Profile: Xi Jinping

New leader of China’s Communist Party came from a privileged background but has carefully cultivated a common man image.

Vice-President Xi Jinping
As the son of a one-time vice premier, Xi spent the 1950s amid comfortable homes and chauffeur-driven cars [Reuters]

Xi Jinping has been chosen to lead China’s Communist Party following its party congress in Beijing, although the 59 year old will not assume the presidency of the country until next spring.

Xi had an elite, educated background as the son of Xi Zhongxun, one of the early revolutionary leaders and one of the main supporters of economic reforms after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.

But at the same time he has successfully cultivated a common man image that helps him appeal to a broad constituency.

He spent seven years in the remote northern community of Liangjiahe, in Shaanxi province, toiling alongside villagers by day and sleeping on bricks by night, in stark contrast to his pampered early years in Beijing.

As the son of a one-time vice premier, the younger Xi spent the 1950s in a world of comfortable homes, chauffeur-driven cars and the best schools when most Chinese were desperately poor.

But the elder Xi fell afoul of the increasingly paranoid communist chief, and Mao demoted him in 1962.

The son was dispatched to rural Shaanxi province in 1969 as part of Mao’s campaign to toughen up educated urban youth during the chaotic Cultural Revolution.

The Liangjiahe years are among the scant details known about Xi’s life and personality, partly because he himself chronicled them as a formative experience.

However, he did not at first come willingly to Liangjiahe, a tiny community of cave dwellings dug into arid hills and fronted by dried mud walls with wooden lattice entryways.

Party rejection

Rejected for Communist Party membership nine times due to his father’s political problems, according to the AP news agency, Xi finally gained entry in 1974 and then attended the elite Tsinghua University.

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He went on to earn a chemistry degree, by which time Mao had died and his father had been restored to office.

Xi next secured a top position as secretary to Defence Minister Geng Biao, one of his father’s old comrades.

With help from his father, Xi jumped in 1985 to a vice mayorship in the port of Xiamen, then at the forefront of economic reforms.

The same year he briefly lived with a family in Muscatine, Iowa, a small town he visited again in February during a tour seen as a move to increase his international profile.

He later took the top position in neighbouring Zhejiang province, a hotbed of private industry, a lively civil society, non-communist candidates for local assemblies and a thriving underground church movement.

Zhou Dewen, who at that time was setting up an association for small and medium enterprises that has now become a reference for Wenzhou’s entrepreneurs, remembers Xi’s leadership.

“He is an incorruptible leader, and that will help him break the different obstacles encountered in the current stage of economic reforms in China,” Zhou said.

“I am talking about the obstruction caused by vested interests.”

Beijing Olympics

After a brief spell in charge of Shanghai, Xi was brought to Beijing and handed the high-profile task of overseeing the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

He toured many provinces, including the highly volatile Tibetan region, and often travelled overseas representing the country.

But it is what lies ahead that may give Xi a chapter in the modern history of the world’s second largest economy.

After two decades of fast-paced growth and social change, the economy is flagging and China is under strain.

Rampant corruption is corroding already low reserves of public trust in officialdom.

Beyond home, China is locked in conflict over territory with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbours.

At the same time, the US is shoring up ties with countries on China’s edge.

Joseph Chen, a Hong Kong-based China expert, says little is known of Xi’s real political leanings, and that his strategy has been “to lay low, not to reveal his policy indications, not to antagonise any significant vested interested group”.

Nationalist streak

During a Central American tour in 2009, Xi told a meeting of overseas Chinese expatriates in Mexico City: “There are some bored foreigners with full stomachs, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country.”

Evidence of a strong nationalist streak also emerged again last month when he lectured US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta on China’s claim to East China Sea islands held by Japan.

But Xi’s greatest asset resides in him being a consensus candidate that is not identified with any faction in particular.

Indeed, when people on Beijing’s streets are asked he seems like many different things to many different people.

In the eyes of the greater public, a great source of popularity derives from his wife, Peng Liyuan.

A glamorous folk singer in the military, she has performed at many of the country’s main celebrations, including the official state broadcaster’s annual Chinese New Year gala.

Although her profile has been lowered since Xi anointment as China’s next leader in waiting, she still appears on screen in official campaigns to raise Aids awareness.

The couple’s daughter is a student at Harvard University where she enrolled under an assumed name.