His father, Xi Zhongxun (習仲勛), was a communist guerrilla fighter who became a senior political leader and an architect of the market reforms that ignited China’s economic boom. That makes Xi Jinping a “princeling” of the leadership, and he rubbed shoulders with other offspring of communist China’s founding elite.
Throughout his career, Xi has appeared to march in step with the PLA.
In his first job after graduating from Tsinghua University, he was a key aide in the general office of the Central Military Commission, the top military council he now runs. Xi was secretary to Geng Biao (耿飆), a defense minister and former military subordinate of Xi’s father.
He held no rank, but his duties were considered military service.
“The military sees Xi as one of their own,” a person with ties to the leadership said.
As he climbed the rungs of China’s provincial bureaucracy, Xi had a parallel career as a political commissar in local army headquarters, units of the PLA and the People’s Armed Police, the party’s paramilitary internal security force.
He was careful to defer to important old soldiers.
About 10 years ago, when Xi was party chief in Zhejiang Province, a retired vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, Zhang Zhen (張震), visited Zhejiang Province to celebrate his birthday. Xi, then provincial party chief, broke with his official duties for several days to accompany the civil war veteran.
“Zhang Zhen was very touched with Xi’s respect for old cadres,” the individual with leadership ties said. “Those who came to offer their birthday felicitations all saw Xi next to Zhang. It was a plus for Xi.”
Zhang Zhen’s own princeling son, General Zhang Haiyang (張海陽), is now political commissar of the Second Artillery Force.
As China has grown richer and better educated, the middle ranks of the PLA have filled with technically trained specialist officers. Along with that have come consistent if muted calls for China to have a fully professional army: one loyal to the state rather than the party, and free from the parallel supervision of political commissars who monitor the forces at virtually every level.
Amid these rumblings, the army remains deeply politicized, military analysts say.
The PLA has long-standing internal factions and loyalties divided between rival political benefactors and regional commands.
While Xi was working his way up, Deng’s successor, Jiang, was promoting dozens of senior officers who remain in positions of power today.
Jiang was the man Deng advised to tend to the generals. In retirement, Jiang remains one of China’s leading power brokers. His military appointments made sure his influence would outlast his term.
Hu, who replaced Jiang, likewise sought to anchor his position through military promotions and patronage before handing over to Xi.
Both Jiang and Hu kept the funding tap wide open for new military hardware and substantially improved pay and conditions for the troops.
Xi appears set to maintain heavy military spending despite competing needs.
A hundred million Chinese still live in poverty, according to official measures, and there is growing pressure to spend more on health, education and pollution control.
Official defense spending is set to climb 10.7 percent this year to US$119 billion. Much spending takes place outside the budget, however, and many analysts estimate real outlays are closer to US$200 billion, second only to the US.