Three years ago in Mexico, the new chief of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) provided a rare glimpse of a leader who was born into a revolutionary aristocracy and came of age in the tumult of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Cultural Revolution.
Chines Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) wore the dark suit and cautious mask that is the uniform of the CCP leadership as he took his place at the head of the Politburo Standing Committee in the Great Hall of the People yesterday in Beijing.
However, in Mexico, he dropped his guard in a steely defense of his country against foreign criticism.
“In the midst of international financial turmoil, China was still able to solve the problem of feeding its 1.3 billion people and that was already our greatest contribution to humankind,” he said, drawing applause from Chinese Internet users.
“Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us,” he added. “First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”
Xi has assumed the role of party boss from Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), effectively making him more powerful than the president before he formally takes over that role in March.
Xi, 59, is the son of reformist former Chinese vice premier and parliament vice-chairman Xi Zhongxun (習仲勛), making him a “princeling,” one of the privileged offspring of incumbent, retired or late Chinese leaders.
He grew up among the CCP elite and then watched his father purged from power before the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution, when Xi himself spent years in the poverty-stricken countryside before scrambling to university.
Considered a cautious reformer, having spent time in top positions in China’s coastal Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, both at the forefront of China’s economic reforms, Xi had long been marked out as the likely successor to Hu.
Married to a famous singer and briefly in charge of Shanghai, China’s richest and most glamorous city, Xi has crafted a low-key, sometimes bluff, political style. He has complained of officials’ speeches being clogged with party jargon and demanded more plain speaking.
In September, Xi unsettled Chinese people and the foreign business community alike when he vanished from public without explanation for two weeks, prompting rumors of serious illness.
Sources said Xi hurt his back while swimming and that he had been obeying doctors’ orders to get bed rest and undergo physiotherapy.
Xi went to work in the poor northwest Chinese countryside as a “sent-down youth” during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and became a rural commune official.
He studied chemical engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing, an elite school where Hu also studied. Xi later gained a degree in Marxist theory from Tsinghua and a doctorate in law.
Xi shot to fame in the early 1980s as party boss of a rural county in Hebei Province, which surrounds Beijing. He had rare access to then-CCP chief Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) in the leadership compound in Zhongnanhai, west of the Forbidden City.
A native of the remote, inland province of Shaanxi — home of the terracotta warriors — Xi was promoted to Fujian Province governor in August 1999 after a string of provincial officials were caught up in a graft dragnet.
In March 2007, the tall and portly Xi secured the top job in China’s commercial capital, Shanghai, when his predecessor was caught up in a huge corruption case. Xi held that post until October 2007 when he was promoted to the party’s Standing Committee.
Xi is married to Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛), a renowned singer who was once arguably more popular in China than her husband, until the party began ordering her to keep a low profile as Xi moved up the ranks.