As president of China, Xi Jinping presides over 18% of the world’s population, and he is set to do so for life. How did Xi rise to such prominence, and what can we learn from his life that will help us understand his future? Kerry Brown’s book, CEO, China, offers some clues as to the man behind the mystery.
(Note: This is a multi-part review, though each part can be read on its own. You can read Part I here if you like.)
|George W. Bush and Xi Jinping, August 2008 – by Eric Draper|
The Young Xi: Two Sides of History
“The issue of whether Xi is a ‘Maoist’ is a live one in China,” writes Brown (p. 10). As he goes on to illustrate, Xi’s historical and cultural relationship to Mao is not only complicated but personal, with origins that go back to Xi’s childhood and his father, Xi Zhongxun.
Xi Zhongxun began his career as a distinguished communist soldier, fighting both the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists throughout the 1930s-1940s. This was an era of terrifying violence, in which torture and brutality were used by both sides of the communist vs. anti-communist conflict (p. 17). Xi Zhongxun survived, and his efforts won him the approbation of Mao. In the 1950s, Xi Zhongxun pivoted to the position of deputy minister of (Maoist) propaganda.
Propaganda, however, proved to be a double-edged sword for the elder Xi. Kang Sheng, a key leader in Mao’s purges, accused Xi Zhongxun of allowing a subversive novel to be published. It was a strong enough claim that Xi Zhongxun was dismissed from the Party; he would later be beaten and then, with his wife and children, exiled from Beijing.
This was a mild sentence compared to others dealt by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but it was enough to blight Xi Jinping’s youth with suffering and continued persecution. Fortunately for his later career, Xi did not join the Red Guard youth – in fact, he was barred from it, and the radicals found in him an opponent who, in spite of his regard for Mao’s thought, proved to be a tough dissenter against the violence of the 1960s.
|Mao, the “peasant emperor,” in civilian country attire|
In his teenage years, Xi Jinping experienced xiaxiang – mandatory “rustication” by being “sent down” to the countryside and forced to do farm labor. During this time of mass “poverty and loneliness” (p. 56), he was compelled to learn a number of skills, including basic medicine and mechanics. This further toughened Xi, who had begun life as a somewhat sheltered and “bookish” child (Buckley, Tatlow, 2015).
Restoration to the Party and Beyond
Xi Jinping was granted membership to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1974. Considering that Party membership was essential to upward mobility, it is no wonder he had tried for so long to gain its good graces. (His father would not be fully reestablished until 1978).
Though Xi studied chemical engineering in college, he instead pursued a career in government jobs, spending the next three decades serving in various provinces and even attaining the governorship of Fujian (1999–2002). Interestingly, his leadership in Zhejiang province (2002–2007) foretold his global capabilities, as he supported Chinese businesses such as Alibaba and encouraged foreign businesses such as McDonald’s, Motorola, and Citibank (p. 73–74).
All of these experiences bolstered not just his resume but his clout as a man of the world and a capable, profitable leader. Likewise – and in part by staying in the provinces and out of “central politics” – Xi managed to avoid scandals and accusations of corruption, which were the downfall of some of his Party peers (most famously, Bo Xilai).
One significant detail I had not realized about Xi was how large a role the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics played in his career. At this point, he had become Vice President of China, and as such he was tasked with the (thankless) honor of overseeing the Olympic Games. Brown describes some of the risks:
One terrorist attack…one Tibetan demonstration…or, perhaps, worst of all, Chinese sporting failure in the games themselves could have destroyed his ambitions. As it was, the three weeks of the tournament were a success. (p. 86)
This international spectacle became, in appearance and truth, the pinnacle of Xi’s career up to that point. He had taken on a momentous challenge and, by talent and some luck, pulled it off without a hitch. As we in the U.S. watched (and re-watched) the entrancing performers beating their drums in sync, we could not have been more delighted and pleased than Xi, the master behind the ceremonies.
“Cultural Revolution Shaped Xi Jinping, From Schoolboy to Survivor” – NY Times article by Chris Buckley and Didi Kirsten Tatlow, 2015.