Six years ago, the Chinese president Xi Jinping made a state visit to Britain. It was an important moment for both nations — the launch of a new “Golden Era”— designed to show that any differences caused by David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lamai in 2012 were forgotten. Behind the scenes, however, it was preceded by months of difficult negotiations as Downing Street tried to meet Beijing’s conflicting demands for a schedule that showed their President to be an ordinary man of the people, while also according him with the respect that befits the leader of a nation better than any other on earth.
Finally, when they unfurled the flags for Xi’s three-day trip, there was lunch for the Red Emperor with the Queen, a glitzy state banquet, two nights at Buckingham Palace and an address to Parliament. But there were also pictures of the President standing aboard a London bus, enjoying fish and chips over a pint with Dave and hanging out with football stars in Manchester — all designed to reinforce the narrative of an ordinary bloke who happened to be ruling one-sixth of the world’s population.
“He has a confident and bullish exterior — he sees himself very much as the big leader,” wrote Cameron in his biography. “But behind the scenes I found him reflective and thoughtful.” Yet there seems surprisingly little wider interest in this enigmatic character who changed the course of China and now seeks to reshape the world.
That state visit came at a time of greater optimism, when many people beyond the Tory leadership fell for the delusion that China might be nominally a Communist country but, propelled by capitalism and consumerism, was sliding inexorably down a path towards greater freedom. How different the world looks today — and not just due to the devastating pandemic that mysteriously emerged from the heart of China, made all the worse by the state cover-up.
Indeed, there is a growing consensus that this is a country intent on pushing its dictatorial creed in a tussle for global supremacy against Western liberal democracy. It is a nation which has inflicted genocide on Muslim minorities, throttled freedom in Hong Kong, threatened Taiwan, sabre-rattled on borders in the Himalayas, developed a sinister surveillance society and even infiltrated our universities to scoop up their latest research.
All of which makes the lack of curiosity surrounding the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong seem rather strange. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history, recently asked: “Why are there no biographies of Xi Jinping?”. Their absence is all the more striking when you consider that China’s ruler is not simply far more important than the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has spawned a small library of books; he is also a fascinating figure with a compelling life story.
Lurking behind that calm facade lies a childhood tale that helps cast some light on Xi’s controlling policies and his aggressive nationalism. Bear in mind that it is Xi who turned his nation back towards harsh totalitarianism, ordered his acolytes to ratchet up repression in Xinjiang and broke any pretence of keeping to the handover deal with Britain to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms. He has ditched term limits to retain power, crushed party foes, stifled domestic dissent and enshrined his name in the party constitution, elevating his position and ideology to the status of Chairman Mao. It is hard to disagree with the view of former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd that he is “the most formidable politician of our age”.
It does not take a psychologist to see that the seeds of his ruthless desire for order, his rigid toughness and perhaps even his political pragmatism may have been sown during his turbulent background, even if it is hard to disentangle the myths from the man. Like any smart modern politician, Xi knows the power of public relations and has worked hard over the decades to create an image that dovetails with both his personal and national desires. Hence those “man of the people” pictures over a pint down The Plough with Cameron.
Like his British host, Xi had an elite upbringing that involved attendance at one of his nation’s finest schools — although in his case, this led only to trouble and tragedy during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Xi, born in 1953, is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a Communist revolutionary hero who was close to Mao and became a vice premier. Although China was riddled with poverty, this prominent family lived in a compound for party chiefs with their own cooks, nannies and drivers. One official biography claims that his parents sought to ensure their children were not spoilt, so he wore clothes handed down from his siblings — including floral shoes from his sisters that were dyed black. His father, meanwhile, was so strict that friends said his treatment of his son bordered on inhuman, and Xi also attended the “CCP aristocracy school” in Beijing infamous for military-style discipline. Any hint of softness, said one classmate, was seen as weakness.
Disaster struck when he was nine. His father fell out with Mao amid party in-fighting, so was sent to work in a factory in central China and his family lost its prized home —although his mother Qi Xin retained her party job in Beijing. Worse came in the 1966 Cultural Revolution, with its brutal purging of senior officials as enemies of the state. His father was beaten, paraded on a truck through jeering crowds and jailed. The family home was ransacked by militants, his mother forced into hard labour on a farm. Xi, a bookish boy, was made to denounce his father and bullied by teachers as the child of a “black gang”, the term for disgraced officials. His older sister eventually killed herself after being “persecuted to death”.
The following year Xi’s school was shut down and turned into an exhibition to showcase the pampered privileges of the reactionary elite. At the age of 14, he was caught by a gang of revolutionary Red Guards, who threatened to execute him before making him read quotations from Mao. Another time, he fled from a meeting attacked by students armed with clubs, who caught and badly beat one of his friends. “I always had a stubborn streak and wouldn’t put up with being bullied,” he claimed later. “I riled the radicals and they blamed me for everything that went wrong.”
There can be little doubt that Xi suffered as the son of a prominent man who was purged repeatedly for remaining loyal to his lifetime cause of communism. Xi himself only evaded jail after Mao, seeking to regain control of spiralling chaos, ordered 30 million young city dwellers into the countryside for “re-education” by peasants. Analysts speculate this difficult period in his teenage years led to Xi’s ability to hide his feelings beneath an impassive surface, along with the development of his fervent desire for stability. “This generation had everything taken from them so they have the survival instinct,” said Kerry Brown, professor of China Studies at King’s College, London. “They had to deny who they were. It becomes all about control with no room for ego.”
Xi has since made much of the seven long years he spent as a “son of yellow earth”, living from the age of 15 in a cave dwelling in a remote, impoverished village in Shaanxi region. “I felt lonely at first,” he admitted in his autobiography. He found it a shock to eat rough peasant food, sleep on flea-ridden blankets and perform hard rural labour. Dozens of others sent to this region died from disease or the tough conditions. Instead Xi developed extraordinary self-discipline: “The knife is sharpened on a stone, people are strengthened in adversity,” he said later.
His loathing of chaos was fuelled later by the collapse of the other major twentieth-century Communist empire. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?” he once asked. “In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.”
Yet during those formative years he also saw the danger of extremism, when children had free reign to kill and torture in the name of delivering utopia. Did this all leave him with the pragmatism needed to achieve his goals? A leaked US diplomatic cable, based on information from a friend, reported that Xi focused from an early age on reaching the top as an “exceptionally ambitious” character. Unlike many youths who “made up for lost time by having fun” after the Cultural Revolution, Xi “chose to survive by becoming redder than the red”, reading Karl Marx and laying foundations for a political career. He was seen as “cold and calculating”, deemed “boring” by women.
Now he wants to impose his will on the world, having navigated a path through the choppy waters of the Chinese Communist Party. Today, our challenge is not China, that huge land of epic history and extraordinary culture; it is President Xi and his vision of total control. His goal is clear: to make his country great again while usurping the global leadership of the United States — and he does not hide his aims.
In a speech to his party’s 2017 National Congress, Xi laid out “the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation”: to finish building a prosperous society by this year, centenary of the party’s birth; to assume global economic and military leadership by 2035; then to “resolve” the Taiwan issue by 2049, centenary of the People’s Republic, to conclude their rebirth as a “strong country”.
At the centre of his vision lies the Communist Party, firmly in control of everything in China, aided by skilled propaganda and use of technology to control his people in Orwellian style as they walk, talk, shop and work. Such is Xi’s sway that a smartphone app was developed which allowed users to compete over who could virtually applaud that party congress speech with the most enthusiasm — more than one billion claps were recorded in 24 hours. Two years later, the most downloaded app in the country was “Study the Great Nation”, which combined chat and games with quizzes about Xi’s ideology — a digital update on Mao’s Little Red Book designed to ensure compliance and diligence from citizens.
When Xi first met Putin in 2013, he told the Russian president: “We are similar in character.” There is truth in this statement, yet the Chinese leader is far more subtle and ambitious. Xi Jinping sees himself as a saviour of his creed and a man of destiny for his country, a ruthless character driven by fierce resolve inflamed by that suffering of his youth. He is the very embodiment of that Confucian saying: “To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to remember it.”