimes. He helped create and lead a revolutionary base area around Yan'an, where the exhausted remnants of Mao's Long March finally found refuge in 1935. (Mao's forces soon returned the favour by saving Xi Zhongxun from being buried alive - at the age of 22 - in a high-stakes factional dispute.)

It was experiences like these that led Mao to promote Xi Zhongxun to be the highest ranking leader of his age cohort. Xi had been ''tempered by fire'', said Mao, while reading one of his reports in 1952. The four characters he used - luhuo chunqing - alluded to the furnace of immortality that had forged the Monkey King.

But soon after Xi Jinping was born, in 1953, Xi Zhongxun's career was thrown off course by the purge of his key patron, Gao Gang, who committed suicide in 1955. Xi was himself purged in 1962. That's why Xi Jinping sometimes jokes that he could never be a ''princeling'' - using the ubiquitous and disparaging term for children of senior Chinese leaders - because his father had been in purgatory for most of the years he had known him.

In some ways it was a stroke of luck that his ''bad family background'' excluded him from taking part in the princeling-led ''red terror'' of the early months of the Cultural Revolution, which many Chinese people cannot forgive even today. Xi was exiled to the peaceful, albeit dirt-poor, village of Liangjiahe, which he now calls his ''second home''.

The older folk at Liangjiahe remember the tall and slight ''student baby'' who arrived from the big city as a 15-year-old, in 1969, carrying little more than his bags of books. At first he lacked the strength to work with the peasants. But he soon learnt to eat the fibrous corn bread they lived on and came to hold his own in the fields. ''His legs had power in them,'' says 80-year-old Lu Nengzhong, squatting in the courtyard of his home. They caught up again when Xi returned for a brief visit in 1993, with a high-powered official entourage.

''He had holes and patches in his pants like the rest of us,'' says a woman who runs a small shop down the bottom of the village road, who did not wish to be named. She fondly recalled Xi joining her group to sing revolutionary songs about New China. ''He was tall and handsome, and at that time he was really skinny - not like now with his plump, round and pale face on television.''

Xi became a valuable conduit to knowledge and political power in the outside world. ''When it rained we gathered together and Xi told us stories,'' says the old man, Lu, gesturing to the cave where Xi would often sleep alongside his son. ''He never used to quarrel with anyone.'' But our conversation was soon cut short by the local gang of village heavies, who chastised the old man for spreading ''rumours'' and creating a new ''personality cult'' around Xi Jinping, while pushing us out of the old man's courtyard and calling the police.

By the time Xi left Liangjiahe he could rightfully claim that he had been battle hardened for anything life could throw at him, just like his father. ''Fat in January, thin in February; half-dead in March and April,'' wrote Xi, recalling the seasonal rhythms of the time. ''We say a sword is made on a grinding stone and man is forged in hardship.''

Xi, like many princelings of his era, describes his Cultural Revolution experience as a romantic and voluntary ordeal, like the heroes in the Stalinist literature they were devouring. But it didn't always feel that way, at the time. Before leaving for the countryside, Xi's father had been paraded around town and at mass criticism sessions at the Workers Stadium, with a great heavy placard dangling from his neck and seething crowds hurling insults in his direction.

It is not surprising that Xi Zhongxun, despite his noble and unscratchable exterior, came to drink too much and would occasionally allow his anger to explode. His children were sometimes on the receiving end, according to a close family friend who witnessed such occasions.

And when political watchers compile Xi's family tree they usually list the four children by Xi's mother, Qi Xin, and sometimes two children by Xi's first wife, Hao Mingzhu.

Many do not know about the first of the seven Xi siblings, Xi Heping, who was Xi Zhongxun's first child by his first wife, and whose name means ''Peace''. She killed herself in the dying days of the Cultural Revolution. She left behind two children, who now live near Xian.

''The family don't want to talk about it, but yes, it was, suicide, under great pressure during the Cultural Revolution because her father was under attack,'' says a source close to the family, who has carefully chronicled the family's affairs. ''There was no question it was suicide. I heard, but have not confirmed, that she hanged herself from a bathroom shower rail.''

When Xi left the village in that same year, 1975, he headed for Tsinghua University, where he had been admitted on the basis of nominations from local rural cadres. In 1978 his father was rehabilitated and sent down to run the southern province of Guangdong. With Xi's father's revitalised connections, his son landed a plum job in the secretariat of the Central Military Commission, introducing him to a network of generals that he has cultivated to this day. In 1983 Xi Jinping opted out of the Beijing bureaucracy and began his rise through the provinces, beginning with a lowly county in the northern province of Hebei.

Throughout Xi's career he enjoyed access to privileged information - the most valuable commodity in China's closed and treacherous political system - via his family and other children of high cadres. The princeling club he has been immersed in provides a network that can override factions, ideology, financial and bureaucratic interests and even internecine family feuds.

Several of these princelings - who prefer to be known as ''red successors'' - will take their places in Xi's inner cabinet, the Politburo Standing Committee, as revealed by the order in which they walk out behind him after next month's Party Congress - the 18th congress since the founding of the Party in 1921.

Some veteran analysts, who have been watching the Communist Party evolve beyond the guiding hands of the founding revolutionaries, are impressed by Xi but not convinced that he has the capacity to take on China's calcifying bureaucracy and evolving interest groups.

''Xi is fairly strong, he has a tremendous network, and I've seen hints that he's a very effective player internally,'' says Ken Lieberthal, at the Brookings Institution. Lieberthal, who was Asia Senior Director at the US National Security Council during the Clinton administration, points to how China's top leaders have been steadily ceding power to their colleagues in the Politburo Standing Committee, and the bureaucracies they represent, since the death of Mao.

''Each of these PBSC members basically runs a bureaucratic empire and they fairly readily can find consensus to spend additional money - I'll vote for your money if you vote for my money,'' says Lieberthal. ''Shy of a galvanising crisis, it will be very hard to for Xi to get the kind of authority he needs to ram home the structural changes that he has to make - assuming that's what he wants to do.''

Those who know Xi well, who have grown up with him in exclusive princeling circles, acknowledge the enormous challenges he faces. But they also remember the achievements of his parents. Pessimists are disheartened by the fact that Xi owes his ascendancy to politicians who have long-since lost touch with what the Communist Party was founded for. Their families, like Xi's own sister Qi Qiaoqiao, have made themselves fabulously rich by playing the dark margins between administrative power and the market.

Optimistic reformers take heart from their belief that Xi's mother, Qi Xin, remains a pillar of strength and integrity and that his father remained loyal ''to the people'' and to his liberal-minded colleagues, even when it ruined his political career. Xi Zhongxun cemented his public reputation as a loyal, decent and reformist leader by being the only elder who spoke up in defence of Hu Yaobang, China's most liberal party chief, in 1987.

Xi is taking power at a time when his country has returned to the same ideological debates that were coming to a head a quarter of a century ago, when his father took his stand. In 1983, director Chen Kaige had extolled the virtues of the Yellow Earth, in a film of that same name, which glorified the noble sacrifice of the young communists at Yan'an. In 1988, at the height of China's ideological uncertainty, a five-part China Central Television documentary called River Elegy, turned China's ideological universe on its head. It posited the Loess Plateau, and the colour yellow, as representing tyranny, feudalism, insularity and decay. The ocean and sky, and the colour blue, represented maritime trade, capitalist expansion and cultural vitality.

The message, hammered into an audience of more than 200 million people, was that China could leave behind the burden of its stultifying and despotic traditions.

The death of Xi Zhongxun's friend, the liberal party boss Hu Yaobang, triggered the Tiananmen protests of 1989. The makers of River Elegy were imprisoned or sent into exile, following the massacres, and Xi Zhongxun retreated to spend the rest of his life in a guesthouse in Shenzhen.

Few beyond the inner elite remember that it was Xi Zhongxun, who passed away in 2002, who had opened the special economic zone around the fishing village of Shenzhen in the late 1970s and pioneered China's opening to the world.

Deng Xiaoping, who was beginning his climb to being China's paramount leader, took retrospective credit for Xi Zhongxun's courage and achievement. Today, most of Shenzhen's 8 million mostly thriving residents do not know his name. But nor, for that matter, are they paying much attention to the son.

''They say Xi Jinping is going to be the next president; we'll have to wait to find out what he's like,'' says another resident, who gives his family name as Tang.

''I don't know who that is,'' says one young professional lady, Shi Ziqing, standing in front of a huge billboard of Deng Xiaoping in downtown Shenzhen. She has better things to do than watch the stodgy state-run evening news. ''The 18th Party Congress has nothing to do with me.''

John Garnaut is the author of Penguin e-book, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo, available from October 29. A version of this article will appear at foreignpolicy.com