Xi Jinping and His Path to Power

25.11.2018 | By Adrian Brona

Six years have passed since the Xi Jinping’s government came into power. His path to the top was bumpy and, along the way, he had to stand out from the group of several dozen million members of the Chinese Communist Party. Today we are free to say that no other Chinese leader in the last forty years has accumulated so much power in his hands.

Childhood in the era of Cultural Revolution

Xi Jinping was born in 1953 as a son of Xi Zhongxun, one of the old-timers of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). His father was responsible, among others, for establishing guerrilla groups in northern China and, after the takeover of power by communists in the country, he became a member of the first generation of leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This allowed Xi Jinping to become a so-called ‘prince’, a representative of hongerdai, a representative of the ‘second-generation reds’ who took advantage of his background of belonging to an influential family. However, the origin of Xi junior was not always helpful on his path to the position of the General Secretary of the party, and the fate of his father has strongly affected his life.

After the proclamation of the PRC, the importance of the Xi family grew. In 1952, his father became the head of the Propaganda Department of the CCP and oversaw educational and religious policies. Since 1954 he was the General Secretary of the PRC’s State Council (government), and since 1959 he started his job as a deputy prime minister. However, his fate changed quickly. In 1962, he was accused of being a leader of an anti-party cabal and was put in a house arrest. In 1965, he submitted a self-criticism, which allowed him to obtain a management position in a tractor factory. After the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution (1966), Xi Zhongxun was imprisoned.

All these events resulted in Xi Jinping having a difficult childhood. He came from a well-known family, but his fortune was changeable. His father was detained for the first time when Xi was only nine years old. Xi grew up in Beijing during the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. Because of the Revolution, the schools were closed, and he had to pause education. Moreover, because of the political issues encountered by his father, the whole family was targeted by the Red Guards (hunwejbings) – self-proclaimed youth militias blindly trusting in everything that was said by Mao Zedong. At some point, his home was plundered, and his half-sister was ‘chased to death’ which was most likely an official euphemism that should be understood as ‘lynching’ which, at that time, was nothing extraordinary.

Xi Jinping found himself at the margins of society. In 1969, together with around 17 million youth from urban areas, he was exiled to the countryside to ‘learn from peasants’. He was sent to Liangjiahe, a village in the Shaanxi province – a region where his father came from. He lived there in a cave, where he had to survive among insects and in horrible living conditions. After a few months, he fled to Beijing but was found during the chase for juvenile deserters and sent back to the countryside. After being sent back to Liangijahe, he started manifesting his first political ambitions. In 1971, he was admitted to the Communist Youth League of China (CYLC), where he spent several years. Yet, he was not given any important functions. He, then, applied for the CCP’s membership but his candidacy was accepted only at the 10th time. It was because of his father’s status. Obtaining party membership allowed him to become the secretary of the CCP Committee in Liangjiahe in 1974.

Today, ‘Liangjiahe experience’ is one of the most mythologised periods in Xi’s life. The village itself has become a pilgrimage destination for his followers. Undoubtedly, the hardships that he experienced have influenced the character of the young politician. On the other hand, his escape to Beijing has left aside in Xi Jinping’s official biographies, even though he spoke about it openly a dozen or so years ago.

In 1975, Xi Jinping, thanks to recommendations from the residents of Liangjiahe, was admitted to the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. Only people from the gongnongbing class, that is, workers, peasants and soldiers were admitted to the University at that time. The University staff, who became victims of the Cultural Revolution, were replaced by, not necessarily competent yet faithful, party activists. However, it was still the leading educational institution in China. This is how Xi moved back to the capital, where he spent the next four years studying chemical technology and process engineering. In 1975 also his father’s fate changed – the thaw allowed him to leave the prison and return to work in a tractor factory. In 1978, during the historic gathering of the Central Committee of the CCP, the so-called period of reform and opening, was initiated. This is also when Xi Zhonghua, who became party secretary in Guangdong province and contributed to the establishment of the first special economic zones in China, was fully rehabilitated.


Xi Jinping’s Career Gains Momentum

Thanks to his father’s connections, just after having finished his studies, he managed to get a job of a personal secretary to Geng Biao, who was the minister of national defence of the PRC at that time. During the next three years, Xi junior had the opportunity to make many friends among the high army officers what helped him in later promotions. Since then, he has always maintained good contact with army representatives.

The beginning of the 1980s was a period of significant changes in China. Many descendants of the founding fathers of the PRC grew up during that time. Majority of them started to work in business, where, thanks to the support of their influential parents, they were able to achieve success. Deng Xiaoping encouraged his companions’ children to choose this career path. Xi Jinping, however, belonged to a group of those who were more interested in politics. That is why in 1982 he made a risky decision – he managed to get a managerial position in the local party structures. He took a position of a deputy secretary of the CCP in the district of Zhengding some 250 km from Beijing. A year later, he was promoted to a secretary.

Moving from the capital city to the province may have looked like an unusual choice. Yet, it was merely one step back in his career so that he could make two steps forward later. During the same year, his father was elected a member of the Political Bureau of the CCP.

Three years later he was relegated. This time he found himself in Fujian in the southern part of China. There, he held a number of functions gradually working his way up in the administrative levels. He started as a vice-mayor of the city of Xiamen, later he became a secretary of the party in Ningde prefecture (1988-1990), in the capital of Fuzhou province (1990-1996), until he eventually took the position of a deputy secretary of the whole province (1995-2002) and governor (1999-2002). In 1987, Xi Jinping married his second (and current) wife Peng Liyuan – a young singer in a military team.

What is interesting, during his stay in Fujian, Xi Jinping was on the margins of the social circles of other hongerdai members. This was because of the relatively liberal beliefs of his father which were far from the conservatism common among other founders of the PRC. Young Xi mainly developed contacts with former members of the Communist Youth League (CYLC), who formed one of the most important factions in the party, called tuanpai. They were usually very reformist (in Chinese standards), which made them close to his father’s worldview. At the same time, they frequently entered into conflicts with the influential conservatives in Beijing, who, at every turn, tried to undermine the direction of economic change.

Hu Yaobang, CYLC’s president from before the Cultural Revolution, stood at the head of the party from 1981. Although he was not in the foreground (Deng Xiaoping and a few other activists were obviously more important), he could still influence the state’s policy. He initiated many bold reforms and, among his close associates was Xiang Nan, Fujian Province secretary who served there in the same period as Xi Jinping. With time, however, the tuanpai started to lose influence.

In 1987, the conservatives led to the dismissal of Hu Yaobang, and two years later they bloodily suppressed the protest in Tiananmen Square which broke out after his death. They also expelled some of its most pro-reformative members from the party ruling circles. At that time, Xi Jinping maintained good relations with representatives of the League’s faction. Between 1987 and 1990, the party’s former secretary, Wang Zhaoguo, was the governor of the province, and between 2000 and 2002 Xi was the deputy of another former head of CYLC – Song Defu.

In 2002, Hu Jintao, the predecessor of Song Defu at the post of the first secretary of the CYLC, became the General Secretary of the CCP. It was another critical year for Xi Jinping. He became the secretary of the party in the province of Zhejiang which was adjacent to Fujian. He was also given a seat in the Central Committee of the CCP. Unfortunately, his father, who died several months earlier, did not live to see his promotions.

The period of Xi Jinping’s rule in Zhejiang province (2002-2007) was well seen in Beijing. It was perceived to be successful enough that when in 2007 the secretary of the party in Shanghai was dismissed for corruption, Xi Jinping replaced him. It was an indicator of his stronger position – the city has always been a symbol for the communist movement in China.

This is also where the CCP was founded. Traditionally, the highest number of participants of the Party’s national congresses comes from Shanghai, and also, it is also the birthplace of many Chinese leaders, including Jiang Zemin, Secretary General of the CCP who served between 1989 and 2002. Few people expected, however, that a few months later Xi would be promoted to the Standing Committee of the CCP Political Bureau and the following year to the position of China’s vice-president becoming, after that, an anointed successor of Hu Jintao.

Way to the Top

Why was Xi Jinping elected? Everything indicates that he was a compromise candidate for two strong groups gathered around Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Jiang started to promote Xi Jinping after his own retirement. He knew him indirectly through Jia Qinglin, his close associate, who was Xi’s supervisor in Fujian during three years of his work there. At the same time, for Hu Jintao, he was an acceptable candidate because of his over-twenty-year-long relationship with representatives of tuanpai. Xi’s additional advantage was that he was a son of a well-known reformer, who was appreciated by both former General Secretaries. The last advantage of Xi Jinping was his relationship with the army. He not only maintained good contacts which he established while serving as a personal assistant of the Minister of National Defense at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s but also expanded his acquaintances in the following years.

He did it with the assistance of his wife, Peng Liyuan, who in the meantime became a star of a military and folk song and, at the same time, climbed up the ladder to the position of army general (for her artistic and educational work, not for military merits). An interesting fact: till 2007 she was a more recognisable person in the marriage.

The following five years Xi Jinping spent preparing to take the reins of power in the country. During that period, he gradually took on more and more responsibilities, both on the national and international level. One of the most interesting episodes of that period was his visit to Mexico in 2009. This is when, during an official meeting, he criticised ‘foreigners with full stomachs’ who pointed out China its problems. He stressed that China ‘does not export revolution, hunger and poverty’. It was one of those rare moments when Xi openly expressed his worldview – dissatisfaction with how the PRC is treated by the Western states. Other than that, it was difficult to decipher what his political views were because he avoided articulating them.

Before the CCP’s XVIII National Congress in 2012, which brought Xi to the top of power, the political situation in China became tense due to two scandals. The first one concerned the family of Bo Xilai, who was another hongerdai representative, a member of the Political Bureau and also a secretary of the party in the Chongqing metropolis. In February, the chief of the Chongqing police fled to the US consulate, where he sought political asylum. Several dozen hours later, however, he turned himself into the officers who came from Beijing. His testimony revealed that Bo, under cover of the fight against organised crime, was making his own deals and that his wife even commissioned a murder of a British businessman. The second scandal took place in March when the only son of Ling Jihua, also a member of the Political Bureau and, at the same time, the right arm of Hu Jintao, died in a car accident in Beijing. There would be nothing extraordinary about it, if not the fact that the son of a modest party activist crashed a black Ferrari in which he travelled with two women. Also, all three of them were, according to the report, were dressed ‘inappropriately’. Ling Jihua tried to use his position to cover this incident. In the end, Bo Xilai and Ling Jihua were excluded from the power struggle, and Xi Jinping lost two strong competitors who could threaten his influence.

Xi Jinping Takes All

At the turn of 2012 and 2013, Xi took over the position of the General Secretary of the CCP and, after that, became the president of the PRC. Many commentators had expected that he would, in turn, have to wait for the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. This was the case of Hu Jintao who, only two years after having taken control in the country, gained power over the army. Meanwhile, Xi unexpectedly took up all the positions.

After he became the General Secretary of the CCP (November 2012), but before he was elected president of the PRC (March 2013), he began to push his ideas – the introduction of a radical anti-corruption campaign and strengthening of the rule of law, including constitutionalism. His actions were guided by the idea of pursuing a ‘Chinese dream’. Initially, experts indicated that these were the signs that a new phase of liberalisation in China was coming and that Xi Jinping would have views similar to his father, who was never a Marxist dogmatist. The reality, however, was far from imaginable.

In January 2013, ‘Nanfang Zhoumo’ (‘Southern Weekly’) of the CCP committee of the Guangdong province intended to publish an article ‘Chinese Dream, a Dream about Constitutionalism’ which called for strengthening the protection of rights guaranteed by the constitution of the PRC. It seemed that the article was in line with the postulates proclaimed by Xi Jinping, but it got rejected by the local propaganda department and replaced with praise for the party. This led to a protest of the editorial team and demonstration in front of the headquarters of the magazine. It was the first incident which indicated that Xi would not be a type of reformer the West counted on.

Over the past six years, Xi Jinping has proven to be a model Chinese Marxist – convinced of the CCP’s historical mission to restore China’s right place in the world, referred to as the ‘great renaissance of the Chinese people’. It is a type of national Leninism where the communist party, inseparably linked to the state, is used to fulfil the raison d’état.

Xi’s internal policy can be best summarised with his own words which he used during the 19th Congress of the CCP in 2017. He said: ‘Government, army, society and schools, north, south, east and west – the party leads them all’. It was a reference to the idea adopted in the 1930s and strongly emphasised in Maoism. At the same time, the party was to be led by its Central Committee with Xi Jinping as its ‘core’. Strengthening the rule of law turned out to be the reinforcement of the party control over the government and many areas of social life. The fight against corruption allowed to discipline the CCP.

The system created by Xi Jinping was based on the top-down steering of political processes, presenting a united front, silencing voices different from those expressed by the headquarters and maximising the power of an individual at the head of it. This is a rejection of a slightly mythologised collective leadership. It would seem that, by limiting the plurality within the party, Xi opposed his father’s legacy. In reality, however, it looks more like Xi learned from his mistakes – Xi apparently came to the conclusion that he cannot be a strong leader of China going against the conservative trend in the party.

In foreign policy, Xi Jinping broke with the doctrine imposed by Deng Xiaoping, which is often referred to as taoguang yanghui – hiding one’s abilities and waiting for the right moment. China started to conduct a much more active foreign policy proposing, among others, the Belt and Road initiative, the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, active involvement in issues such as Iran’s nuclear program or stopping the climate change. Trade tensions with the United States became increasingly significant for Xi’s policy. Among his administrative structures prevailed a conviction that it is not because of the size of the American deficit in bilateral trade, but that it is instead part of the strategy to impede China’s ‘Big Renaissance’.

New Autocrat?

Xi Jinping’s political path is not over yet. In October 2017, he was elected General Secretary of the CCP for a second term. In March 2018 his mandate as the president of the PRC was extended. The Chinese Parliament did so by acclamation abolishing, during the same meeting, the constitutional two-term limit for this position.

It was a denial to the legacy of Deng Xiaoping who, in the 1980s, pushed for the introduction of the term limit of for authorities. The term limit mechanism aimed to protect China from any new Mao Zedong. Interestingly, the term limit for the prime minister has not been abolished. This reform gave Xi, in theory, the possibility to perform his function for life.

At the same time, ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era‘ was included both in the CCP’s statute and in the preamble to the PRC Constitution as one of the main determinants of the state’s ideology. This way, he achieved a formal status similar to that enjoyed by Mao Zedong, whose thought was already included in these documents. Xi also managed to outclass other leaders (Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao) whose ideological contributions to these documents are either referred to as ‘theory’ or do not even include their names. One cannot overlook Xi’s domination in public space – his images can be found in China at every corner. Some even compete in counting how many times his photo or surname appear on the covers of newspapers.

At the moment, Xi Jinping’s position seems unwavering. The abolition of the term limit and the party’s reliance on his ‘thought’ (whatever it includes) gives him a strong foundation for autocratic rule. At the same time, however, he managed to promote to the Political Bureau many of his friends and longtime associates who are a mainstay of his rule. Among them there are: the chairman of the parliament (Li Zhanshu), the chairman of the disciplinary committee (Zhao Leji), heads of the CCP committees in Beijing (Cai Qi), Shanghai (Li Qiang), Chongqing (Chen Min’er) and Guangdong province (Li Xi), directors of propaganda (Huang Kunimg) and organizational departments (Chen Xi) of the CCP and one of the deputy prime ministers (Liu He). They are sometimes referred to as the ‘new army of Zhejiang’ and play in Chinese politics a role comparable to that of as Shanghai and tuanpai factions.

Translation from Polish: Ewelina Tylec


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.