Gone are the days when Western news anchors were given stage directions on how to pronounce Xi Jinping’s last name, “like the word ski.” Today, the name is familiar to them, after all, dozens of biographies have long been published about China’s most powerful leader since Mao.
But anyone who tries to understand the person behind the facade China has built around its head of state is still left in the dark. Since Jinping ascended to party and state leadership at the end of 2012, he no longer agrees to interviews and does not reveal any details on his life. Apart from official speeches on important occasions or on foreign trips, his other essays and speeches are only published by the propaganda machine after a considerable time and usually selected passages only.
As a provincial official, he was more informal, even to reporters. He spoke about his privileged childhood and later bitter youth after his revolutionary father Xi Zhongxun fell into political disfavor with Mao in 1962 and was not rehabilitated until 1978. The whole family was placed under collective arrest. Xi’s earlier interviews are one of the very few sources that help in understanding his personality.
This also applies to a curriculum vitae written by none other than Xi himself. He wrote it for an encyclopedia of biographies, published in 2003, on 381 doctoral students from Fujian, whose academic talent the coastal province wanted to boast about. Xi, who ruled the province as vice chief and then governor from August 1999 to September 2002, also chaired the advisory committee to edit the encyclopedia (福建博士风采), ranking himself among the 381 doctoral students and wrote an article about himself spanning two pages. In it, he revealed that he was a doctoral student at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of Tsinghua University in Beijing from March 1998 to January 2002. He earned a doctorate for his thesis, “A Tentative Study on China’s Rural Marketization.” He does not reveal how he (and if he himself) managed to earn the doctorate while simultaneously working a full-time job as provincial chief of Fujian.
I discovered the encyclopedia, which was published publicly in June 2003 with a release of 2,000 copies, in a second-hand bookshop in Beijing. In it, Xi describes his career in the first person. After being forced to drop out of his Beijing middle school education as a 15-year-old amidst the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in December 1968, he spent the next seven years until 1975 working in the fields in a village brigade in North China’s Shanxi province.
Xi’s curriculum vitae begins like this: “In 1969, I arrived from Beijing in the Liangjiahe Production Brigade of the Wenanyi People’s Commune to ‘put down roots’. (…) I was very far from home, without any relatives. (…) At first, we were 20 to 30 school-educated youths who came to the village. All of them came from functionary military families. After half a year, most of them left again, they went into army service. After a year, they were all gone. Only I stayed behind. I felt very lonely.”
Ten applications for party membership
For the first time, Xi reveals how he repeatedly tried in vain to be allowed to join the Party during his seven years in the countryside. He was not allowed to join because of his father’s political persecution. “I wrote ten applications to join the Party. But they were rejected because of my family situation.” (我先后写过十份入党申请书，由于家庭的原因，都未.) Today, Xi surely must take great satisfaction in the fact that the party, which only admitted him in 1974, has more than tripled in size from just under 30 million members at the time to 95 million and obeys unconditionally. He even had their statutes amended to enshrine his “Xi Jinping Thought” in writing as a guiding ideology for the new era.
Back when Xi was a young farmer, he faced all the adversities of rural life and worked hard. This is how he finally was accepted by the village community: “Every evening, old and young farmers came to me, chatted with me about history and the current situation. (…) the cave I lived in became a meeting place. Even the party secretary of the brigade came to confer with me. (…) Eventually, he approved my party admission. He made sure that I later became the head of the party cell in our village.”
Xi on Xi: “I am not prone to false doctrine.”
Xi now hoped to be allowed to study in Beijing. Tsinghua University had offered two spots for the entire farming region in 1975. Xi was nominated by his village. But because of his politically ostracized father, he was blocked by the next level of hierarchy: “The university official in charge of farmer students didn’t dare to make a decision. He forwarded my application to the top university management. They were supposed to decide.” Xi writes, “but this became my chance since Tsinghua University was caught in the vortex of a cultural-revolutionary political campaign against the so-called ‘right winds of restoration’ in July, August, and September 1975.” The two (ultra-leftist) university leaders, who he names as Chi Qun and Xie Chengyi, had no time to attend to newly admitted students, and so Xi, a farmer student, eluded their attention. He writes: “At this time my father had just come out of exile and was sent to work in a factory in Luoyang. This factory then turned to me in a letter to Tsinghua: ‘Comrade Xi Zhongxun’s problems are among the people’s contradictions. They should not prevent his children from studying or working.’ It was enough of a letter of recommendation for me to attend university.”
Xi studied chemistry. When he graduated in 1979, he was hired as a secretary by then defense minister and political bureau member Geng Biao (a friend of Xi’s now fully rehabilitated father). But at his own request, Xi transferred to the county seat of Zhengding in the province of Hebei in 1982 and started in the position of vice party secretary. He recounts that at the time, many did not understand why he was leaving Beijing. “Besides me, others went back to the lowest administrative level as well, Liu Yuan for example, (Son of Liu Shaoqi, the former state president persecuted to death by Mao). Independently, we both came to the same conclusion to join the workers and peasants.”
In fact, working in the provinces is a classic way to make a political career in the People’s Republic. Starting in 1982, Xi’s 25-year ascent began across four provinces until he reached the center of power in Beijing in 2007.
In his CV, written in 2003, at no point, Xi critically reflects on what happened to him, even as he admits to having been treated unfairly. He concludes that his seven years of experience in the countryside made him a “down-to-earth” man. He is “not prone to false doctrines,” is not shaken by anything, and will go any distance to “to get ahead.”