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Who is Xi Jinping, the world’s most powerful politician?

Once a ‘princeling’, Xi Jinping spent his teenage years living in a cave. Now he is set to become the longest-serving leader of China since the ’70s. How did he do it? And what are his plans for China?

When Xi Jinping arrives at China’s National Party Congress on October 16, he is expected to become the most powerful political figure of the 21st century.

The son of a revolutionary who crushed his rivals to become the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, Xi is expected to cement a third term in office at the Congress – the first time a Chinese leader has done so since Mao Zedong’s dictatorial rule ended in 1976. In Beijing, he will be ordained by 2000 delegates as the past, present and future of the Chinese Communist Party.

In the world’s most populous nation and second-largest economy, Xi has held absolute control for almost a decade. Under him, China’s economy has continued to grow, and its citizens are wealthier and better educated than their predecessors. But the Chinese government has also become more aggressive and isolated, cutting itself off from the rest of the world throughout the pandemic and threatening neighbouring Taiwan – and the international order that has been in place since the end of World War II.

What has shaped Xi, and what are his policies? What will happen at the National Party Congress? And can he rule for longer than three terms?

Children learn the life story of their leader, Xi Jinping, at the Museum of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing in October.Credit:Getty Images

What has shaped Xi?

Xi grew up in the rarefied air of the Communist Party establishment. Born in 1953, he was the son of revolutionary leader Xi Zhongxun. He was educated in the August 1st School, a cradle of future leaders, and for much of his early childhood had all the trappings of “princeling” life – until a dispute between his father, Mao and other senior leaders over the party’s history saw Zhongxun ostracised from the party for 16 years, forced to build tractors in Luoyang in central China.

While his father was “re-educated”, Xi spent seven years living in a cave in Shaanxi, picking fleas off his body and ruminating on the political philosophies that would come to define modern China.

“When I arrived at 15, I was anxious and confused,” Xi wrote in his biography, Son of Yellow Earth. In Shaanxi he was teased for having hands as soft as a young woman’s. “The intensity of the labour shocked me. When I left the yellow earth at 22, my life goals were firm and I was filled with confidence.”

Xi Jinping as a young man with his father, Xi Zhongxun.Credit:Getty Images

Xi’s years in Shaanxi also deepened his loyalty to the communist cause. Hampered by his father’s banishment, he applied 10 times to become a member of the party before being accepted. He joined despite the treatment of his father and the death of his half-sister, Xi Heping, in a suspected suicide after she was subjected to years of political shame.

“Mao created a civil war so as to train a new cadre of young people who had been toughened and would come out in favour of his ideological hard line,” says Geremie Barme, a professor of Chinese history who met Xi’s father in 1981 and studied with the paramilitary units of young people known as the Red Guards in Beijing.

“When he began to really rise in prominence in 2006 and 2007, I thought, oh my God.”

Xi’s outlook came to be defined by hard toil and power over wealth and privilege. He fondly remembered a 1985 trip to Iowa in the United States where he slept in a teenager’s bedroom below Star Trek posters at the age of 31, but his time among the trappings of capitalism did little to sway his conviction that China had to go its own way. “Constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarism, a multi-party system and a presidential system,” Xi told the College of Europe in 2014. “We considered them, tried them, but none worked.”

In 2012, Xi took a trip to the US state of Iowa, where he had stayed as a young man in the 1980s. Credit:Getty Images

As a “worker-peasant-soldier” student, Xi was more dogmatic than his peers. He vigorously pursued ideological purity while other princelings wavered. “He wrote a regular column for the local newspaper in 2002 and they were the most appalling, dull, [Communist] Party-heavy pieces of work – the worst nth of the orthodox party ideologues,” says Barme. “At that time, I thought, this is a really grim character. So, when he began to really rise in prominence in 2006 and 2007, I thought, oh my God.”

Xi, who at almost 183 centimetres is taller than most Chinese men, developed an imposing voice and gravitas as a regional party secretary. When it came time to strike, he positioned himself as a saviour for a party that had become ill-disciplined and corrupt through the rapid accumulation of wealth in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“Big Uncle Xi”, as he was once known, started first in Hebei and then moved to Fujian and Zhejiang, marking himself as an efficient technocrat who pulled in foreign investment, before purging his rivals through corruption trials to become the party secretary in Shanghai. By 2007, he was climbing the ranks of the politburo on his way to becoming general secretary.

Xi’s political rival, Bo Xilai, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2013.Credit:Getty Images

Months before he was installed as the party’s top-ranking official, his contemporary and rival Bo Xilai was arrested following allegations of murder and embezzlement by former police chief Wang Lijun. The arrest was the final act in an increasingly unstable environment that had seen China’s security services run their own operations and murmurings of corruption in the military. Meanwhile, Beijing watched in horror as revolutions swept the Arab world, where dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt were overthrown.

“They thought they were facing a moment of crisis,” says Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the CIA who is now a senior fellow at the Centre for International and Strategic Studies. “So I think Xi Jinping adroitly took advantage of that sense of crisis that was gripping all of the top leaders at that time to say, ‘I’m the guy who can fix this, right’, and they bought it. We can say, perhaps, they probably do have some buyer’s remorse now, but whatever that buyer’s remorse may be, [you] don’t see them pushing for fundamentally different policies.”

Xi visits villagers in Hainan province in April to inspect projects tackling poverty and rural rejuvenation. Credit:Getty Images

What are Xi’s key policies?

Xi has made poverty alleviation his key economic benchmark. In February 2021, he declared that China had eradicated extreme poverty after lifting 100 million people out of poverty over eight years. The metric, defined as earning less than $970 a year, has been questioned by economists but, broadly speaking, there are certainly fewer extremely poor people in China than there were a decade ago.

At the same time, despite the setbacks of COVID-19, the ranks of China’s rich have continued to grow. Beijing is now home to more billionaires than any other city in the world; there are 698 across the country.

That discrepancy has posed a challenge for Xi and the party as it attempts to restrict the power of China’s industry and technology titans while redistributing wealth among China’s 1.4 billion people. “They believe China has accumulated wealth, but the wrong type of people have also accumulated too much wealth,” says Barme. ”That’s why there has to be radical redistribution, at the same time as not undermining innovation and creativity. So, the new development strategy is really a balance.”

Xi calls it “common prosperity”. The phrase first emerged in August 2021 at the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs. Xi said he would “reasonably regulate excessively high incomes and encourage high-income people and enterprises to return more to society”.Tech companies, private education networks, video game producers and property developers have all since been hit with new regulations targeting excessive profits, exploitative algorithms and disloyalty to the party. Tencent, one of China’s largest technology companies, announced in August 2021 that it would donate $11 billion to welfare causes related to the “common prosperity” vision.

“There is a formulation that China is actually in the preliminary stages of socialism,” says Barme. “They are moving towards the period in which capital accumulation will be wealthy enough to move towards higher-level socialism. I believe that Xi Jinping and his thinkers have been trying to come up with a new formulation for it.”

Outside of poverty alleviation, Xi has little time for human rights. In his vision, economic security, income, food and housing are human rights. He views minorities as a threat to the narrative of national economic security, triggering brutal crackdowns in places such as Tibet as well as in Xinjiang, where up to a million members of the Uighur Muslim minority have been detained in re-education camps. In 2012, Xi asked then vice-president Joe Biden why the US put “so much emphasis on human rights”, the New Yorker reported. Xi’s vision of economic human rights compared to the West’s emphasis on freedom of expression, race and religion have been irreconcilable throughout his decade in power.

But Xi has had time for tackling corruption. To make China more ideologically “red” after years of its business and political leaders becoming used to the riches of opening up the economy, he had to purge his rivals. Corruption became his favourite tool to wedge opponents and punish dissent. An anti-graft campaign implemented after Bo’s arrest became entrenched through the National Supervisory Commission. Under Xi, it has become equal to the judiciary, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (the national prosecution agency) and the State Council (the government’s top administrative authority).

Xi, centre, with other Politburo Standing Committee members including Li Keqiang (to his right), greets the media in 2012.Credit:Getty Images

It has also allowed Xi to pursue his policy vision largely unchallenged. China is now focused on building up its domestic economy and relying less on imports so that it can weather future geopolitical disruptions. Xi’s policy, known as “internal circulation”, was in development well before Russia invaded Ukraine, but global sanctions on Russia have accelerated China’s inward turn. The overall direction is a retreat from his predecessor Deng’s platform of “reform and opening up” which began in 1978 and unleashed the market economy in China. Having acquired foreign investment and technology over four decades, Xi now wants China’s people to innovate, produce and consume more at home.

“Xi will remain the major – and really the only – voice meaningfully in charge of the overall policy direction.”

“The economic picture will be more challenging. Opening [up] has become less and less likely because of both the US with its core allies and China,” says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China. “The domestic audience is always the primary one, especially now and in the predictable future.”

That domestic audience is growing increasingly tired of Xi and China’s unwavering commitment to COVID-zero, which has seen sweeping lockdowns imposed on cities across the country months after the rest of the world has learned to live with the virus.

Criticism of Xi’s policy has been scrubbed from the internet and retracted by medical experts but small pockets of dissent remain in locked-down neighbourhoods in Shanghai and in online communities. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Xi’s number two, has been the most vocal in raising concerns about the impact on the economy, but even that has been limited to vague instructions to provincial officials not to overdo COVID containment measures. “Put your limited funds to good use,” he said in May.

Xi Jinping (centre, in green military uniform) with members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on a naval ship in the South China Sea in 2018.Credit:Li Gang

Li will have served two terms as premier by the end of the party’s congress, and so will be forced to step down. Unlike Xi, the 67-year-old won’t see any extension of the two-term limit. “The economic policies that are most closely associated with Xi, such as common prosperity, internal circulation, the crackdowns on the tech platform companies and the real estate market, as well as the drive for state-led technological innovation and self-sufficiency, are all likely to continue,” says Johnson, “no matter who it turns out really is the next premier.

“Xi will remain the major – and really the only – voice meaningfully in charge of the overall policy direction.”

The future of Taiwan is Xi’s biggest test. The US military believes China will have the capability to attack Taiwan by 2027.

Shi says China’s international policy agenda is unlikely to shift substantially during or after the congress. Xi will be focused on local issues and cementing his power base but his tacit support of Russian President Vladimir Putin for the past year has put him in a difficult position. “I don’t anticipate there will be a major, remarkable and permanent change after the congress, except for the possible impact from Putin’s performance,” says Shi. “[If there is a change in China’s position], the handling will be likely, as usual, ambiguous and hesitant.”

Vladimir Putin speaks to Xi at a summit in Uzbekistan in September. “We understand your concerns,” Putin later said of China. China, for its part, said it would work with Russia to “inject stability into a turbulent world”. Credit:Pool Sputnik Kremlin

Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state who maintains close ties with China, told the Asia Society in October that “Xi gave a rather blank cheque to Putin”.

“He must have thought the invasion would succeed. He must need to recalibrate.”

The future of Taiwan is Xi’s biggest test. The US military believes China will have the capability to attack Taiwan by 2027, almost halfway through Xi’s expected third term. Xi, who once governed Fujian, the province neighbouring Taiwan, has had a long and personal interest in the self-governed democratic island. Kissinger believes he will attempt to “reserve the issue of confrontation for later in his administration”.

“[Xi is] a man in a hurry when it comes to Taiwan,” says Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister who has just finished a doctorate on Xi Jinping Thought at Oxford University, arguing Xi believes the “gradualist approach” of former Chinese presidents has failed.

Volume IV of “Xi Jinping: The Governance of China” in Chinese and English.Credit:Getty Images

What is Xi Jinping Thought?

Formerly known as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” it is the culmination of Xi’s speeches and policies since 2013. It has been embedded in China’s constitution since 2018, but Xi wants to take it further at the National Party Congress by shortening official references to Xi Jinping Thought – elevating his political theory alongside Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, and above Deng Xiaoping Theory, in the canon of Chinese Communist Party philosophy.

From the 1960s, Mao’s Little Red Books plastered the halls of school rooms and gift shops in China. Today, Xi’s “On the governance of China” – a collection of 270 speeches and essays that form the basis for Xi Jinping Thought – has been translated into a dozen languages and can be found in airport bookstores around the world. On Tuesday, the Icelandic edition was launched in Reykjavik.

In August 2021, Xi Jinping Thought was introduced into the national school curriculum and is now taught in party cells inside private companies. Unlike Deng’s emphasis on opening up China’s economy, Xi focuses on China’s development through common prosperity and the importance of national identity. But he maintains many of Mao and Deng’s principles on the absolute authority of the party over all institutions, including the army, unification with Taiwan and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

“You’re not just attacking Xi Jinping as an individual … you’re attacking the Party’s line. You can do it, but it’s a very dangerous game.”

The all-encompassing nature of Xi Jinping Thought leaves little room for flexibility or criticism. “The best example of this is the zero-COVID policy,” says Johnson. “We know that there have been fundamental objections to the policy. Obviously, it reached a fever pitch around the time of the Shanghai lockdown.

“But we saw very quickly after [that] the law was firmly laid down, and I think the reason for that is that when you’re able to codify your thinking as the party’s line, it becomes very dangerous for other people to criticise those policies. You’re not just attacking Xi Jinping as an individual, or the party secretary as an individual, you’re attacking the party’s line. You can do it, but it’s a very dangerous game.”

What will happen at the National Party Congress?

More than 2000 Chinese Communist Party delegates descend on Beijing for the first all-party meeting in five years on October 16. The meeting, at the Great Hall of the People, is expected to last a week but most of its deliberations will be closed to the public.

The National Party Congress is distinct from the National People’s Congress, held yearly to pass legislation. The role of the Party Congress is to elect leaders in the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee (the top seven officials of China’s cabinet) as well as the Premier and General Secretary. The General Secretary of the party then officially becomes the President of China through a confirmation vote at the next National People’s Congress in March.

In September, Xi disappeared for two weeks, prompting feverish and unsubstantiated rumours of a coup. The 69-year-old spent the time locking in his power base.

The weeks leading up to the event are often more important than the actual gala, with a whirlwind of deals done to secure positions well before delegates take their seats.

In September, Xi disappeared for two weeks, prompting feverish and unsubstantiated rumours of a coup. The 69-year-old spent the time locking in his power base. “He was cramming for two weeks before the final exam,” says Taiwan-based Australian National University political scientist Wen-Ti Sung.

The last Politburo Standing Committee meeting was on September 26, four days before the broader Politburo meeting, two weeks before the congress. In theory, the party members select the Committee members, but in reality the vote is top-down, with committee members telegraphing voting instructions to lower-ranked members.

“So really [September 26] was the final exam for Xi, when he tried to get people he likes into the next leadership,” Sung said in a Twitter thread explaining the machinations. “Once he aces Politburo Standing Committee, it’s all smooth sailing from there.”

On September 27, Xi appeared for the first time in a fortnight surrounded by the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee in this photo below, widely distributed by Chinese state media.

“That visual tells tier 2 and tier 3 leaders in other factions that their heads are with Xi,” said Sung, “so there’s no point for them to plot anything funny against Xi at subsequent Politburo, Plenum, and Party Congress meetings.”

Days out from the start of the Party Congress, Xi’s third term was already all but guaranteed. Now he will be focused on locking in two other key achievements: placing his allies in top positions to guarantee his legacy, and cementing his own position as either “Chairman”, “Helmsman” or the “People’s Leader” – titles that no one has officially held since Mao’s immediate successor, Hua Guofeng. “If Xi is referred to by these titles at the Congress, it would further indicate that he has gained a level of authority similar to Mao,” says policy research firm Trivium China.

Johnson says Xi is “pretty much on track” to accomplish most of those goals.

“There’s no doubt, obviously, that he will continue in office. He seems to be scoring some major personnel wins in the run-up to the Congress that suggests he largely will get his way in shaping the new politburo,” says Johnson.

“And he’s lining them up to canonise Xi Jinping Thought.”

Souvenirs featuring Xi and former Chinese leader Mao Zedong on display in Beijing.Credit:Getty Images

Can he rule for longer than three terms?

Xi has no rivals to his power and very few critics. The only hint of any disapproval came from the Communist Party of China’s oldest retired official on September 12. Song Ping, who is 105, used a congratulatory message to reaffirm his faith in Xi’s predecessor, Deng Xiaoping. In a veiled message that has been interpreted as a challenge to Xi’s focus on internal circulation and common prosperity, the centenarian said China’s policy of reform and opening up “has been the only path to the development and progress of contemporary China and the only path to the realisation of the Chinese dream”.

“The challenge with the system is that you can’t really see opposition until it’s already activated,” says Johnson. “I think the giant megaphone of Xi Jinping’s power has caused any opposition voices – to the degree they exist in a meaningful way – to go even further to ground.”

“While Xi’s untrammelled authority would allow him to enact policy with minimal pushback, the risk of miscalculation and political tunnel vision would grow.”

Xi may take the opportunity to anoint a successor to lead the Secretariat of the Party Central Committee but most analysts think that is unlikely. “Indicating a successor would be a sure sign that Xi plans to step down in 2027,” says Trivium. “Even if the successor is a Xi ally, this would immediately create an alternate power centre within the Party and likely weaken Xi’s effective authority. The stronger Xi is and the longer he intends to stay in power, the more unhindered he’ll be in carrying out his policy program.

Song Ping, now 105, is ushered to his chair at the start of the Communist Party’s National Congress in Beijing in 2017.Credit:Getty Images

“In other words, while Xi’s untrammelled authority would allow him to enact policy with minimal pushback, the risk of miscalculation and political tunnel vision would grow.”

Barme says there has been no hint of who would be a future leader.

“Xi Jinping will not want to give up power. He wants to be in power until 2035 and have control even in the background for 20 years after that,” says Barme. “I have no doubt whatsoever.”

Johnson disagrees.

“I’m an outlier on this. I don’t think he intends to rule forever,” he says. “This does not mean that there’s a resurgent faction taking the fight to Xi. My own view is he has an objective that he wants to achieve. He thinks that will take a certain amount of time. It definitely was going to take more than two terms.

“There are a lot of people who are unhappy with Xi Jinping. There are other people that seem to like what he’s doing.”

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