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President Xi will never accept defeat The Chinese leader's turbulent childhood may explain his ruthless desire for order

President Xi never forgets (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)


February 16, 2021   6 mins

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.”


Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Whatever…just another psychopath. Always and everywhere they seek to exert demented levels of power over us. Can the writer do some research into the childhoods of Matt Hancock and Neil Ferguson?

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

Having lived through the cultural revolution, a time “when children had free reign to kill and torture in the name of delivering utopia,” I wonder what he makes of cancel culture and woke twitter mobs?

Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I’m sure Xi would co-opt them into the state apparatus, or if that failed eliminate them. It’s what winning looks like.

Ronnie B
Ronnie B
3 years ago

I don’t think that Taiwan has until 2049. It seems that Xi has ambitions to exceed Mao (retaliation for his father’s treatment?) in exerting complete control over all land, sea and people that it claims and becoming the undisputed dominant power in the world. He is 67 now and while he may continue in power for longer, I expect that the next decade will be critical to his ambitions.

fhealey1212
fhealey1212
3 years ago
Reply to  Ronnie B

Right on every point. Xi and the CCP KNOW they have a divine right to first rule Asia and then the world.
Anyone that thinks they can control them short of direct economic and military confrontation is delusional.
Covid is the perfect example and a window into the future.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  fhealey1212

Ohio class 14×24 = 336 Trident II D-5 Ballistic Missiles.
102 Target cities with population in excess of 1 million.
Sino delenda est.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

You’re a monster. Depraved. Pure evil.

Richard E
Richard E
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

There needs to be a straight to nuclear policy. It means at the very least we can force a draw.

Bernard Couvreur
Bernard Couvreur
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

You mean “Delenda Sina”, right ?

Greg Ehrig
Greg Ehrig
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

China utterly depends on merchant shipping in the way Japan did in WW2, only it is vastly more exposed and its fleet is optimized to invade Taiwan. If the US navy were to retract enforcing freedom of the seas for Chinese shipping they would be having food riots within a couple of years. If the us actively started sinking Chinese vessels far from china it would collapse in months.

Last edited 3 years ago by Greg Ehrig
George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  fhealey1212

The solution to the question you pose is Trident.
However the new UnHerd Chinese Gestapo

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

The solution to the question you pose is Trident.
However the new. UnHerd Chinese Gestapo have censored my reply.
Apologies for the repetition, but seem to be unable edit on this new, and to,use the

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
3 years ago
Reply to  Ronnie B

One would think he might have had compassion because of how he and his father suffered but thousands are in prison for conscience sake and torture is not ruled out. He has vowed to wipe christianity out completely. It would appear that his suffering has only made him a more belligerent tyrant.

krithackeray
krithackeray
3 years ago

I am sure that the Han empire is already the most powerful force in the world. They dominate Africa and it’s natural resources, they have sophisticated means of stealing technology and their shops can be found in every corner of the planet. Items one and three could not have been achieved without the greed of the European and American buying public, unable to resist cheap gadgets, and the greed of African despots to traffic their countries assets.
But for me the saddest thing is the destruction of the natural world…. the terrible inhumanity to animals, elephant, rhino, hornbills, shark, birds, even the massacre of rays on remote islands to harvest their gall bladders. And much of this for the banal rites of Chinese medicine, and to satisfy the needs of an enormous aging population who seem to have an insatiable desire for supposed aphrodisiacs.
I worked and travelled in China in the eighties. I never saw a blue sky. Instead a collection of Kafkaesque landscapes peopled by millions of coolies doing the work of machines. I was there to film the perils of having more than one child and thus incurring the wrath of the state. I had to teach local guys how to use video for rural propaganda. I was 33. Now I would turn the job down. But now they wouldn’t need me.

Richard E
Richard E
3 years ago
Reply to  krithackeray

I think you are right. They already have an empire in Africa. One day it will become clear overnight when they intervene to save their assets or bolster a client ruler.

Richard E
Richard E
3 years ago
Reply to  krithackeray

Kit Thackery? Who was also filming the Chipperfields in Africa?

Paul Booth
Paul Booth
3 years ago

When he visited Manchester during his state visit, two alternative treats were arranged for him. One was a visit to Manchester United, the other a visit to Chetham’s Library. The library is the oldest free public reference library in Europe, and it was there that Karl Marx worked when visiting Engels, who managed a local factory. Which one did he choose, and why…

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Booth

He chose the visit to Man U because the library contained some Winnie the Pooh books? Actually the whole Winnie the Pooh thing is somewhat more recent than that. Anyway, if the Chinese online censors are watching this, I’m guess I’m in line for the labour camp.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

They (CCP) now own it, hence the appalling drop in quality, and performance, plus massive increase in censorship.
Consummatum est!

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Too late.They already own it.

Rob Pugh
Rob Pugh
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Booth

He went to visit Manchester City at their new training centre had his photograph raked with Sergio Aguero . Chinese investors own a minority percentage in Manchester City

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

The Sinohitler.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Poor Xi-warped, but strengthened by his childhood experiences. Poor Napoleon- overcompensating for his small stature. I wonder…do we have any biographical material on this tyrant that he has not vetted?

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

He was fortunate not to end up in the soup, with noodles and bean sprouts during the “Great Leap Forward.” 1959-62.
Millions of his contemporaries were not so lucky.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Just don’t mention Winnie the Pooh!

fhealey1212
fhealey1212
3 years ago

The basic tenet of Chinese culture for millennia is that they are the ONE true dominant race and that ruling the world is their destiny.
It is an unshakable belief just like that German Aryan race guy.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  fhealey1212

And their nemesis will be Trident.

Mark Gilbert
Mark Gilbert
3 years ago

How many politicians and billionaires in the West are committed to supporting this man?

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Gilbert

Well Mark, the answer is no surprise: It all depends on how much he’s paying…

Last edited 3 years ago by Andre Lower
George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Gilbert

Far too many, starting with Biden, Kissinger & Co.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
3 years ago

Thank you, Ian, for the Xi lesson.
When I visited China almost twenty years ago, I was startled by what I saw in a shop just off Tiananmen Square. While there were crowds mingling freely, western style, all across the huge open space, I noticed a particular person. The young man was watching video on a screen elevated in a curio shop. The video pictured Chinese troops marching across the Square.
Maybe I’m imagining this (cluelessly naive American that I am) or maybe I am not, but that citizen of the Republic who was standing next to me looked at me in a way that seemed strangely to say . . . this is who we are . . . strength, Chinese style.
I suppose Chinese patriotism is, as you have shown here in your brief textual Xi portrait, a personal manifestation of rigid discipline that surpasses, or overcomes, the State-imposed regimen.
While we over here in the States have Mom, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota or Hyundai or marching bands on Main Street, all of which are rooted in liberty and free expression, it seems the Chinese find their identity in discipline, a discipline honed by the crucible of LongMarch/1949/Great Leap Forward/1966 and whatever comes after that. Which it seems is now being exemplified for the teeming cadres by Xi.
As Mao was for the from-the-ground-up Chinese revolution of mid-20th century, so Xi now embodies the China of 21st-century hegemony.
Discipline. Methinks it is an ominous sign for us Westerners whose populatarian foundations were founded in Liberty. It just may be that in this 21st-century the power of Discipline will outperform the power of old-fashioned, 18th-century Liberty.
Nevertheless, I think we in the West will still have an opportunity to enlighten our Chinese friends about what it means to truly live, to truly prosper while tipping a pint on a London bus or an Amtrak. . . and thereby expand our dialectical horizons in discourse such as what we have seen and read and UnHerd here.

greg waggett
greg waggett
3 years ago

Excellent.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

Sonnet 59
by Richard Craven

No barbarous australopithecine
shall squirt his jet on your concavity,
in which there lurks no turquoise rusk of pine,
for you’re ephemeral and really witty,
white porcelain’s perfection, of p155oir
apotheosis. Zamfir’s curdling pipes
cloak no unseemly sounds. Instead, a choir
of Dadaists pompously talking tripe.
For you’re ephemeral – I mentioned this – 
you were effaced in 1917,
thrown out by Stieglitz, sacrificed as trash.
And yet, of all the pots Mott made for p155,
your fame endures: a shiny pot and clean,
fit for a Platonist to have a slash.

Richard E
Richard E
3 years ago

We must adopt a straight to Nuclear policy, and make sure we do it if China invade Taiwan or makes any other moves.The ball is then in their court.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
3 years ago

This all sounds like Xi is the last of his kind. So, what happens to China after him?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Vijay Kant

The last of his kind? You really think that after about 5,000 years of his kind in China that he will be the last one?

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
3 years ago
Reply to  Vijay Kant

Another dictator if things don’t change. There is not the honesty around to change just now not that there are not millions of honest Chinese who suffer under this tyrant.

disha sharma
disha sharma
3 years ago

He went to visit Manchester City at their new training centre had his photograph raked with Sergio Aguero . Chinese investors own a minority percentage in Manchester City

Jon Walmsley
Jon Walmsley
3 years ago

“Now he (Xi Jinping) wants to impose his will on the world…while usurping the global leadership of the United States” What is one’s man will in one instance is one countries ‘global leadership’ in another. America and the West in general of course only want to ‘spread democracy’ around the world, they don’t want to impose it in any way. Democracy, by its very definition, is the will and choice of the people; it can’t be imposed by a top-down authority! You will find recent history demonstrates otherwise, particularly America’s political impositions on Japan, The Phillipines, Iraq and Afghanistan. The people of these nations didn’t ‘choose’ democracy – America forced it upon them, whether it supposedly “worked” (Japan, The Philippines) or blatantly didn’t (Iraq, Afghanistan).  

Now, I don’t particularly care for Chinese authoritarianism, or any kind of authoritarianism (controversial I know), because, like many forms of egoistic extension, it can be very self-destructive, but I also can’t stand hypocrisy, and this notion that democracy is inherently superior to other political systems of rule, and exempt from the same value judgements applied to those others in lieu of its ‘untouchability’, is a form of self-delusion in the highest order that many Western thinkers and commentariats especially are caught in.

The suggestion that China wishes to impose its political will on other nations is taken, on face value, as an inherently negative notion, yet this is precisely what the predominant power of recent times – The West and America at its apex – have been doing the last 200 years! Arguably, imposition is negative by nature, for it often works from outside-in as opposed to inside-out (a philosophical metaphysical debate for another time) but the negativity of ‘Western imposition’ is so rarely acknowledged in the West to be a sign of cultural self-denial. If you wish to criticise the form that power takes, by all means, there is plenty to criticise always, but do not argue from some point of illusory self-righteousness, because then you are playing nothing more than a game of t*t-for-tat.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jon Walmsley
Well Noted
Well Noted
3 years ago

It would be far better for us to get our heads out of our clinical gutters, for up there, we will only find crap and a lot of flabby organic stuff that has nothing to do with defeating liberalism-socialism-communism. Anna Harndt’s masterful, what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach will tell us far more about our sworn enemies than any amount of psychological BS or medical mumbo-jumbo. If we can’t see it, smell it, hear it, sense vibes, or touch it, then forget it or consign it to mere fascination with fantasy. 

Last edited 3 years ago by Well Noted
Jennifer Britton
Jennifer Britton
3 years ago

One of China’s ancient cultural beliefs is that China is the center of the world. Xi is trying to make the myth reality.

Allan Edward Tierney
Allan Edward Tierney
3 years ago

The seemingly endless attacks on China by one means or another here on UnHerd is deeply sinister and completely unwarranted outside of a coordinated attempt to shore up a western patrician domination for its own destabilising sake. The pundits seeking to create a facade of menace in respect of China are being hugely irresponsible. China has been incredibly successful in delivering millions of her population from poverty over the past thirty years and the government there certainly deserves praise for this. Carping criticisms of China seeking to shore up a sorry-looking, failing West is no decent way to conduct ourselves and will most certainly not end well.

Jeff Bartlett
Jeff Bartlett
3 years ago

Mr Tierney, you yet again repeat the same points you seem to make in most of your posts, but you never appear to acknowledge when others accept some of your arguments… I also cannot recall seeing any of your posts which offer any real criticism of China, only praise. Why is this? In the pursuit of balance and perspective can I please ask you to identify and comment on those things in recent times which China and the CCP have done badly?