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Entry into the CCP, education, and marriage

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Xi Jinping

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Who is xi jinping.

Xi Jinping is a politician and government official who became president of China in 2013 and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. He was also vice president of China from 2008 to 2013.

Xi Jinping is the son of Xi Zhongxun, who once served as deputy prime minister of China. Xi Zhongxun was often out of favor with his party and government, especially before and during the Cultural Revolution and after he openly criticized the government’s actions during the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.

Who is Xi Jinping's wife?

Xi Jinping married the popular folksinger Peng Liyuan in 1987.

When did Xi Jinping become the president of China?

Xi Jinping became president of the People’s Republic of China in 2013.

Xi Jinping was elected to a second term as president of China in March 2018. Also in 2018, the National People’s Congress passed an amendment abolishing term limits for China's president and vice president. This allowed Xi Jinping to remain in office beyond 2023, when he would have been due to step down.

Xi Jinping , (born June 15?, 1953, Fuping county, Shaanxi province, China), Chinese politician and government official who served as vice president of the People’s Republic of China (2008–13), general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP; 2012– ), and president of China (2013– ).

Xi Jinping was the son of Xi Zhongxun, who once served as deputy prime minister of China and was an early comrade-in-arms of Mao Zedong . The elder Xi, however, was often out of favour with his party and government, especially before and during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and after he openly criticized the government’s actions during the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident . The younger Xi’s early childhood was largely spent in the relative luxury of the residential compound of China’s ruling elite in Beijing . During the Cultural Revolution, however, with his father purged and out of favour, Xi Jinping was sent to the countryside in 1969 (he went to largely rural Shaanxi province), where he worked for six years as a manual labourer on an agricultural commune. During that period he developed an especially good relationship with the local peasantry, which would aid the wellborn Xi’s credibility in his eventual rise through the ranks of the CCP.

In 1974 Xi became an official party member, serving as a branch secretary, and the following year he began attending Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where he studied chemical engineering . After graduating in 1979, he worked for three years as secretary to Geng Biao, who was then the vice premier and minister of national defense in the central Chinese government.

In 1982 Xi gave up that post, choosing instead to leave Beijing and work as a deputy secretary for the CCP in Hebei province. He was based there until 1985, when he was appointed a party committee member and a vice mayor of Xiamen (Amoy) in Fujian province. While living in Fujian, Xi married the well-known folksinger Peng Liyuan in 1987. He continued to work his way upward, and by 1995 he had ascended to the post of deputy provincial party secretary.

In 1999 Xi became acting governor of Fujian, and he became governor the following year. Among his concerns as Fujian’s head were environmental conservation and cooperation with nearby Taiwan . He held both the deputy secretarial and governing posts until 2002, when he was elevated yet again: that year marked his move to Zhejiang province, where he served as acting governor and, from 2003, party secretary. While there he focused on restructuring the province’s industrial infrastructure in order to promote sustainable development.

Xi’s fortunes got another boost in early 2007 when a scandal surrounding the upper leadership of Shanghai led to his taking over as the city’s party secretary. His predecessor in the position was among those who had been tainted by a wide-ranging pension fund scheme. In contrast to his reformist father, Xi had a reputation for prudence and for following the party line, and as Shanghai’s secretary his focus was squarely on promoting stability and rehabilitation of the city’s financial image. He held the position for only a brief period, however, as he was selected in October 2007 as one of the nine members of the standing committee of the CCP’s Political Bureau (Politburo), the highest ruling body in the party.

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping

With that promotion, Xi was put on a short list of likely successors to Hu Jintao , general secretary of the CCP since 2002 and president of the People’s Republic since 2003. Xi’s status became more assured when in March 2008 he was elected vice president of China. In that role he focused on conservation efforts and on improving international relations . In October 2010 Xi was named vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), a post once held by Hu (who since 2004 had been chair of the commission) and generally considered a major stepping-stone to the presidency. In November 2012, during the CCP’s 18th party congress, Xi was again elected to the standing committee of the Political Bureau (reduced to seven members), and he succeeded Hu as general secretary of the party. At that time Hu also relinquished the chair of the CMC to Xi. On March 14, 2013, he was elected president of China by the National People’s Congress.

Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping

Among Xi’s first initiatives was a nationwide anti-corruption campaign that soon saw the removal of thousands of high and low officials (both “tigers” and “flies”). Xi also emphasized the importance of the “ rule of law ,” calling for adherence to the Chinese constitution and greater professionalization of the judiciary as a means of developing “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Under Xi’s leadership China was increasingly assertive in international affairs, insisting upon its claim of territorial sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea despite an adverse ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and promoting its “One Belt, One Road” initiative for joint trade, infrastructure, and development projects with East Asian, Central Asian, and European countries.

Xi managed to consolidate power at a rapid pace during his first term as China’s president. The success of his anti-corruption campaign continued, with more than one million corrupt officials being punished by late 2017; the campaign also served to remove many of Xi’s political rivals, further bolstering his efforts to eliminate dissent and strengthen his grip on power. In October 2016 the CCP bestowed upon him the title of “core leader,” which previously had been given only to influential party figures Mao Zedong , Deng Xiaoping , and Jiang Zemin ; the title immediately raised his stature. A year later the CCP voted to enshrine Xi’s name and ideology , described as “thought” (“Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era”), in the party’s constitution, an honour previously awarded only to Mao. Xi’s ideology was later enshrined in the country’s constitution by an amendment passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2018. During the same legislative session, the NPC also passed other amendments to the constitution, including one that abolished term limits for the country’s president and vice president; this change would allow Xi to remain in office beyond 2023, when he would have been due to step down. The NPC also unanimously elected Xi to a second term as president of the country in March.

Xi’s power and influence were bolstered in 2021 when the CCP passed a historical resolution in November that reviewed the party’s “major achievements and historical experience” of the past 100 years and looked to future plans as well. It featured praise for Xi’s leadership; more than half of the document was devoted to the accomplishments under Xi in the nine years he had led the party, such as reducing poverty and curbing corruption. It was only the third such resolution in the party’s history—the previous two were passed under Mao and Deng—and it elevated Xi’s status, ensuring that he would be seen as a significant figure in the party’s history.

Xi Jinping: From Communist Party princeling to China's president

Xi Jinping at the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games

Xi Jinping is set to embark on a historic third term at the 20th Communist Party congress later this month.

It paves the way for the party to reappoint him as president at the National People's Congress next year. China's leaders voted in 2018 to remove the two-term presidential limit that has been in place since the 1990s.

Under Mr Xi's rule since 2012, China has become more authoritarian at home, cracking down on dissent, critics and even influential billionaires and businesses. Some have described him as "the most authoritarian leader since Chairman Mao".

Under his rule, China has established "re-education" camps in Xinjiang that have been accused of human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other minority ethnic groups. It has tightened its grip on Hong Kong and vowed to "reunite" with Taiwan , by force if necessary.

In a clear sign of his influence, the Communist Party voted in 2017 to write his philosophy - called "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era" - into its constitution. Only party founder Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the leader who introduced economic reforms in the 1980s, have made it into the all-important fundamental law of the land.

Princeling, peasant, president

Born in Beijing in 1953, Xi Jinping is the son of revolutionary veteran Xi Zhongxun, one of the Communist Party's founding fathers and a former vice-premier.

Because of his illustrious roots, Mr Xi is considered a "princeling" - a child of elite senior officials who has risen up the ranks.

But his family's fortunes took a dramatic turn when his father was imprisoned in 1962. A deeply suspicious Mao, fearing a rebellion in party ranks, ordered a purge of potential rivals. Then in 1966 came the so-called Cultural Revolution when millions were branded as enemies of Chinese culture, sparking violent attacks across the country.

Mr Xi's family suffered too. His half-sister - his father's first daughter through an earlier marriage - was persecuted to death, according to official accounts, though a historian familiar with the party elite said she had probably taken her own life under duress, according to a New York Times report.

A young Xi was pulled out of a school attended by children of the political elite. Eventually, at 15, he left Beijing and was sent to the countryside for "re-education" and hard labour in the remote and poor north-eastern village of Liangjiahe for seven years.

But far from turning against the Communist Party, Mr Xi embraced it. He tried to join several times, but was rebuffed because of his father's standing.

He was finally accepted in 1974, starting out in Hebei province, then occupying ever more senior roles as he slowly made his way to the top.

In 1989, at the age of 35, he was party chief in the city of Ningde in southern Fujian province when protests demanding greater political freedom began in Beijing's Tiananmen Square .

The province was far from the capital but Mr Xi, along with other party officials, reportedly scrambled to contain local offshoots of the massive demonstrations under way in Beijing.

The protests - an echo of a rift within Communist Party ranks - and the bloody crackdown that ended them have effectively now been scrubbed from the country's history books and public record. China even lost the bid to host the 2000 Olympics because of the abuses in Tiananmen Square. Estimates of the number killed range from hundreds to many thousands.

Almost two decades later, however, Mr Xi was put in charge of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. China was keen to show it had moved on and was a worthy host - and it appeared to be working, with the Games symbolising China's rise as a growing power.

As for Mr Xi, his increasing profile in the party propelled him to its top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, and in 2012 he was picked as China's president.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan attend the welcoming banquet for the BRICS Summit, in Xiamen, China 4 September 2017.

Mr Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, a famous singer, have been heavily featured in state media as China's First Couple.

This is a contrast from previous presidential couples, where the first lady has traditionally kept a lower profile.

The couple have a daughter, Xi Mingze, but not much is known about her apart from the fact that she studied at Harvard University.

Other family members and their overseas business dealings have been a subject of scrutiny in the international press.

China Dream

Mr Xi has vigorously pursued what he has called a "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" with his China Dream vision.

Under him, the world's second largest economy has enacted reform to combat slowing growth, such as cutting down bloated state-owned industries and reducing pollution, as well as the multi-billion dollar One Belt One Road infrastructure project aimed at expanding China's global trade links.

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What China's One Belt, One Road really means

The country has become more assertive on the global stage, from its growing forcefulness in the South China Sea , to its exercise of soft power by pumping billions of dollars into Asian and African investments.

Some of this economic growth however, which in past decades has increased meteorically - has now slowed substantially, worsened by the Chinese leader's uncompromising "zero-Covid" strategy that has locked out the rest of the world since the pandemic.

The country's once-booming property market is in a deep slump and the outlook for the global economy has weakened sharply in recent months.

A bitter and damaging trade war with the US shows no sign of ending.

'Most authoritarian leader since Mao'

Since reaching top office, Mr Xi has overseen a wide-reaching corruption crackdown extending to the highest echelons of the party. Critics have portrayed it as a political purge.

Under his rule, China has also seen increasing clampdowns on freedoms.

In Xinjiang province, human rights groups believe the government has detained more than a million Muslim Uyghurs over the past few years in what the state defines as "re-education" camps. China denies accusations from the US and other that it is committing genocide there.

Beijing's grip over Hong Kong, too, has grown under Mr Xi.

Protesters in Causeway Bay in 2019

Mr Xi put an end to pro-democracy protests in 2020 by signing the National Security Law, a sweeping edict that gives Beijing powers to reshape life in the former British colony, criminalising what it calls secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces, with the maximum sentence of life in prison.

The law has led to mass arrests of prominent pro-democracy activists and politicians, as well as the closure of prominent news outlets including Apple Daily and Stand News .

Under Mr Xi's leadership, China has also intensified its focus on the self-ruled island of Taiwan, vowing "reunification" and threatening to use military force to prevent any move towards formal independence there.

Given China's power and influence, the world will be watching Mr Xi as he embarks on his third term as president. With no heir apparent, the 69-year-old is arguably the most powerful leader China has had since the death of Mao Zedong in the 1970s.

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biography of xi jinping

By Evan Osnos

When Xi was fourteen Red Guards warned “We can execute you a hundred times.” He joined the Communist Party at twenty.

In anticipation of New Year’s Eve, 2014, Xi Jinping, the President of China and the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, permitted a camera crew to come into his office and record a message to the people. As a teen-ager, Xi had been sent to work on a farm; he was so delicate that other laborers rated him a six on a ten-point scale, “not even as high as the women,” he said later, with some embarrassment. Now, at sixty-one, Xi was five feet eleven, taller than any Chinese leader in nearly four decades, with a rich baritone and a confident heft. When he received a guest, he stood still, long arms slack, hair pomaded, a portrait of take-it-or-leave-it composure that induced his visitor to cross the room in pursuit of a handshake.

Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, read his annual New Year’s greeting from a lectern in an antiseptic reception hall. Xi, who took office in November, 2012, has associated himself with an earthier generation of Communists, a military caste that emphasized “hard work and plain living.” He delivered his New Year’s message at his desk. Behind him, bookshelves held photographs that depicted him as Commander-in-Chief and family man. In one picture, he was wearing Army fatigues and a fur hat, visiting soldiers in a snowfield; in another, he was strolling with his wife and daughter, and escorting his father, Xi Zhongxun, a hallowed revolutionary, in a wheelchair. The shelves also held matching sets of books. Xi’s classroom education was interrupted for nearly a decade by the Cultural Revolution, and he has the autodidact’s habit of announcing his literary credentials. He often quotes from Chinese classics, and in an interview with the Russian press last year he volunteered that he had read Krylov, Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Nekrasov, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Sholokhov. When he visited France, he mentioned that he had read Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Sartre, and twelve others. In his New Year’s remarks, Xi oscillated between socialist slogans (“Wave high the sword against corruption”) and catchphrases from Chinese social media (“I would like to click the thumbs-up button for our great people”). He vowed to fight poverty, improve the rule of law, and hold fast to history. When he listed the achievements of the past year, he praised the creation of a holiday dedicated to the Second World War: “Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.”

Xi is the sixth man to rule the People’s Republic of China, and the first who was born after the revolution, in 1949. He sits atop a pyramid of eighty-seven million members of the Communist Party, an organization larger than the population of Germany. The Party no longer reaches into every corner of Chinese life, as it did in the nineteen-seventies, but Xi nevertheless presides over an economy that, by one measure, recently surpassed the American economy in size; he holds ultimate authority over every general, judge, editor, and state-company C.E.O. As Lenin ordained, in 1902, “For the center . . . to actually direct the orchestra, it needs to know who plays violin and where, who plays a false note and why.”

Xi’s New Year’s message was broadcast on state television and radio channels at 6:30 p.m. , just before the evening news. A few hours later, the news veered sharply out of his control. In Shanghai, a large holiday crowd had gathered to celebrate on the Bund, the promenade beside the Huangpu River, with splendid views of the skyline. The crowd was growing faster than the space could handle. Around 11:30 p.m. , the police sent hundreds of extra officers to keep order, but it was too late; a stairway was jammed, and people shouted and pushed. A stampede ensued. In all, thirty-six people suffocated or were trampled to death.

The disaster occurred in one of China’s most modern and prosperous places, and the public was appalled. In the days that followed, the Shanghai government held a memorial for the victims, and encouraged people to move on; Internet censors struck down discussion of who was responsible; police interrogated Web users who posted criticisms of the state. When relatives of the victims visited the site of the stampede, police watched them closely, and then erected metal barriers to render it unreachable. Caixin, an investigative media organization, revealed that, during the stampede, local officials in charge of the neighborhood were enjoying a banquet of sushi and sake, at the government’s expense, in a private room at the Empty Cicada, a luxury restaurant nearby. This was awkward news, because one of the President’s first diktats had been “Eight Rules” for public servants, to eliminate extravagance and corruption. Among other things, the campaign called on officials to confine themselves to “four dishes and one soup.” (Eventually, eleven officials were punished for misusing funds and for failing to prevent a risk to the public.)

“Im sure shell be back soon. Shes just somewhere integrating awareness about something.”

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A few weeks after the incident in Shanghai, I paid a call on a longtime editor in Beijing, whose job gives him a view into the workings of the Party. When I arrived at his apartment, his kids were in raucous control of the living room, so we retreated to his bedroom to talk. When I asked him how President Xi was doing, he mentioned the banquet at the Empty Cicada. He thought it pointed to a problem that is much deeper than a few high-living bureaucrats. “The central government issued an order absolutely forbidding them to dine out on public funds. And they did it anyway!” he said. “What this tells you is that local officials are finding their ways of responding to change. There is a saying: ‘When a rule is imposed up high, there is a way to get around it below.’ ” The struggle between an emperor and his bureaucracy follows a classic pattern in Chinese politics, and it rarely ends well for the emperor. But the editor was betting on Xi. “He’s not afraid of Heaven or Earth. And he is, as we say, round on the outside and square on the inside; he looks flexible, but inside he is very hard.”

Before Xi took power, he was described, in China and abroad, as an unremarkable provincial administrator, a fan of American pop culture (“The Godfather,” “Saving Private Ryan”) who cared more about business than about politics, and was selected mainly because he had alienated fewer peers than his competitors. It was an incomplete portrait. He had spent more than three decades in public life, but Chinese politics had exposed him to limited scrutiny. At a press conference, a local reporter once asked Xi to rate his performance: “Would you give yourself a score of a hundred—or a score of ninety?” (Neither, Xi said; a high number would look “boastful,” and a low number would reflect “low self-esteem.”)

But, a quarter of the way through his ten-year term, he has emerged as the most authoritarian leader since Chairman Mao. In the name of protection and purity, he has investigated tens of thousands of his countrymen, on charges ranging from corruption to leaking state secrets and inciting the overthrow of the state. He has acquired or created ten titles for himself, including not only head of state and head of the military but also leader of the Party’s most powerful committees—on foreign policy, Taiwan, and the economy. He has installed himself as the head of new bodies overseeing the Internet, government restructuring, national security, and military reform, and he has effectively taken over the courts, the police, and the secret police. “He’s at the center of everything,” Gary Locke, the former American Ambassador to Beijing, told me.

In the Chinese Communist Party, you campaign after you get the job, not before, and in building public support and honing a message Xi has revealed a powerful desire for transformation. He calls on China to pursue the Chinese Dream: the “great rejuvenation of the nation,” a mixture of prosperity, unity, and strength. He has proposed at least sixty social and economic changes, ranging from relaxing the one-child policy to eliminating camps for “reëducation through labor” and curtailing state monopolies. He has sought prestige abroad; on his first foreign trip (to Moscow), he was accompanied by his wife, a celebrity soprano named Peng Liyuan, who inspired lavish coverage of China’s first modern Presidential couple. Peng soon appeared on Vanity Fair ’ s Best-Dressed List.

After Mao, China encouraged the image of a “collective Presidency” over the importance of individual leaders. Xi has revised that approach, and his government, using old and new tools, has enlarged his image. In the spirit of Mao’s Little Red Book, publishers have produced eight volumes of Xi’s speeches and writings; the most recent, titled “The Remarks of Xi Jinping,” dissects his utterances, ranks his favorite phrases, and explains his cultural references. A study of the People’s Daily found that, by his second anniversary in office, Xi was appearing in the paper more than twice as often as his predecessor at the same point. He stars in a series of cartoons aimed at young people, beginning with “How to Make a Leader,” which describes him, despite his family pedigree, as a symbol of meritocracy—“one of the secrets of the China miracle.” The state news agency has taken the unprecedented step of adopting a nickname for the General Secretary: Xi Dada—roughly, Big Uncle Xi. In January, the Ministry of Defense released oil paintings depicting him in heroic poses; thousands of art students applying to the Beijing University of Technology had been judged on their ability to sketch his likeness. The Beijing Evening News reported that one applicant admired the President so much that “she had to work hard to stop her hands from trembling.”

To outsiders, Xi has been a fitful subject. Bookstores in Hong Kong, which are insulated from mainland control, offer portraits of varying quality—the most reliable include “The New Biography of Xi Jinping,” by Liang Jian, and “China’s Future,” by Wu Ming—but most are written at a remove, under pseudonyms. The clearest account of Xi’s life and influences comes from his own words and decisions, scattered throughout a long climb to power.

Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, a Mandarin speaker who has talked with Xi at length over the years, told me, “What he says is what he thinks. My experience of him is that there’s not a lot of artifice.”

In a leadership known for grooming colorless apparatchiks, Xi projects an image of manly vigor. He mocks “eggheads” and praises the “team spirit of a group of dogs eating a lion.” In a meeting in March, 2013, he told the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, “We are similar in character,” though Xi is less inclined toward bare-chested machismo. Xi admires Song Jiang, a fictional outlaw from “Water Margin,” a fourteenth-century Chinese classic, for his ability to “unite capable people.” Neither brilliant nor handsome, Song Jiang led a band of heroic rebels. In a famous passage, he speaks of the Xunyang River: “I shall have my revenge some day / And dye red with blood the Xunyang’s flow.”

“The first time we see the sun in months and it explodes.”

Xi describes his essential project as a rescue: he must save the People’s Republic and the Communist Party before they are swamped by corruption; environmental pollution; unrest in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and other regions; and the pressures imposed by an economy that is growing more slowly than at any time since 1990 (though still at about seven per cent, the fastest pace of any major country). “The tasks our Party faces in reform, development, and stability are more onerous than ever, and the conflicts, dangers, and challenges are more numerous than ever,” Xi told the Politburo, in October. In 2014, the government arrested nearly a thousand members of civil society, more than in any year since the mid-nineteen-nineties, following the Tiananmen Square massacre, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group.

Xi unambiguously opposes American democratic notions. In 2011 and 2012, he spent several days with Vice-President Joe Biden, his official counterpart at the time, in China and the United States. Biden told me that Xi asked him why the U.S. put “so much emphasis on human rights.” Biden replied to Xi, “No President of the United States could represent the United States were he not committed to human rights,” and went on, “If you don’t understand this, you can’t deal with us. President Barack Obama would not be able to stay in power if he did not speak of it. So look at it as a political imperative. It doesn’t make us better or worse. It’s who we are. You make your decisions. We’ll make ours.”

In Xi’s early months, supporters in the West speculated that he wanted to silence hard-line critics, and would open up later, perhaps in his second term, which begins in 2017. That view has largely disappeared. Henry Paulson, the former Treasury Secretary, whose upcoming book, “Dealing with China,” describes a decade of contact with Xi, told me, “He has been very forthright and candid—privately and publicly—about the fact that the Chinese are rejecting Western values and multiparty democracy.” He added, “To Westerners, it seems very incongruous to be, on the one hand, so committed to fostering more competition and market-driven flexibility in the economy and, on the other hand, to be seeking more control in the political sphere, the media, and the Internet. But that’s the key: he sees a strong Party as essential to stability, and the only institution that’s strong enough to help him accomplish his other goals.”

In his determination to gain control and protect the Party, Xi may have generated a different kind of threat: he has pried apart internal fault lines and shaken the equilibrium that for a generation marked the nation’s rise. Before Xi took power, top officials presumed that they were protected. Yu Hua, the novelist, told me, “As China grew, what really came to matter were the ‘unwritten rules.’ When the real rules weren’t specific enough or clear enough, when policies and laws lagged behind reality, you always relied on the unwritten rules.” They dictated everything from how much to tip a surgeon to how far an N.G.O. could go before it was suppressed. “The unwritten rules have been broken,” Yu said. “This is how it should be, of course, but laws haven’t arrived yet.”

The Communist Party dedicated itself to a classless society but organized itself in a rigid hierarchy, and Xi started life near the top. He was born in Beijing in 1953, the third of four children. His father, Xi Zhongxun, China’s propaganda minister at the time, had been fomenting revolution since the age of fourteen, when he and his classmates tried to poison a teacher whom they considered a counterrevolutionary. He was sent to jail, where he joined the Communist Party, and eventually he became a high-ranking commander, which plunged him into the Party’s internal feuds. In 1935, a rival faction accused Xi of disloyalty and ordered him to be buried alive, but Mao defused the crisis. At a Party meeting in February, 1952, Mao stated that the “suppression of counterrevolutionaries” required, on average, the execution of one person for every one thousand to two thousand citizens. Xi Zhongxun endorsed “severe suppression and punishment,” but in his area “killing was relatively lower,” according to his official biography.

Xi Jinping grew up with his father’s stories. “He talked about how he joined the revolution, and he’d say, ‘You will certainly make revolution in the future,’ ” Xi recalled in a 2004 interview with the Xi’an Evening News , a state-run paper. “He’d explain what revolution is. We heard so much of this that our ears got calluses.” In six decades of politics, his father had seen or deployed every tactic. At dinner with the elder Xi in 1980, David Lampton, a China specialist at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, marvelled that he could toast dozens of guests, over glasses of Maotai, with no visible effects. “It became apparent that he was drinking water,” Lampton said.

“Wait Maybe they arent just awesome bunk beds with cheese pillows”

When Xi Jinping was five, his father was promoted to Vice-Premier, and the son often visited him at Zhongnanhai, the secluded compound for top leaders. Xi was admitted to the exclusive August 1st School, named for the date of a famous Communist victory. The school, which occupied the former palace of a Qing Dynasty prince, was nicknamed the lingxiu yaolan —the “cradle of leaders.” The students formed a small, close-knit élite; they lived in the same compounds, summered at the same retreats, and shared a sense of noblesse oblige. For centuries before the People’s Republic, an evolving list of élite clans combined wealth and politics. Some sons handled business; others pursued high office. Winners changed over time, and, when Communist leaders prevailed, in 1949, they acquired the mantle. “The common language used to describe this was that they had ‘won over tianxia ’—‘all under Heaven,’ ” Yang Guobin, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “They believed they had a natural claim to leadership. They owned it. And their children thought, naturally, they themselves would be, and should be, the future owners.” As the historian Mi Hedu observes in his 1993 book, “The Red Guard Generation,” students at the August 1st School “compared one another on the basis of whose father had a higher rank, whose father rode in a better car. Some would say, ‘Obey whoever’s father has the highest position.’ ” When the Cultural Revolution began, in 1966, Beijing students who were zilaihong (“born red”) promoted a slogan: “If the father is a hero, the son is also a hero; if the father is a reactionary, the son is a bastard.” Red Guards sought to cleanse the capital of opposition, to make it “as pure and clean as crystal,” they said. From late August to late September, 1966, nearly two thousand people were killed in Beijing, and at least forty-nine hundred historical sites were damaged or destroyed, according to Yiching Wu, the author of “The Cultural Revolution at the Margins.”

But Xi Jinping did not fit cleanly into the role of either aggressor or victim. In 1962, his father was accused of supporting a novel that Mao opposed, and was sent to work in a factory; his mother, Qi Xin, was assigned to hard labor on a farm. In January, 1967, after Mao encouraged students to target “class enemies,” a group of young people dragged Xi Zhongxun before a crowd. Among other charges, he was accused of having gazed at West Berlin through binoculars during a visit to East Germany years earlier. He was detained in a military garrison, where he passed the years by walking in circles, he said later—ten thousand laps, and then ten thousand walking backward. The son was too young to be an official Red Guard, and his father’s status made him undesirable. Moreover, being born red was becoming a liability. Élite academies were accused of being xiao baota —“little treasure pagodas”—and shut down. Xi and the sons of other targeted officials stayed together, getting into street fights and swiping books from shuttered libraries. Later, Xi described that period as a dystopian collapse of control. He was detained “three or four times” by groups of Red Guards, and forced to denounce his father. In 2000, he told the journalist Yang Xiaohuai about being captured by a group loyal to the wife of the head of China’s secret police:

I was only fourteen. The Red Guards asked, “How serious do you yourself think your crimes are?” “You can estimate it yourselves. Is it enough to execute me?” “We can execute you a hundred times.” To my mind there was no difference between being executed a hundred times or once, so why be afraid of a hundred times? The Red Guards wanted to scare me, saying that now I was to feel the democratic dictatorship of the people, and that I only had five minutes left. But in the end, they told me, instead, to read quotations from Chairman Mao every day until late at night.

In December, 1968, in a bid to regain control, Mao ordered the Red Guards and other students to the countryside, to be “reëducated by the poor and lower-middle-class peasants.” Élite families sent their children to regions that had allies or family, and Xi went to his father’s old stronghold in Shaanxi. He was assigned to Liangjiahe, a village flanked by yellow cliffs. “The intensity of the labor shocked me,” Xi recalled in a 2004 television interview. To avoid work, he took up smoking—nobody bothered a man smoking—and lingered in the bathroom. After three months, he fled to Beijing, but he was arrested and returned to the village. In what later became the centerpiece of his official narrative, Xi was reborn. A recent state-news-service article offers the mythology: “Xi lived in a cave dwelling with villagers, slept on a kang , a traditional Chinese bed made of bricks and clay, endured flea bites, carried manure, built dams and repaired roads.” It leaves out some brutal details. At one point, he received a letter informing him that his older half-sister Xi Heping had died. The Australian journalist John Garnaut, the author of an upcoming book on the rise of Xi and his cohort, said, “It was suicide. Close associates have said to me, on the record, that after a decade of persecution she hanged herself from a shower rail.”

Xi chose to join the Communist Party’s Youth League. Because of his father’s status, his application was rejected seven times, by his count. After Xi befriended a local official, he was accepted. In January, 1974, he gained full Party membership and became secretary of the village. His drive to join the Party baffled some of his peers. A longtime friend who became a professor later told an American diplomat that he felt “betrayed” by Xi’s ambition to “join the system.” According to a U.S. diplomatic cable recounting his views, many in Xi’s élite cohort were desperate to escape politics; they dated, drank, and read Western literature. They were “trying to catch up for lost years by having fun,” the professor said. He eventually concluded that Xi was “exceptionally ambitious,” and knew that he would “not be special” outside China, so he “chose to survive by becoming redder than the red.” After all, Yang Guobin told me, referring to the sons of the former leaders, “the sense of ownership did not die. A sense of pride and superiority persisted, and there was some confidence that their fathers’ adversity would be temporary and sooner or later they would make a comeback. That’s exactly what happened.”

The following year, Xi enrolled at Tsinghua University as a “worker-peasant-soldier” student (applicants who were admitted on the basis of political merit rather than test scores). That spring, Xi Zhongxun was rehabilitated, after sixteen years of persecution. When the family reunited, he could not recognize his grown sons. His faith never wavered. In November, 1976, he wrote to Hua Guofeng, the head of the Party, asking for reassignment, in order to “devote the rest of my life to the Party and strive to do more for the people.” He signed it, “Xi Zhongxun, a Follower of Chairman Mao and a Party Member Who Has Not Regained Admission to Regular Party Activities.”

Xi Jinping’s pedigree had exposed him to a brutal politics—purges, retribution, rehabilitation—and he drew blunt lessons from it. In a 2000 interview with the journalist Chen Peng, of the Beijing-based Chinese Times , Xi said, “People who have little experience with power, those who have been far away from it, tend to regard these things as mysterious and novel. But I look past the superficial things: the power and the flowers and the glory and the applause. I see the detention houses, the fickleness of human relationships. I understand politics on a deeper level.” The Cultural Revolution and his years in Yan’an, the region where he was sent as a teen-ager, had created him. “Yan’an is the starting point of my life,” he said in 2007. “Many of the fundamental ideas and qualities I have today were formed in Yan’an.” Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister, told me, “The bottom line in any understanding of who Xi Jinping is must begin with his dedication to the Party as an institution—despite the fact that through his personal life, and his political life, he has experienced the best of the Party and the worst of the Party.”

Xi’s siblings scattered: his brother and a sister went into business in Hong Kong, the other sister reportedly settled in Canada. But Xi stayed and, year by year, invested more deeply in the Party. After graduating, in 1979, he took a coveted job as an aide to Geng Biao, a senior defense official whom Xi’s father called “my closest comrade-in-arms” from the revolution. Xi wore a military uniform and made valuable connections at Party headquarters. Not long after college, he married Ke Xiaoming, the cosmopolitan daughter of China’s Ambassador to Britain. But they fought “almost every day,” according to the professor, who lived across the hall. He told the diplomat that the couple divorced when Ke decided to move to England and Xi stayed behind.

China’s revolutionaries were aging, and the Party needed to groom new leaders. Xi told the professor that going to the provinces was the “only path to central power.” Staying at Party headquarters in Beijing would narrow his network and invite resentment from lesser-born peers. In 1982, shortly before Xi turned thirty, he asked to be sent back to the countryside, and was assigned to a horse-cart county in Hebei Province. He wanted to be the county secretary—the boss—but the provincial chief resented privileged offspring from Party headquarters and made Xi the No. 2. It was the Chinese equivalent of trading an executive suite at the Pentagon for a mid-level post in rural Virginia.

Within a year, though, Xi was promoted, and he honed his political skills. He gave perks to retired cadres who could shape his reputation; he arranged for them to receive priority at doctors’ offices; when he bought the county’s first imported car, he donated it to the “veteran-cadre office,” and used an old jeep for himself. He retained his green Army-issue trousers to convey humility, and he learned the value of political theatrics: at times, “if you don’t bang on the table, it’s not frightening enough, and people won’t take it seriously,” he told a Chinese interviewer in 2003. He experimented with market economics, by allowing farmers to use more land for raising animals instead of growing grain for the state, and he pushed splashy local projects, including the construction of a television studio based on the classic novel “A Dream of Red Mansions.”

In 1985, he spent two weeks in Iowa as part of an agricultural delegation. In the town of Muscatine, he stayed with Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak. “The boys had gone off to college, so there were some spare bedrooms,” Eleanor told me. Xi slept in a room with football-themed wallpaper and “Star Trek” action figures. “He was looking out the window, and it seemed like he was saying, ‘Oh, my God,’ and I thought, What’s so unusual? It’s just a split-level,” she said. Xi did not introduce himself as a Communist Party secretary; his business card identified him as the head of the Shijiazhuang Feed Association. In 2012, on a trip to the U.S. before becoming top leader, he returned to Muscatine, to see Dvorchak and others, trailed by the world press. She said, “No one in their right mind would ever think that that guy who stayed in my house would become the President. I don’t care what country you’re talking about.”

By 1985, Xi was ready for another promotion, but the provincial Party head blocked him again, so he moved to the southern province of Fujian, where one of his father’s friends was the Party secretary, and could help him. Not long after he arrived, he met Liao Wanlong, a Taiwanese businessman, who recalled, “He was tall and stocky, and he looked a little dopey.” Liao, who has visited Xi repeatedly in the decades since, told me, “He appeared to be guileless, honest. He came from the north and he didn’t understand the south well.” Liao went on, “He would speak only if he really had something to say, and he didn’t make casual promises. He would think everything through before opening his mouth. He rarely talked about his family, because he had a difficult past and a disappointing marriage.” Xi didn’t have a questing mind, but he excelled at managing his image and his relationships; he was now meeting foreign investors, so he stopped wearing Army fatigues and adopted a wardrobe of Western suits. Liao said, “Not everyone could get an audience with him; he would screen those who wanted to meet him. He was a good judge of people.”

“In this scene imagine youre sentient and know what feelings are.”

The following year, when Xi was thirty-three, a friend introduced him to Peng Liyuan, who, at twenty-four, was already one of China’s most famous opera and folk singers. Xi told her that he didn’t watch television, she recalled in a 2007 interview. “What kind of songs do you sing?” he asked. Peng thought that he looked “uncultured and much older than his age,” but he asked her questions about singing technique, which she took as a sign of intelligence. Xi later said that he decided within forty minutes to ask her to marry him. They married the following year, and in 1989, after the crackdown on student demonstrators, Peng was among the military singers who were sent to Tiananmen Square to serenade the troops. (Images of that scene, along with information about Peng’s private life and her commercial dealings, have been largely expunged from the Web.) In 1992, they had a daughter. As it became clear that Xi would be a top leader, Peng gave up the diva gowns and elaborate hairdos in favor of pants suits and the occasional military uniform. Fans still mobbed her, while he stood patiently to the side, but for the most part she stopped performing and turned her attention to activism around H.I.V., tobacco control, and women’s education. For years, Xi and Peng spent most of their time apart. But, in the flurry of attention around Big Uncle Xi, the state-run media has promoted a pop song entitled “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama,” which includes the line “Men should learn from Xi and women should learn from Peng.”

The posting to the south put Xi closer to his father. Since 1978, his father had served in neighboring Guangdong, home to China’s experiments with the free market, and the elder Xi had become a zealous believer in economic reform as the answer to poverty. It was a risky position: at a Politburo meeting in 1987, the Old Guard attacked the liberal standard-bearer, Hu Yaobang. Xi’s father was the only senior official who spoke in his defense. “What are you guys doing here? Don’t repeat what Mao did to us,” he said, according to Richard Baum’s 1994 chronicle of élite politics, “Burying Mao.” But Xi lost and was stripped of power for the last time. He was allowed to live in comfortable obscurity until his death, in 2002, and is remembered fondly as “a man of principle, not of strategy,” as the editor in Beijing put it to me.

His son avoided overly controversial reforms as he rose through the ranks. “My approach is to heat a pot with a small, continuous fire, pouring in cold water to keep it from boiling over,” he said. In 1989, a local propaganda official, Kang Yanping, submitted a proposal for a TV miniseries promoting political reform, but Xi replied with skepticism. According to “China’s Future,” he asked, “Is there a source for the opinion? Is it a reasonable point?” The show, which Xi predicted would leave people “discouraged,” was not produced. He also paid special attention to cultivating local military units; he upgraded equipment, raised subsidies for soldiers’ living expenses, and found jobs for retiring officers. He liked to say, “To meet the Army’s needs, nothing is excessive.”

Xi prosecuted corruption at some moments and ignored it at others. A Chinese executive told the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that Xi was considered “Mr. Clean” for turning down a bribe, and yet, for the many years that Xi worked in Fujian, the Yuanhua Group, one of China’s largest corrupt enterprises, continued smuggling billions of dollars’ worth of oil, cars, cigarettes, and appliances into China, with the help of the Fujian military and police. Xi also found a way to live with Chen Kai, a local tycoon who ran casinos and brothels in the center of town, protected by the police chief. Later, Chen was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death, and fifty government officials were prosecuted for accepting bribes from him. Xi was never linked to the cases, but they left a stain on his tenure. “Sometimes I have posted colleagues wrongly,” he said in 2000. “Some were posted wrongly because I thought they were better than they actually were, others because I thought they were worse than they actually were.”

Xi proved adept at navigating internal feuds and alliances. After he took over the economically vibrant province of Zhejiang, in 2002, he created policies intended to promote private businesses. He encouraged taxi services to buy from Geely, the car company that later bought Volvo. He soothed conservatives, in part by reciting socialist incantations. “The private economy has become an exotic flower in the garden of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he declared. In 2007, he encountered a prime opportunity to show his political skills: a corruption scandal in Shanghai was implicating associates of Jiang Zemin, the powerful former President, who served from 1989 to 2002. Xi was sent to Shanghai to take over. He projected toughness to the public without alienating Jiang. He rejected the villa that had been arranged for him, announcing that it would be better used as a retirement home for veteran comrades.

His timing was fortunate: a few months later, senior Party officials were choosing the next generation of top leaders. Xi was expected to lose to Li Keqiang, a comrade who had no revolutionary family pedigree, and had postgraduate degrees in law and economics from Peking University. Since 2002, the highest ranks of Chinese politics had been dominated by men who elbowed their way in on the basis of academic or technocratic merit. President Hu’s father ran a tea shop, and the Premier, Wen Jiabao, was the son of a teacher, but Chen Yun, the late economic czar, had advised his peers that born reds, now known as “second-generation reds,” or princelings, would make more reliable stewards of the Party’s future. One princeling told a Western diplomat, “The feeling among us is: ‘Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, your fathers were selling shoelaces while our fathers were dying for this revolution.’ ” In private, some princelings referred to the President and the Premier as huoji —“hired hands.” In October, 2007, Xi was unveiled as the likely heir apparent. It was not entirely a compliment. “Party leaders prefer weak successors, so they can rule behind the scenes,” Ho Pin, the founder of Mingjing News, an overseas Chinese site, said. Xi’s rise had been so abrupt, in the eyes of the general public, that people joked, “Who is Xi Jinping? He’s Peng Liyuan’s husband.”

“Kinda makes you feel insignificant and incredibly hot doesnt it”

Xi was tested by a pageant of dysfunction that erupted in the run-up to his début as General Secretary, in 2012. In February, Wang Lijun, a former police chief, tried to defect to the U.S. and accused the family of his former patron, Bo Xilai, the Party secretary of Chongqing, of murder and embezzlement. Party leaders feared that Bo might protect himself with the security services at his command, disrupt the transition of power, and tear the Party apart. In September, Ling Jihua, the chief of staff of the outgoing President, was abruptly demoted, and he was later accused of trying to cover up the death of his son, who had crashed a black Ferrari while accompanied by two women.

Beset by crises, Xi suddenly disappeared. On September 4, 2012, he cancelled a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and visits with other dignitaries. As the days passed, lurid rumors emerged, ranging from a grave illness to an assassination attempt. When he reappeared, on September 19th, he told American officials that he had injured his back. Analysts of Chinese politics still raise the subject of Xi’s disappearance in the belief that a fuller explanation of why he vanished might illuminate the depth, or fragility, of his support. In dozens of conversations this winter, scholars, officials, journalists, and executives told me that they suspect he did have a health problem, and also reasons to exploit it. They speculate that Xi, in effect, went on strike; he wanted to install key allies, and remove opponents, before taking power, but Party elders ordered him to wait. A former intelligence official told me, “Xi basically says, ‘O.K., fuck you, let’s see you find someone else for this job. I’m going to disappear for two weeks and miss the Secretary of State.’ And that’s what he did. It caused a stir, and they went running and said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ ” The handoff went ahead as planned. On November 15, 2012, Xi became General Secretary.

Xi headed a Politburo Standing Committee of seven men: four were considered princelings by birth or marriage, a larger ratio than in any Politburo in the history of the People’s Republic. Western politicians often note that Xi has the habits of a retail pol: comfort on the rope line, gentle questions for every visitor, homey anecdotes. On a trip to Los Angeles, he told students that he likes to swim, read, and watch sports on television, but rarely has time. “To borrow a title from an American film, it’s like ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ” he said. But Chinese observers tend to mention something else: his guizuqi , or “air of nobility.” It can come off as a reassuring link to the past or, at times, as a distance from his peers. In a meeting at the Great Hall of the People last year, Party officials were chatting and glad-handing during a lengthy break, but Xi never budged. “It went on for hours, and he sat there, staring straight ahead,” a foreign attendee told me. “He never wandered down from the podium to say, ‘How’s it going in Ningxia?’ ”

Xi believed that there was a grave threat to China from within. According to U.S. diplomats, Xi’s friend the professor described Xi as “repulsed by the all-encompassing commercialization of Chinese society, with its attendant nouveaux riches, official corruption, loss of values, dignity, and self-respect, and such ‘moral evils’ as drugs and prostitution.” If he ever became China’s top leader, the professor had predicted, “he would likely aggressively attempt to address these evils, perhaps at the expense of the new moneyed class.” Though princelings and their siblings had profited comfortably from China’s rise (Xi’s sister Qi Qiaoqiao is reported to have large corporate and real-estate assets), the revolutionary families considered their gains appropriate, and they blamed the hired hands for allowing corruption and extravagance, which stirred up public rage and threatened the Party’s future.

The first step to a solution was to reëstablish control. The “collective Presidency,” which spread power across the Standing Committee, had constrained Hu Jintao so thoroughly that he was nicknamed the Woman with Bound Feet. Xi surrounded himself with a shadow cabinet that was defined less by a single ideology than by school ties and political reliability. Members included Liu He, a childhood playmate who had become a reform-minded economist, and Liu Yuan, a hawkish general and the son of former President Liu Shaoqi. The most important was Wang Qishan, a friend for decades, who was placed in charge of the Central Commission on Discipline and Inspection, the agency that launched the vast anticorruption campaign.

The Party had long cultivated an image of virtuous unanimity. But, during the next two years, Wang’s investigators, who were granted broad powers to detain and interrogate, attacked agencies that might counter Xi’s authority, accusing them of conspiracies and abuses. They brought corruption charges against officials at the state-planning and state-assets commissions, which protect the privileges of large government-run monopolies. They arrested China’s security chief, Zhou Yongkang, a former oil baron with the jowls of an Easter Island statue, who had built the police and military into a personal kingdom that received more funding each year for domestic spying and policing than it did for foreign defense. They reached into the ranks of the military, where flamboyant corruption was not only upsetting the public—pedestrians had learned to watch out for luxury sedans with military license plates, which careered around Beijing with impunity—but also undermining China’s national defense. When police searched homes belonging to the family of Lieutenant General Gu Junshan, a senior logistics chief, they removed four truckloads of wine, art, cash, and other luxuries. According to a diplomat in Beijing, Gu’s furnishings included a gold replica of China’s first aircraft carrier. “When questioned about it, he said it was a sign of patriotism,” the diplomat said.

“You give me permission to laugh.”

By the end of 2014, the Party had announced the punishment of more than a hundred thousand officials on corruption charges. Many foreign observers asked if Xi’s crusade was truly intended to stamp out corruption or if it was a tool to attack his enemies. It was not simply one or the other: corruption had become so threatening to the Party’s legitimacy that only the most isolated leader could have avoided forcing it back to a more manageable level, but railing against corruption was also a proven instrument for political consolidation, and at the highest levels Xi has deployed it largely against his opponents. Geremie Barme, the historian who heads the Australian Centre on China in the World, analyzed the forty-eight most high-profile arrests, and discovered that none of them were second-generation reds. “I don’t call it an anticorruption campaign,” a Western diplomat told me. “This is grinding trench warfare.”

Shortly after taking over, Xi asked, “Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse?” and declared, “It’s a profound lesson for us.” Chinese scholars had studied that puzzle from dozens of angles, but Xi wanted more. “In 2009, he commissioned a long study of the Soviet Union from somebody who works in the policy-research office,” the diplomat in Beijing told me. “It concluded that the rot started under Brezhnev. In the paper, the guy cited a joke: Brezhnev brings his mother to Moscow. He proudly shows her the state apartments at the Kremlin, his Zil limousine, and the life of luxury he now lives. ‘Well, what do you think, Mama,’ says Brezhnev. ‘You’ll never have to worry about a thing, ever again.’ ‘I’m so proud of you, Leonid Ilyich,’ says Mama, ‘but what happens if the Communists find out?’ Xi loved the story.” Xi reserved special scorn for Gorbachev, for failing to defend the Party against its opponents, and told his colleagues, “Nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”

The year after Xi took office, cadres were required to watch a six-part documentary on the Soviet Union’s collapse, which showed violent scenes of unrest and described an American conspiracy to topple Communism through “peaceful evolution”: the steady infiltration of subversive Western political ideas. Ever since the early aughts, when “color revolutions” erupted in the former Soviet bloc, Chinese Communists have cited the risk of contagion as a reason to constrict political life. That fear was heightened by a surge of unrest in Tibet in 2008, in Xinjiang in 2009, and across the Arab world in 2011. Last September, when pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong, an opinion piece in the Global Times , a state-run daily, accused the National Endowment for Democracy and the C.I.A. of being “black hands” behind the unrest, intent on “stimulating Taiwanese independence, Xinjiang independence, and Tibetan independence.” (The U.S. denied involvement.)

Xi’s government has no place for loyal opposition. When he launched the anticorruption campaign, activists—such as the lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who had served as a local legislator in Beijing—joined in, calling on officials to disclose their incomes. But Xu and many others were arrested. (He was later sentenced to four years in prison for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order.”) One of Xu’s former colleagues, Teng Biao, told me, “For the government, ‘peaceful evolution’ was not just a slogan. It was real. The influence of Western states was becoming more obvious and more powerful.” Teng was at a conference in Germany soon after Xu and another colleague were arrested. “People advised me not to return to China, or I’d be arrested, too,” Teng said. He is now a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School.

A prominent editor in Beijing told me that Chinese philanthropists have been warned, “You can’t give money to this N.G.O. or that N.G.O.—basically all N.G.O.s.” In December, the Committee to Protect Journalists counted forty-four reporters in Chinese jails, more than in any other country. Well-known human-rights lawyers—Pu Zhiqiang, Ding Jiaxi, Xia Lin—have been jailed. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch called this the harshest suppression of dissent in a decade.

Although Vladimir Putin has suffocated Russian civil society and neutered the press, Moscow stores still carry books that are critical of him, and a few long-suffering blogs still find ways to attack him. Xi is less tolerant. In February, 2014, Yiu Mantin, a seventy-nine-year-old editor at Hong Kong’s Morning Bell Press, who had planned to release a biography critical of Xi, by the exiled writer Yu Jie, was arrested during a visit to the mainland. He had received a phone call warning him not to proceed with publication. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, on charges of smuggling seven cans of paint.

For years, Chinese intellectuals distinguished between words and actions: Western political ideas could be discussed in China as long as nobody tried to enact them. In 2011, China’s education minister, Yuan Guiren, extolled the benefits of exchanges with foreign countries. “Whether they’re rich or poor, socialist or capitalist, as long as they’re beneficial to our development we can learn from all of them,” he told the Jinghua Times , a state newspaper. But in January Yuan told a conference, “Young teachers and students are key targets of infiltration by enemy forces.” He said, “We must, by no means, allow into our classrooms material that propagates Western values.” An article on the Web site of Seeking Truth , an official Party journal, warned against professors who “blacken China’s name,” and it singled out the law professor He Weifang by name. When I spoke to He, a few days later, he said, “I’ve always been unpopular with conservatives, but recently the situation has become more serious. The political standpoint of this new slate of leaders isn’t like that of the Hu or Jiang era. They’re more restraining. They’re not as willing to permit an active discussion.”

“Ill have what shes having when she decides what shes having.”

Sealing China off from Western ideas poses some practical problems. The Party has announced “rule of law” reforms intended to strengthen top-down control over the legal system and shield courts from local interference. The professor said, “Many colleagues working on civil law and that sort of thing have a large portion of their lectures about German law or French law. So, if you want to stop Western values from spreading in Chinese universities, one thing you’d have to do is close down the law schools and make sure they never exist again.” Xi, for his part, sees no contradiction, because preservation of the Party comes before preservation of the law. In January, he said that China must “nurture a legal corps loyal to the Party, loyal to the country, loyal to the people, and loyal to the law.” Echoing Mao, he added, “Insure that the handle of the knife is firmly in the hand of the Party and the people.”

Xi’s wariness of Western influence is reflected in his foreign policy. On a personal level, he expresses warm memories of Iowa, and he sent his daughter, Xi Mingze, to Harvard. (She graduated last year, under a pseudonym, and has returned to China.) But Xi has also expressed an essentialist view of national characteristics such that, in his telling, China’s history and social makeup render it unfit for multiparty democracy or a monarchy or any other non-Communist system. “We considered them, tried them, but none worked,” he told an audience at the College of Europe, in Bruges, last spring. Adopting an alternative, he said, “might even lead to catastrophic consequences.” On his watch, state-run media have accentuated the threat of “peaceful evolution,” and have accused American companies, including Microsoft, Cisco, and Intel, of being “warriors” for the U.S. government.

As for a broad diplomatic vision, Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping have adhered to a principle known as “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Xi has effectively replaced that concept with declarations of China’s arrival. In Paris last year, he invoked Napoleon’s remark that China was “a sleeping lion,” and said that the lion “has already awakened, but this is a peaceful, pleasant, and civilized lion.” He told the Politburo in December that he intends to “make China’s voice heard, and inject more Chinese elements into international rules.” As alternatives to the Washington-based World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Xi’s government has established the New Development Bank, the Silk Road infrastructure fund, and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, which, together, intend to amass two hundred and forty billion dollars in capital. Xi has been far bolder than his predecessors in asserting Chinese control over airspace and land, sending an oil rig into contested waters, and erecting buildings, helipads, and other facilities on reefs that are claimed by multiple nations. He has also taken advantage of Putin’s growing economic isolation; Xi has met with Putin more than with any other foreign leader, and, last May, as Russia faced new sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, Xi and Putin agreed on a four-hundred-billion-dollar deal to supply gas to China at rates that favor Beijing. According to the prominent editor, Xi has told people that he was impressed by Putin’s seizure of Crimea—“He got a large piece of land and resources” and boosted his poll numbers at home. But, as war in Ukraine has dragged on, Xi has become less complimentary of Putin.

No diplomatic relationship matters more to China’s future than its dealings with the United States, and Xi has urged the U.S. to adopt a “new type of great-power relationship”—to regard China as an equal and to acknowledge its claims to contested islands and other interests. (The Obama Administration has declined to adopt the phrase.) Xi and Obama have met, at length, five times. American officials describe the relationship as occasionally candid but not close. They have “brutally frank exchanges on difficult issues, and it doesn’t upset the apple cart,” a senior Administration official told me. “So it’s different from the era of Hu Jintao, where there was very little exchange.” Hu almost never departed from his notes, and American counterparts wondered how much he believed his talking points. “Xi is reading what I’m confident Xi believes,” the official said, though their engagements remain stilted: “There’s still a cadence that is very difficult to extract yourself from in these exchanges. . . . We want to have a conversation.”

For years, American military leaders worried that there was a growing risk of an accidental clash between China and the U.S., in part because Beijing protested U.S. policies by declining meetings between senior commanders. In 2011, Mike Mullen, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, visited Xi in Beijing, and appealed to his military experience, telling him, as he recalled to me, “I just need you to stop cutting off military relationships as step one, every time you get ticked off.” That has improved. In Beijing last November, Xi and Obama spent five hours at dinner and meetings and announced coöperation on climate change, a high-tech free-trade deal that China had previously resisted, and two military agreements to encourage communication between forces operating near each other in the South China and East China Seas. Mullen, who has met Xi again since their initial encounter, is encouraged: “They still get ticked off, they take steps, but they don’t cut it off.”

“You dont have to do the quotes every time Brian—we know youre not Shakespeare.”

As China ejects Western ideas, Xi is trying to fill that void with an affirmative set of ideas to offer at home and abroad. Recently, I rode the No. 1 subway line eastbound, beneath the Avenue of Eternal Peace—under Party headquarters, the Central Propaganda Department, and the Ministries of Commerce and Public Security—and got off the train at the Second Ring Road, where the old City Wall once stood. Near the station, at a Starbucks, I met Zhang Lifan, a well-known historian. At sixty-four, he defies the usual rumpled stereotype of the liberal intelligentsia; he is tall, with elegant hints of gray hair, and he wore a black mandarin-collar jacket and a winter cap covered in smooth black fur. Zhang grew up around politics; his father, a banker before the revolution, served as a minister in the early years of Mao’s government. I asked him what message Xi hoped to promote from China around the world. He said, “Ever since Mao’s day, and the beginning of reform and opening up, we all talk about a ‘crisis of faith,’ ” the sense that rapid growth and political turmoil have cut China off from its moral history. “He is trying to solve that problem, so that there can be another new ideology.”

Zhang writes about politics, and he is occasionally visited by police who remind him to avoid sensitive subjects. “Sometimes, they will pass by and say it through the closed front door,” Zhang said. He commented, “They tried to stop me from coming today. They followed me here.” He indicated a slim young man in a windbreaker, watching us from a nearby table. In remote areas, where police are unaccustomed to the presence of foreigners, authorities often try to prevent people from meeting reporters. But, in a decade of writing about China, this was the first time I’d encountered that situation in the capital. I suggested we postpone our discussion. He shook his head. In a stage whisper, he said, “What I say and what I write are the same. There’s no difference.”

The most surprising thing about the era of Xi Jinping is the decision to close off the margins—those minor mutinies and indulgences that used to be tolerated as a way to avoid driving China’s most prosperous and well-educated citizens abroad. For years, the government tacitly allowed people to gain access to virtual private networks, or V.P.N.s, which allow users to reach Web sites that are blocked in China. The risks seemed manageable; most Chinese users had less interest in politics than in reaching a celebrity’s Instagram feed (Instagram, like Facebook, Twitter, Bloomberg, Reuters, and the Times , is blocked). Keeping them open, the theory went, allowed sophisticated users to get what they wanted or needed—for instance, researchers accessing Google Scholar, or businesses doing transactions—while preventing the masses from employing technology that worries the Party. But on January 23rd, while I was in Beijing, the government abruptly blocked the V.P.N.s, and state media reiterated that they were illegal. Overnight, it became radically more difficult to reach anything on the Internet outside China. Before the comments were shut down on the Web site Computer News, twelve thousand people left their views. “What are you afraid of?” one asked. “Big step toward becoming a new North Korea,” another wrote. Another wrote: “One more advertisement for emigration.”

A decade ago, the Chinese Internet was alive with debate, confession, humor, and discovery. Month by month, it is becoming more sterilized and self-contained. To the degree that China’s connection to the outside world matters, the digital links are deteriorating. Voice-over-Internet calls, viral videos, podcasts—the minor accessories of contemporary digital life—are less reachable abroad than they were a year ago. It’s an astonishing thing to observe in a rising superpower. How many countries in 2015 have an Internet connection to the world that is worse than it was a year ago?

The General Secretary, in his capacity as Big Uncle Xi, has taken to offering advice on nonpolitical matters: last fall, he lamented an overly “sensual” trend in society. (In response, Chinese auto executives stopped having lightly clad models lounge around vehicles at car shows.) In January, he urged people to get more sleep, “however enthusiastic you may be about the job,” saying that he goes to bed before midnight. Online, people joked that it seemed implausible: since taking office, Xi has acquired heavy bags under his eyes and a look of near-constant irritation.

For a generation, the Communist Party forged a political consensus built on economic growth and legal ambiguity. Liberal activists and corrupt bureaucrats learned to skirt (or flout) legal boundaries, because the Party objected only intermittently. Today, Xi has indicated that consensus, beyond the Party élite, is superfluous—or, at least, less reliable than a hard boundary between enemies and friends.

It is difficult to know precisely how much support Xi enjoys. Private pollsters are not allowed to explicitly measure his public support, but Victor Yuan, the president of Horizon Research Consultancy Group, a Beijing polling firm, told me, “We’ve done some indirect research, and his support seems to be around eighty per cent. It comes from two areas: one is the anticorruption policy and the other is foreign policy. The area where it’s unclear is the economy. People say they’ll have to wait and see.”

China’s economy is likely to be Xi’s greatest obstacle. After economic growth of, on average, nearly ten per cent a year, for more than three decades, the Party expected growth to slow to a sustainable pace of around seven per cent, but it could fall more sharply. China remains the world’s largest manufacturer, with four trillion dollars in foreign-exchange reserves (a sum equivalent to the world’s fourth-largest economy). In November, 2013, the Party announced plans to reinvigorate competition by expanding the role of private banks, allowing the market (instead of bureaucrats) to decide where water, oil, and other precious resources are directed, and forcing state firms to give up larger dividends and compete with private businesses. Last spring, China abolished registered-capital and other requirements for new companies, and in November it allowed foreign investors to trade shares directly on the Shanghai stock market for the first time. “A fair judgment is that Xi’s government has achieved more progress, in more areas, in the past eighteen months than the Hu government did in its entire second term,” Arthur Kroeber, a longtime Beijing-based economist at Gavekal Dragonomics, a research firm, told me. And yet, Kroeber added, “my confidence level is only slightly above fifty per cent” that the reforms will be enough to head off a recession.

“Well well looks like we got ourselves a coupla city types here and a couple more city types right behind em and a whole...

The risks to China’s economy have rarely been more visible. The workforce is aging more quickly than in other countries (because of the one-child policy), and businesses are borrowing money more rapidly than they are earning it. David Kelly, a co-founder of China Policy, a Beijing-based research and advisory firm, said, “The turning point in the economy really was about four, five years ago, and now you see the classical problem of the declining productivity of capital. For every dollar you invest, you’re getting far less bang for your buck.” The growth of demand for energy and raw materials has slowed, more houses and malls are empty, and nervous Chinese savers are sending money overseas, to protect it in the event of a crisis. Some factories have not paid wages, and in the last quarter of 2014 workers held strikes, or other forms of protest, at three times the rate of the same period a year earlier.

Xi’s ability to avoid an economic crisis depends partly on whether he has the political strength to prevail over state firms, local governments, and other powerful interests. In his meetings with Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister, Xi mentioned his father’s frustrated attempts to achieve market-oriented reforms. “Xi Jinping is legitimately proud of his father,” Rudd said, adding, “His father had a record of real achievement and was, frankly, a person who paid a huge political and personal price for being a dedicated Party man and a dedicated economic reformer.”

Historically, the Party has never perceived a contradiction between political crackdown and economic reform. In 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao met with a delegation from the U.S. Congress, and one member, citing a professor who had recently been fired for political reasons, asked the Premier why. Wen was baffled by the inquiry; the professor was a “small problem,” he said. “I don’t know the person you spoke of, but as Premier I have 1.3 billion people on my mind.”

To maintain economic growth, China is straining to promote innovation, but by enforcing a political chill on Chinese campuses Xi risks suppressing precisely the disruptive thinking that the country needs for the future. At times, politics prevails over rational calculations. In 2014, after China had spent years investing in science and technology, the share of its economy devoted to research and development surpassed Europe’s. But, when the government announced the recipients of grants for social-science research, seven of the top ten projects were dedicated to analyzing Xi’s speeches (officially known as “General Secretary Xi’s Series of Important Speeches”) or his signature slogan: the Chinese Dream.

The era of Xi Jinping has defied the assumption that China’s fitful opening to the world is too critical and productive to stall. The Party today perceives an array of threats that, in the view of He Weifang, the law professor, will only increase in the years ahead. Before the Web, the professor said, “there really weren’t very many people who were able to access information from outside, so in Deng Xiaoping’s era the Party could afford to be a lot more open.” But now, if the Internet were unrestricted, “I believe it would bring in things that the leaders would consider very dangerous.”

Like many others I met this winter, He Weifang worries that the Party is narrowing the range of acceptable adaptation to the point that it risks uncontrollable change. I asked him what he thinks the Party will be like in ten or fifteen years. “I think, as intellectuals, we must do everything we can to promote a peaceful transformation of the Party—to encourage it to become a ‘leftist party’ in the European sense, a kind of social-democratic party.” That, he said, would help its members better respect a true system of law and political competition, including freedom of the press and freedom of thought. “If they refuse even these basic changes, then I believe China will undergo another revolution.”

It is a dramatic prediction—and an oddly commonplace one these days. Zhang Lifan, the historian I saw at Starbucks, said, in full view of his minder, “In front of a lot of princeling friends, I’ve said that, if the Communist Party can’t take sufficient political reform in five or ten years, it could miss the chance entirely. As scholars, we always say it’s better to have reform than revolution, but in Chinese history this cycle repeats itself. Mao said we have to get rid of the cycle, but right now we’re still in it. This is very worrying.”

Two months after the events of New Year’s Eve, the Party again confronted a collision between its instinct for control and the complexity of Chinese society. For years, the government had downplayed the severity of environmental pollution, describing it as an unavoidable cost of growth. But, year by year, the middle class was becoming less accommodating; in polls, urban citizens described pollution as their leading concern, and, using smartphones, they compared daily pollution levels to the standards set by the World Health Organization. After a surge of smog in 2013, the government intensified efforts to consolidate power plants, close small polluters, and tighten state control. Last year, it declared a “war against pollution,” but conceded that Beijing will not likely achieve healthy air before 2030. In a moment of candor, the mayor pronounced the city “unlivable.”

In February, Chinese video sites posted a privately funded documentary, titled “Under the Dome,” in which Chai Jing, a former state-television reporter, described her growing alarm at the risks that air pollution poses to her infant daughter. It was a sophisticated production: Chai, in fashionable faded jeans and a white blouse, delivered a fast-paced, TED -style talk to a rapt studio audience, unspooling grim statistics and scenes in which bureaucrats admitted that powerful companies and agencies had rendered them incapable of protecting public health. In spirit, the film was consistent with the official “war on corruption,” and state-run media responded with a coördinated array of flattering coverage.

The film raced across social media, and by the end of the first week it had been viewed two hundred million times—a level usually reserved for pop-music videos rather than dense, two-hour documentaries. The following weekend, the authorities ordered video sites to withdraw the film, and news organizations took down their coverage. As quickly as it had appeared, the film vanished from the Chinese Web—a phenomenon undone.

“Well thats the only song we know so we can play it another two or three times or we can cut our losses. Waddya say...

In the era of Xi Jinping, the public had proved, again, to be an unpredictable partner. It was a lesson that Xi absorbed long ago. “The people elevated me to this position so that I’d listen to them and benefit them,” he said in 2000. “But, in the face of all these opinions and comments, I had to learn to enjoy having my errors pointed out to me, but not to be swayed too much by that. Just because so-and-so says something, I’m not going to start weighing every cost and benefit. I’m not going to lose my appetite over it.” ♦

This Week’s Issue

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Illustration by Jasu Hu

By Rachel Syme

A portrait of Xi Jinping, China’s President.

By Isaac Chotiner

Xi Jinping photo via Getty Images

Who Is Xi Jinping?

Born in 1953 to a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader, Xi Jinping worked his way up the party ranks to become a major player in the Chinese Politburo. By 2013, Xi was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chair of the Military Commission and President of the People’s Republic of China. Although he earned criticism for human rights violations and disruptive economic regulations, Xi also continued the country's rise as a global superpower. His name and philosophy was added to the party constitution in 2017, and the following year he successfully pushed for the abolition of presidential term limits.

In 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, a sociopolitical movement intended to preserve “true” Communist ideology and purge remnants of capitalist society. All formal education was halted, and Xi, at that time in high school, was sent down to work in a remote farming village for seven years, doing manual chores and subsisting on rice gruel. It was there that Xi grew up both physically and mentally. Considered a weakling when he first arrived, he grew strong and compassionate and developed good relations working alongside the villagers. Though the Cultural Revolution was a failure, Xi emerged with a sense of idealism and pragmatism.

Rise in the Communist Party

After numerous unsuccessful attempts, in 1974 Xi was accepted into the Communist Party. The following year he began to study chemical engineering at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, earning a degree in 1979. From that point forward, he steadily rose through the ranks of the Communist Party. Between 1979 and 1982, Xi served in the Central Military Command as vice premier, gaining valuable military experience. It was around this time that he married his first wife, Ke Lingling, the daughter of the Chinese ambassador to Great Britain. The marriage ended in divorce within a few years.

From 1983 to 2007, Xi served in leadership positions in four provinces, beginning with Hebei. During his tenure in Hebei, Xi traveled to the United States and spent time in Iowa with an American family, learning the finer points of agriculture and tourism. After his return, he served as vice mayor of Xiamen in Fujian, wherein 1987 he married folk singer Peng Liyuan, who also holds the rank of army general in the People’s Liberation Army. The couple has a daughter, Xi Mingze, who studied at Harvard University under a pseudonym.

National Prominence

Xi would make a steady ascent in the ensuing decades, with postings as governor of the Fujian and Zhejiang provinces and as party secretary. In 2007, his career got a further boost when a pension-fund scandal rocked the leadership of Shanghai and he was named as its party secretary. He spent his tenure promoting stability and restoring the city’s financial image, and that same year was chosen for the Politburo Standing Committee. In early 2008, Xi’s visibility became even greater when he was elected vice president of the People’s Republic of China and placed in charge of preparations for the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing.

Elected Leader of the People's Republic of China

In early 2012, Xi traveled to the United States to meet with President Barack Obama and members of his cabinet. He also made a nostalgic trip back to Iowa and then visited Los Angeles. During his visit, he spoke of increasing trust and reducing suspicions between the two countries while respecting each other’s interests in the Pacific-Asian region.

Later that year, on November 15, Xi was elected general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission. In his first speech as general secretary, Xi broke from tradition and sounded more like a Western politician, speaking about the aspirations of the average person and calling for better education, stable jobs, higher income, a more reliable safety net of retirement and health care, better living conditions and a better environment. He also vowed to take on corruption within the government at the highest levels. He referred to his vision for the nation as the "Chinese Dream."

On March 14, 2013, Xi completed his ascent when he was elected president of the People’s Republic of China, a ceremonial position as head of state. In his first speech as president he vowed to fight for a great renaissance of the Chinese nation and a more prominent international standing.

Achievements and Controversies

Fulfilling one of his early promises, Xi almost immediately embarked on a campaign to deal with government corruption. He arrested some of the country's most powerful figures, including former security chief Zhou Yongkang, and by the end of 2014 the CCP had disciplined more than 100,000 officials.

Xi also set about stimulating a slowing economy. In 2014, China introduced the "One Belt, One Road" initiative to bolster trade routes and launched the ambitious Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Domestically, his party expanded the power of private banks and allowed international investors to trade shares directly on the Shanghai stock market.

Xi has also changed some of the laws enacted by predecessors, formally ending China's one-child policy in 2015. His elimination of the "reeducation through labor" system, which punished individuals charged with petty crimes, was viewed favorably.

However, the Chinese leader has drawn scrutiny for his methods. Critics have noted that his crackdown on government corruption mainly targeted political opponents, and the CCP has come under fire by human rights groups for jailing journalists, lawyers and other private citizens. Under Xi's reach, censors have sought to eliminate Western influence in school curriculums and limited the public's internet access.

Xi has also overseen economic regulations that have reverberated beyond his country's borders. The government stepped in to prop up a sagging housing market in 2014, and suddenly devalued the yuan in the summer of 2015. Despite promising during a trip to the United States in September that China would never manipulate currency to increase exports, Xi has been accused of that very approach.

Global Standing

As part of his goal to establish China as a 21st-century global superpower, Xi has pushed for military reform to upgrade naval and air forces. Already chairman of the Central Military Commission, in 2016 he added the title of commander in chief of its joint battle command center.

In recent years, Xi has asserted China's naval capacities through the construction of artificial islands within disputed territories of the South China Sea. Despite his claims to the contrary, satellite photographs indicated that the islands were being used to house military developments. In July 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China had illegally claimed those territories, although China refused to accept the authority of that ruling.

While often at odds with the U.S. over trade issues, Xi has publicly acknowledged the need for China to cooperate with its Western counterpart on the issue of climate change. In September 2016, Xi and U.S. President Barack Obama announced they were formally adopting the international climate-change agreement reached in Paris the previous December to reduce emissions from the world’s two largest economies.

Relations and Trade War with U.S. President Trump

In November 2017, Xi met with U.S. President Donald Trump for a two-day summit in Beijing. Despite earlier accusing China of being a currency manipulator, Trump offered praise this time around for the country taking advantage of financial opportunities. For his part, Xi spoke about a “win-win” cooperation between the two economic superpowers, announcing memorandums of understanding to increase trade by $253 billion.

However, the two leaders then contrasted one another during their subsequent appearances at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam. In his speech, Trump criticized the development of globalization for harming American workers and companies, declaring, "we are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore." Taking the stage immediately afterward, Xi painted a glowing picture of the collective benefits of globalization, saying, "let more countries ride the fast train of Chinese development."

Tensions between the two sides mounted after Trump ordered stiff tariffs on aluminum and steel imports in March 2018, as part of U.S. efforts to level the "out of control" trade deficit with its Asian counterpart. China responded by slapping tariffs on a range of American goods, including fruits, nuts and pork products, prompting Trump to threaten to escalate the matter further.

Xi sounded a conciliatory note during his speech at the Boao Economic Forum in April, in which he pledged to "significantly broaden market access" for foreign companies by easing restrictions in the financial and auto sectors and lowering import tariffs for vehicles. Additionally, he promised greater protection for intellectual property. "China does not seek a trade surplus," the president said. "We have a genuine desire to increase imports and achieve greater balance of international payments under the current account."

Amid the escalating tensions of a potential trade war, the yuan fell to a six-month low against the dollar in late June, sparking speculation that China would let that course continue and make their goods cheaper on the world market.

Following the announcement that China and the U.S. had agreed to the broad outlines of "phase one" of a trade deal in October 2019, the two sides signed the deal into place in mid-January 2020. Xi hailed the agreement, which included commitments to purchase an additional $200 billion in American goods but did not address his government's subsidies of local industries, as "beneficial to both China, the U.S. and the world."

Expansion of Power

In October 2017, during a meeting of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, delegates voted to add the words "Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics" to the party constitution. The addition was meant to serve as a guiding principle for the party moving forward, with Xi's vision paving the way for global leadership in the years to come.

Furthermore, the constitutional change boosted Xi's status to match those of exalted former Communist Party heads Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping . It was believed that, as one of the country's strongest leaders in decades, Xi possessed the ability to hold on to power as long as he desired.

In late February 2018, the Communist Party's Central Committee proposed scrapping term limits for China's president and vice president, potentially setting the table for Xi to govern indefinitely. The National People's Congress formally voted to make the constitutional change the following month, shortly before Xi was confirmed for a second five-year term.

In a speech to close the 16-day legislative session, Xi spoke of forging unification with Taiwan, promoting "high-quality" development that values innovation and expanding his signature Belt and Road foreign policy initiative. "The new era belongs to everyone, and everyone is a witness, pioneer and builder of the new era," he said. "As long as we are united and struggle together, there will be no power to stop the Chinese people from realizing their dreams."


Xi faced a new challenge in the final days of 2019 with the outbreak of a pneumonia-like illness in the city of Wuhan. Chinese authorities attempted to close off Wuhan on January 23, 2020, but the new coronavirus had already escaped the country's borders; by February 10, it was reported that more than 900 people had died from the virus in China alone, surpassing the total from the SARS epidemic of 2002-3.

Xi and the Communist Party drew criticism for their initial response to the crisis — including a reported attempt to silence the doctor who first raised the alarm about the illness — and for the crackdown on travel and personal liberties that followed. However, the government's efforts appeared to be paying off with the rate of new infections finally slowing in March, prompting the president to make his first visit to Wuhan since the outbreak began.


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Who is Xi Jinping, and where will he lead China ?

The imminent accession to power of China’s fifth generation of leaders since 1949 focuses attention on the background and character of its new president. Xi Jinping’s route to the summit, and the crucial fall of his fellow princeling Bo Xilai along the way, is assessed by William A Callahan.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in the midst of a transition from the fourth-generation leadership of President Hu Jintao to the fifth-generation leadership of Xi Jinping. The official transition takes place in two steps : Xi Jinping will take over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the eighteenth party congress that starts on 8 November 2012, and he will be elected president of the PRC at the national people’s congress (NPC) in March 2013.

But who is Xi Jinping, and where will he lead China ? Because of the party’s secrecy, reliable sources are scarce. Beyond Xi’s potted official career history, most of what is known about his personal life and his beliefs comes from rumour and gossip. Otherwise, the main sources are leaked American diplomatic cables (see « Portrait of Vice President Xi Jinping : ‘Ambitious Survivor’ of the Cultural Revolution », American embassy, Beijing, 09BEIJING3128).

With these caveats in mind, a few things are clear. Like many of the fifth-generation leaders, Xi is a « princeling » : an informal group of around 300 children of veteran communist revolutionaries. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, joined the CCP in 1928, and was a revolutionary hero who founded a key communist guerrilla base-area in northern China. After spending the cultural revolution in jail, the elder Xi was rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping. He became the party head of Guangdong province, where he launched the Shenzhen economic reform experiment that initiated China’s economic opening to the world in the 1980s.

Xi Jinping was born in Beijing in 1953 when his father was head of the CCP’s central propaganda department and deputy minister of culture and education. So Xi grew up in the gated communities and elite schools of China’s red aristocracy. Like many of the princelings, Xi has used family connections to smooth his career. But while other princelings have gone into business to make vast fortunes, Xi used his network for political advancement.

Xi, according to the childhood friend cited in a United States diplomatic cable, has been « single-minded » and « exceptionally ambitious » in his pursuit of high office. Even though his father was denounced and tortured during the cultural revolution, Xi decided to join the CCP during this turbulent period. To avoid Beijing’s hyper-competitive political climate, Xi chose to start his career outside the capital, and in 1983 he requested a position in the provinces.

Over the next twenty-five years, Xi rose through the ranks of the party leadership, starting in the poor northern province of Hebei (1983-85), before being transferred to the wealthy southeastern provinces of Fujian (1985-2002) and Zhejiang (2002-07). Due to successful anti-corruption drives, he acquired the reputation of being « Mr Clean ». Hence in 2007, Xi was parachuted in to lead Shanghai, which was in the midst of a corruption scandal. Xi dealt with the scandal so effectively that within seven months he was summoned to Beijing to join China’s central leadership in October 2007, and become vice-president of the PRC in March 2008.

The heir apparent

As this impressive professional biography shows, Xi has the perfect formal credentials. Instead of pursuing a specific political programme - either as an economic reformer or as a political conservative - Xi’s career shows that he’s a careerist ; instead of being ideological, he is best-known for being pragmatic and loyal. While his father was in jail during the cultural revolution, Xi survived this tumultuous period by becoming « redder than red ». Later, when he worked in the prosperous southeast, Xi promoted economic reform. When speaking as the president of the CCP’s central party school in 2010, Xi enjoined people to study the Marxist classics. In other words, Xi is loyal to the party, whatever the particular party line is at the time. Like most of China’s leaders, Xi has no experience outside the system ; he even divorced his first wife because she wanted to live abroad.

When meeting with western politicians and officials he is engaging and even friendly : according to the leaked diplomatic cables, Xi told an American ambassador that he liked Hollywood movies because they show that « Americans have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil. » But for other audiences, he lashes out at the west : « Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us, » he told overseas Chinese in Mexico in 2009. « 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 ? » On the other hand, Xi sent his daughter to study at Harvard University. Like many Chinese, he has mixed views about the west ; his foreign-policy ideas, like his policy preferences in other areas, are more flexible than ideological.

Flexibility can be a strength ; but it doesn’t reveal much about what Xi will do once he’s China’s leader. Again, the diplomatic cables suggest Xi believes that the princelings are China’s « legitimate heirs » who are entitled to lead because « rule by a dedicated and committed communist party leadership is the key to enduring social stability and national strength. » Xi’s beliefs about his natural leadership role in China thus have much in common with popular feelings about China’s natural leadership role on the world stage : both Xi and the PRC are pragmatic, ambitious, successful, and see themselves as destined to rule. While the rise of the princelings in 2012 heralds the return to power of the red aristocracy, the rise of the PRC in the 21st century marks the return of China as the centre of the world.

These sketchy sources are not enough to provide certainty about what Xi’s hopes and dreams for China are. Since the main task of an heir apparent in China is not to stand out, leadership style and policy preferences only emerge after he (as it always been) gains the top job. Still, soon after Xi was summoned to the capital in 2007, he was put at the helm of China’s mega-events : the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the PRC in 2009. During his short tenure as Shanghai’s party secretary in 2007, he was an ardent supporter of Shanghai’s World Expo 2010. This shows how he was involved in shaping Beijing’s official view of China as an authoritarian capitalist civilisation-state.

While Hu Jintao turned out to be a weak leader who generally lacked confidence, Xi’s self-confident charm could make him a strong leader who makes bold choices. But as only the first-among-equals in the central leadership’s collective decision-making, it is unlikely that Xi will be a transformational leader like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Xi is his second wife, Peng Liyuan. Peng is one of China’s most famous folk-singers. As the long-time host of CCTV’s Chinese new-year gala - the most important event in Chinese television - Peng was probably more famous than her husband, at least until recently. Peng’s patriotic crooning as a major-general in the PLA’s premier singing troupe makes her popular with rank-and-file soldiers, which adds a populist element to Xi’s military connections. In 2011, Peng’s fame went global : she was appointed « goodwill ambassador » by the World Health Organisation’s director-general Margaret Chan, who is from Hong Kong. Many expect Xi’s glamorous wife to give a Kennedy-esque feel to his tenure.

Most analysts compare Xi and China’s premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang, pointing out that they come from rival factions in the CCP. Xi is a princeling who is part of former president Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai gang. Li has risen through the ranks under the patronage of current president Hu Jintao and the Communist Youth League faction of the CCP, which is seen as more populist than the elitist princeling group. But rather than probe the dance of these two factions, it is more important to compare two « princelings » : Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai, who until his downfall was party secretary of the southwestern city of Chongqing (2007-12).

Xi and Bo make an interesting comparison because their experience illustrates not only how to succeed in China’s elite politics, but also how to fail : in 2012 Xi will become the leader of the CCP, while Bo was expelled from the party. Bo’s fall triggered the party’s most serious crisis since 1989. It exposed factionalism, corruption and abuses of power at the very heart of the CCP leadership, which damaged the party’s legitimacy in the eyes of both the elite and ordinary people.

This scandal was shocking because it was so unexpected ; everyone was predicting a smooth transition to the fifth-generation leadership. Before his fall, Bo Xilai used the mass media to capture the national imagination by courting populist audiences, as well as elite patronage. He was handsome, articulate and media-savvy ; if Peng Liyuan is Jackie-O, then Bo was China’s JFK. He was the « crown prince » among princelings : his father Bo Yibo was a top revolutionary veteran who held key posts under both Mao and Deng ; he was one of the powerful communist party veterans who backed Deng’s crackdown after the massacre of 4 June 1989.

In 2007, Bo Xilai was in the running to become China’s vice-president, and thus its president in 2012 ; but after much politicking, Xi Jinping beat him to be the princeling candidate for the vice-presidency. Bo was named to the politburo in 2007 ; but he was sent to the provinces. Rather than take this demotion as the end of his career, Bo decided to use his time in Chongqing to openly campaign for a seat on the politburo standing committee, the small group that runs China.

But Bo campaigned for the standing committee in an atypical way. Rather than just rely on personal networks to broker a backroom deal in the politburo, he started a number of high-profile political campaigns. Soon after arriving in Chongqing, Bo launched a crackdown on the city’s notorious criminal syndicates that controlled prostitution, drugs, and other illegal businesses. Bo’s « strike black » anti-crime drive led to nearly 3,500 arrests and thirteen executions, closed down sixty-four criminal syndicates, and seized some 2.1 billion yuan ($330 million) in assets. The anti-mafia campaign made Bo enormously popular in Chongqing, and throughout China. Liberal critics, however, said that the strike-black crackdown was overzealous : its use of torture to extract confessions and a heavy-handed approach to the law were seen as undermining the growing independence of China’s judicial system.

However, Bo is most famous for his Mao-style mass campaigns : the « red culture » movement included singing revolutionary songs, reading communist classics, broadcasting red television programmes, and texting Mao quotes. This rather traditional propaganda campaign culminated in 2011 with Chongqing’s official celebration of the ninetieth anniversary of the CCP : 70,000 people filled a football stadium to sing revolutionary songs like « The East is Red » and « Without the Communist Party, There Would be No New China. » Bo even recruited arch-geostrategist Henry Kissinger, who was in town promoting his book On China, to join in the communist singalong.

Alongside the strike-black and sing-red campaigns, Bo pursued other populist policies including subsidised housing for the poor, free tuition below ninth grade, and more police in crime-ridden neighbourhoods. Bo even revived the cultural-revolutionary practice of sending bureaucrats to the countryside to work alongside peasants for one month each year. Bo’s egalitarian policies thus were very popular among the anti-reform groups and China’s New Left intellectuals.

Leaders in Beijing were initially wary of Bo’s populist style. Since they prefer a behind-the-scenes collective responsibility approach to politics, Bo’s populism with an iron fist was a little too close for comfort to Mao’s strongman tactics that decimated the CCP in the cultural revolution. Bo is a strange sort of Maoist considering that during the cultural revolution his father was tortured and his mother was beaten to death. Bo’s actions came less from deep-seated beliefs than from his quest for power. Like Xi Jinping, Bo was a political chameleon who seized opportunities : when Bo was minister of commerce, he was very cosmopolitan ; as general secretary of Chongqing, he was populist. Bo also hedged his bets through his son, who went to Oxford, and then Harvard. For the princelings, the main ideology is not communism, nationalism or reform ; everything is about power.

While Bo’s supporters said that he was media-savvy, he was also criticised for his « flashy » style that played to both China’s tabloids and the foreign press. In 2011, the leadership started to show some interest : after months of silence, Xi praised Bo’s policies, and most of China’s other top leaders went to visit Bo to commend his « Chongqing model. »

But Bo’s quest for power ran aground in February 2012, when his right-hand man Wang Lijun - the city-state’s super-cop and vice-mayor - fled Chongqing to request asylum at the US consulate in Chengdu. When Bo Xilai found out, he sent seventy police cars over 200 miles to surround the consulate, which actually is outside Chongqing’s jurisdiction. During his thirty-six-hour stay at the American consulate, Wang told a story of elite corruption and the abuse of power in Chongqing, including details of how Bo’s wife Gu Kailai poisoned British businessman Neil Heywood after he threatened to expose the family’s shady foreign-business deals. When Wang finally left the consulate, he and his evidence of Bo’s misdeeds were escorted to Beijing by the central government’s state-security bureau. Wang was later convicted for, among other things, trying to defect to a foreign power. Why did this well-connected police chief willingly risk such a serious outcome ? Wang was convinced that the alternative would have been worse : he figured that Bo would have had him assassinated if he stayed in Chongqing.

This event precipitated Bo’s downfall because foreign factors - killing a Briton and involving the US consulate - exposed the party to international embarrassment. As the New York Times’s revealing story about the wealth of premier Wen Jiabao’s family shows, corruption is common among China’s political and military elites. But the way Bo ran Chongqing as a personal fiefdom for personal economic and political gain went too far - the outrageous wealth of his wife and son shocked many people in China. In a way, Bo had to go because he was too popular, and his Chongqing model was too successful. Bo’s ideological campaigns, which challenged the authority of the central government, threatened to split the party leadership. Bo thus was expelled from the party, and the political aspects of his Chongqing model were quickly dismantled, although some of the economic policies remain in place.

The transition

The Brookings Institution’s Cheng Li concludes that China will benefit from this political crisis ; he sees the opportunity for the Chinese leadership to develop a new consensus to promote meaningful political reform, otherwise « the party will continue to lose its credibility. »However, the calls for party unity and the crackdown on « rumours » - meaning news from outside the propaganda system - after Bo’s ousting suggest that the party learned a different lesson from its most serious crisis since Tiananmen in 1989. The CCP used traditional propaganda strategies to reestablish political control ; hence rather than a being part of the solution, transparency is seen as a problem. In other words, just because the CCP successfully stopped the rise of an ultra-egalitarian and ultra-nationalist strongman does not mean that it will pursue liberal political reforms.

The main conclusion that can be drawn from the Bo Xilai crisis is that the party is more fragile than most experts thought. The widespread expectation of observers was that they would witness a well-scripted transition from the fourth to the fifth generation leadership. This crisis - and the elite infighting that it exposed - shows the fragility of China’s leadership and the uncertainties of a power-transition that was anything but smooth. There were struggles not just between the CCP’s two main factions - the princelings and the China Youth League - but, as Bo’s challenge shows, also within the princeling faction.

More broadly, the power-transition will change the character of China’s leadership. While most of the fourth-generation leadership were trained as engineers, the fifth-generation leadership studied the humanities and social sciences : law, economics, history and journalism. The fourth-generation technocrats worked to modernise China according to the universal logic of science : their achievements are China’s rapid economic growth and huge projects like the Three Gorges Dam, the high-speed train network, and the 2008 Olympic games.

The fifth-generation social scientists, however, are more interested in China as an exceptional civilisation that needs to pursue its own culturally-determined China model of economic, political and social development. The fifth generation may be more open in terms of presenting themselves to China and the world ; but they are more elitist in their politics. Hence this transition will not provide a democratic or a liberal opening. Even before he was arrested in 2011, artist-activist Ai Weiwei was pessimistic about the prospects for political change : « we are not expecting much from this generation of leaders. Maybe the generation after. After a decade, they will be more open in their ideas. »

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.

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Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges, authors of a new biography of Xi Jinping, discuss major takeaways about Xi’s life – and Xi’s China.

Xi Jinping: The Man Who Became China’s ‘Core’

China’s top leader Xi Jinping is poised to secure a third term as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October. That will break recent precedent and cement Xi’s reputation as a strongman leader and the center of a growing personality cult.

At this crucial time, it’s more important than ever to understand who Xi is and where he came from, all of which can help us better grasp the direction in which he is leading China. That’s the task undertaken by Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges in their new biography of the Chinese leader, “ Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World .” Aust and Geiges conducted an interview with The Diplomat via email to discuss major takeaways about Xi’s life – and Xi’s China.

You mention several times in the book that Xi is more myth than man in China, “untouchable” as a subject. Did that make it difficult to do research about China’s “core” leader?

In some ways yes. It would be impossible to interview him personally; he doesn’t even give interviews to the Chinese media. On the other hand, it is one of the peculiarities of socialist countries that the collected speeches of the leader of the state and party are regularly published as books so that the “masses” can “study” them. We analyzed these writings, which resulted in a fairly complete world view of Xi.

Also, before he became president and “untouchable,” there were many publications in Chinese newspapers about his life – also because his wife Peng Liyuan is a singer, as famous in China as Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez in the United States. These publications, nearly forgotten in China, became an important source for us.

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When Xi first came to power, many Western scholars argued that his experience of family persecution during the Cultural Revolution would make him more moderate or liberal-minded. The opposite seems to have been the case, however – Xi strove to present himself as “even more revolutionary” and “even more communist.” Can you summarize Xi’s transition from victim of CCP excesses to “redder than red” party member? 

Well, this transition of Xi Jinping is a crucial topic of our book and of course cannot be summed up in a few words. But to mention a few aspects: Xi witnessed his father being imprisoned and tortured during the Cultural Revolution and did not want to suffer the same fate. So he took Mao as a model. He had previously fled the village to which he was exiled when he was 15, but his relatives, all convinced communists, persuaded him to go back: Even in difficult times one must follow the party. He also saw China’s backwardness in the village and consciously chose a political career to change that. And in China that is only possible in the Communist Party. He later followed the political developments that led to the end of the Soviet Union and the war in Yugoslavia. This taught him: If the party relinquishes power, the country will plunge into chaos and war.

Deng Xiaoping was instrumental in the political rehabilitation of Xi’s family, and in the making of modern China. Yet some scholars argue that Xi has led a campaign to downplay Deng’s contributions to China’s modern success, elevating Xi’s father (and, by extension, Xi himself) instead. What’s your take on Xi’s approach to Deng Xiaoping’s legacy?

Absolutely right, Deng Xiaoping, whose reform and opening up made China wealthy, is increasingly being relegated to the sidelines. We would doubt that he will be replaced by Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, who was also in fact a reformer. In November 2021, the Communist Party’s Central Committee had passed a resolution about the party’s own history. The document mentions Deng Xiaoping only six times, Mao Zedong 18 times, but Xi Jinping 24 times.

Xi Jinping is still talking about reform and opening up, but in fact he is taking it back. He has now completely isolated China from the outside world – under the pretext of COVID-19, but mainly because it suits him politically.

Xi Jinping is widely known abroad for his “cult of personality.” Other leaders have not pursued such personalized adoration, at least not to this extent. What made Xi different?

One of the lessons of Mao’s crimes was that such a personality cult should never be repeated. Instead of displaying his body in a mausoleum, Deng Xiaoping had his body cremated and the ashes scattered over the sea to avoid creating a place of worship. The terms of office of Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, were limited to two five-year terms. Xi changed that for himself. The personality cult surrounding him is becoming more and more grotesque. For example, zealous provincial officials have been demanding that Christian churches replace images of Jesus with portraits of Xi Jinping.

For one, Xi sets himself apart by allowing such a cult to spread around him. On the other hand, his campaign against corruption and his tough stance toward foreign countries have made many Chinese believe him to be a strongman who stands up for the Chinese people.

There has been much discussion abroad of Xi’s ambitions for his legacy, particularly in the context of Taiwan these days. Xi has set out a large number of goals for China’s “new era,” from anti-corruption to poverty alleviation; from making China into a “world-class” military power to the Belt and Road Initiative. Which goals do you see as most crucial to Xi on a personal level, given his background? 

According to Xi Jinping’s own words, by 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic of China, his goal is to make China the world’s leading power – and not just economically. But what does that mean in concrete terms? It has to be feared that it will end up conquering Taiwan and other islands as his main legacy. And that would not mean worldwide development, as promised by the Belt and Road Initiative, but a worldwide catastrophe, in the worst case a world war.

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Why Are There No Biographies of Xi Jinping?

It is high time we have a better sense of what makes the autocratic, muscular-nationalist, order-obsessed strongman in charge of China tick.

biography of xi jinping

“Living in China is confusing now,” the novelist Yan Lianke said, “because it can feel like being in North Korea and the United States at the same time.” I recall smiling and nodding when he made the remark, during a roundtable discussion at Duke University’s campus outside Shanghai three years ago. In one brief sentence, he captured just how special and strange China can seem—a country that has both gulags and Gap stores.

Yan’s statement highlighted the challenge of categorizing China, but over time I’ve been struck by how it does the same for Chinese President Xi Jinping. In some ways, Xi—who became head of the Communist Party in 2012 and China’s leader the following year—seems to be taking the country backward, while in others he presents as an outward-looking free trader, one able to impress the Davos crowd by touting globalization and signing Beijing up for free-trade deals.

Part of this is due to misunderstanding Xi’s plans and priorities, leading to a belief among some outside observers that he would be a reformer in the mold of the former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Instead, his decisions—clamping down on dissent, removing the term limits that constricted his predecessors, building a personality cult—have been more like Russian President Vladimir Putin or even North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. In the process, he has centralized more power in his grip than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, while making other moves, such as mixing nods to Confucius with donning martial attire and taking on an ever-growing string of titles, that bring to mind the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.

The comparisons are imperfect—Xi clearly is not just like any prior Chinese leader, nor just like anyone now in power elsewhere. Yet in thinking about his similarities with other strongmen and autocrats, I’ve become obsessed lately with one specific way in which he stands apart: the lack of an English-language biography that takes an extended and careful look at his life.

Read: China’s leader attacks his greatest threat

In a well-stocked bookstore, you can find multiple biographies of Putin , one of Kim that came out in 2019 and another published in 2020, plus ones of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán . If your goal was to buy a comparable volume about the life of the most powerful leader China has had in decades—a person, moreover, who is by some measures the most powerful individual in the world—you would come up empty.

There are, of course, books about Xi. They are just not substantive and careful biographies, falling instead into one of three other categories: Chinese-language hagiographies published for domestic consumption; gossipy and lightly sourced volumes, again in Chinese, in a secret-lives-of-emperors vein, which cannot be sold on the mainland; and works in various languages that have Xi’s name on their covers but are not devoted to describing and assessing his life. There have been only a few notable deep - dive article-length profiles and podcast episodes on the Chinese leader. Even though they shed light on important parts of Xi’s life and personality, it is striking that there are just a handful of works worth mentioning, given how much power he has wielded for close to a decade.

To understand what explains this glaring shortage, I sought the opinion of journalists and researchers who have been either covering Xi in formats other than books or trying to explain the lives of contemporary figures who share some traits with him (two of the people I spoke with fit in both categories). There are certainly many factors at play, including a lack of credible sources who both know Xi and will speak candidly about him (“My kingdom for a defector!” Evan Osnos, a New Yorker staff writer who wrote a profile of Xi, told me) and a general lack of access to the Chinese leader. Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times , who covers China for the newspaper and is the author of a Putin biography, noted that while the Russian leader is “very guarded, especially of the foreign media,” even he meets “with journalists and others regularly, taking questions and answering at length.” Xi, by comparison, “almost never submits to questions, even friendly ones.” Anna Fifield, a former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post who wrote a recent biography of Kim, told me Xi could be described as being “as hard a target as Kim” for a writer, but that “the bar” for writing about the Chinese leader “is higher because people think they should be able to know more about him.”

Read: How Xi Jinping blew it

There are other issues. Xi’s “defining trait before coming to power was his caution,” the American University assistant professor of politics Joseph Torigian told me. He also noted that the study of elite politics, at least in a biographical sense, has gone out of fashion in academic political science. Last but not least, there is a fear factor—a worry that writing a critical book on Xi could lead to future difficulties in accessing China, to say nothing of other forms of online and real-world targeting. (In recent years, five Hong Kong booksellers associated with the publication of exposés on the private lives of Chinese leaders have been kidnapped and taken over the border to the mainland or, in one case, spirited there from Thailand.)

This has not always been the case when it comes to Chinese leaders. One of Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin, was willing to do an interview for an American television show, for example. And though there is no major English-language biography of the most recent Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, that is mostly not because of Hu’s inscrutability. “Some people are simply too boring for biography,” John Delury, a historian and co-author, with Orville Schell, of a book of profiles of a host of iconic Chinese leaders and thinkers, told me. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hu is not included in Delury and Schell’s book.

Xi is far from boring: Under his rule, China’s economic and military clout have expanded rapidly; he has overseen the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang; and Beijing has significantly stifled the free press and criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, both on the mainland and further afield. Under his watch, freedoms have been drastically curtailed in Hong Kong, an ostensibly autonomous city. Indeed, during a 2017 visit, he presided over the biggest military parade held in the metropolis since the handover.

My interest with this question of the absence of an English-language book about Xi is thus more than a stray obsession. For one thing, it speaks to the extent of the clampdown Xi has overseen that so little is known about him, and that so few who truly know him are willing to speak about him.

Yet this lack of biographies also has broader implications, notably for countries that deal with Xi and China (which is to say, all of them). He wields so much more power than any of his immediate predecessors that an understanding of him is far more important than understanding them was. It is also crucial to come to terms with any person at the center of a personality cult in a major country—even if, as Alice Su, the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times , told me, Xi’s cult seems somehow less generative of strong emotions than was Mao’s.

Read: What happens when China leads the world

This vacuum of information about Xi and lack of access to his inner circle has unfortunately led to a pair of superficially attractive but ultimately problematic ways of thinking about him.

The first, which was popular when Xi first took over China’s leadership, was to seize on a couple of biographical tidbits as evidence that he would be the kind of leader many in the West keep hoping will come to power in Beijing: a political reformer. Some early assessments—one of the most widely read, due to the author’s high profile and stature as a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter on China, was by Nicholas Kristof —stressed that Xi’s father had been a liberal-leaning adviser to Deng Xiaoping. This, Kristof and others claimed, meant that reformist tendencies were part of Xi’s “genes.” These were combined with other biographical bits and pieces to undergird the prediction that Xi would loosen controls in China. Ultimately, on issues ranging from Hong Kong to Xinjiang , this has proved to be wildly incorrect .

The second approach emphasizes two other aspects of his life story: the fact that he grew up during the Mao era; and, shifting the focus from his father’s leanings to his father’s high status, that Xi could be considered part of the “princeling” cohort of sons of hallowed Chinese revolutionary elders. Thus, the idea is conveyed that all we really need to do to make sense of him is treat him as an updated version of a past Chinese autocrat. Brushed aside is the fact that, unlike Mao, Xi shows no interest in mass movements or class struggle, and that there is no sign that he is grooming a member of his family to succeed him.

There is a lot going on in China now that cannot be reduced to the personality and life story of an individual, and much of the best work on the country in recent decades has been by scholars and journalists who have taken bottom-up grassroots approaches.

But for a country that is in some ways, as Yan put it, reminiscent of both North Korea and the United States, and seems to be simultaneously sliding backward and surging forward, it will not work to think of Xi as either a completely novel figure or a straightforward throwback. It is high time to have a better sense than we do—even if it is no easy matter to figure out how to do it—of what makes the autocratic, muscular-nationalist, order-obsessed strongman in charge of China tick.


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