The next leader of China spent much of his youth living in a dug-out cave.
Xi Jinping’s (習近平) seven years in this remote northern community meant toiling alongside villagers by day and sleeping on bricks by night, in stark contrast to his pampered early years in Beijing. He was born into the communist elite, but after his father fell out of favor with Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and before his later rehabilitation, the younger Xi was sent to a rural hinterland to learn peasant virtues at the age of 15.
The Liangjiahe years are among the scant details known about Xi’s life and personality, partly because he himself chronicled them as a formative experience. They are part of the vague picture of a man who has attracted little attention during much of his political career, but who is now poised to become ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) head next month and president next year of an increasingly assertive China.
What is clear is that Xi has excelled at quietly rising through the ranks by making the most of two facets: He has an elite, educated background with links to communist China’s founding fathers that are a crucial advantage in the country’s politics, and at the same time has successfully cultivated a “common-man mystique” that helps him appeal to a broad constituency. He even gave up a promising Beijing post in his late 20s to return to the countryside.
However, at first, he did not come willingly to Liangjiahe, a tiny community of cave dwellings dug into arid hills and fronted by dried-mud walls with wooden lattice entryways. He tried to escape and was detained. Villagers remember a tall bookworm who eventually earned their respect.
“He was always very sincere and worked hard alongside us. He was also a big reader of really thick books,” said Shi Chunyang (石春陽), then a friend of Xi and now a local official.
It is in the nature of China’s politics that relatively little is known about Xi’s policy leanings. He is not associated with any bold reforms. Aspiring officials get promoted by encouraging economic growth, tamping down social unrest and toeing the line set by Beijing, not by charismatic displays of initiative.
Xi’s resume in provincial posts suggests he is open to private industry and some administrative reforms as long as they do not jeopardize the CCP’s monopoly on power. He likes Hollywood flicks about World War II and has a daughter at Harvard University under an assumed name, though he has signaled he may be a staunch Chinese nationalist.
Tall, heavyset and married to a popular folk singer in the military, Xi is at ease in groups, in contrast to China’s typically stiff and aloof leaders, such as current President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
A Xi administration is expected to pursue a more forceful foreign policy based on Beijing’s belief that its chief rival, Washington, is in decline and that China’s rise to global pre-eminence is within reach.
“Xi was chosen in part because he has the large, assertive, confident personality to lead in that kind of strategy,” said Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese politics at New York’s Columbia University.
Xi will confront daunting challenges. After two decades of fast-paced growth and social change, the economy is flagging and China is under strain. A polarizing gap has left a few people wealthy, and many struggling and resentful. Rampant corruption is corroding already low reserves of public trust in officialdom.