Beyond home, China is locked in sharp elbowing over territory with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors. At the same time, Beijing feels hemmed in by the US, which is shoring up ties with countries on China’s edges.
As son of one-time vice premier Xi Zhongxun (習仲勳), the younger Xi spent the 1950s in a world of comfortable homes, chauffeur-driven cars and the best schools at a time when most Chinese were desperately poor.
However, the elder Xi fell foul of the increasingly paranoid communist leader and Mao demoted him in 1962. The son was dispatched to rural Shaanxi Province in 1969 as part of Mao’s campaign to toughen up educated urban youth during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. When caught returning to Beijing, he was sent to a labor camp for six months. Back in Liangjiahe, he helped build irrigation ditches.
“Knives are sharpened on the stone. People are refined through hardship,” Xi said in a rare 2001 interview with a Chinese magazine.
“Whenever I later encountered trouble, I’d just think of how hard it had been to get things done back then and nothing would then seem difficult,” he said.
Local CCP officials and police in Liangjiahe followed reporters on a visit and asked them to leave, demonstrating how the party wants to control information about Xi’s past. They did allow brief interviews, including with Shi, described by villagers as Xi’s former “iron buddy.” Shi stood across from the now-abandoned, one-room home where Xi lived with a local family and recalled the day Xi departed at age 22.
“No one wanted to see him go,” Shi said.
Rejected for CCP membership nine times because of his father’s political problems, Xi finally gained entry in 1974 and then attended the elite Tsinghua University.
He would later return to Liangjiahe only once, in 1992, when he gave an alarm clock to each household, Shi said.
Xi went on to earn a chemistry degree, by which time Mao had died and his father had been restored to office. Xi next secured a plum position as secretary to then-Chinese defense minister Geng Biao (耿?), one of his father’s old comrades. However, Xi took the unusual step three years later of jumping into a lowly post in rural Hebei Province, because he wanted to “struggle, work hard and really take on something big,” Xi told Elite Youth magazine’s now-deceased editor Yang Xiaohuai.
Xi landed in the rural town of Zhengding, where people traveled by horse cart.
While there, he made the most of state broadcaster China Central Television’s plans to film an adaptation of the classical Chinese novel Dream of Red Mansions. Hoping to create a tourist attraction, Xi built a full-scale reproduction of the sprawling estate at the heart of the tale.
“You could tell Xi was thinking ahead. By doing this, he created lots of jobs and lots of revenue for Zhengding back when there was very little here,” said Liang Qiang, a senior caretaker at the film set, which continues to attract tourists.
Xi biked around town dressed like an army cook and insisted he be introduced only as county party secretary without reference to his family links, former colleague Wang Youhui (王幼輝) recalled.
“He always paid for his food. He didn’t want any special treatment,” state media quoted Wang as saying years later.