Chinese President Xi Jinping’s astonishing rise to become one of the world’s most powerful people

For a man named by Forbes as the world’s most powerful person, there’s been little transparency as to how Xi Jinping accrued so much power in such a relatively short amount of time.

Key points:

  • Xi Jinping was ‘re-educated’ by farmers in a remote village when he was a teenager
  • It reportedly took him 10 tries before being accepted as a Communist Party member
  • He acquired all three leadership roles — head of the Communist Party, military and state — by the start of his tenure in 2013

China’s President was almost unknown to the world just over a decade ago —even his folk singer wife, Peng Liyuan, was far more renowned than the trailblazing political statesman.

But over the last 50 years Mr Xi — the son of a powerful communist revolutionary — strategically used his personal life narrative as a cave-dwelling farmer during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s to grant himself political validation as he rose steadily but patiently through ranks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) right to the top.

Few pundits would have predicted the amount of influence and power the Chinese leader has come to wield after becoming the nation’s paramount leader in November 2012 — launching sweeping anti-corruption crackdowns against senior politicians while asserting himself on the world stage — let alone imagine that he’d be able to pull off abolishing China’s 10-year presidential term limits exactly one year ago in March 2018 during last National People’s Congress.

As the 2019 National People’s Congress kicks off this week, we take a look at the astonishing tale of the high-profile leader: from life among Beijing’s elite as a child, to living in a cave as an exiled farmer in China’s remote countryside, to becoming Beijing’s most powerful leader since Chairman Mao Zedong.

‘I didn’t even know if I’d survive’: From princeling to peasant

A black and white family portrait of President Xi Jinping's family in 1960.

Xi Jinping with his parents and siblings in 1960.(

As the son of former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun, who fought alongside Mao Zedong in the Chinese civil war, Xi Jinping is no stranger to politics.

Born in Beijing in 1953, Mr Xi was what is known as a communist “princeling”, but later became an outcast when his father was purged in 1962 for supporting a novel regarded as critical of Chairman Mao.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, younger brother Xi Yuanping, middle, and father Xi Zhongxun, right.
Xi Jinping, left, younger brother Xi Yuanping, middle, and father Xi Zhongxun, right, in 1958.(Wikipedia Commons: People’s Daily)

While the elder Xi was jailed or otherwise confined during the Cultural Revolution — a 10-year period between 1966 and 1976 when academics and intellectuals were publicly humiliated and shunned — the younger Xi was sent to an impoverished village in China’s north-western Shaanxi province.

The 16-year-old “princeling” was then among millions of urban you

youth sent to rural areas as part of the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement” to be re-educated by farmers and labourers during the tumultuous communist period.

In a 2004 interview,Mr Xi recounted the relief he felt escaping the political pressures he was facing in Beijing as his train was pulling away from the capital for Yan’an in Shaanxi province.

“I remember it very clearly, it was January 1969, everyone was crying, there wasn’t anyone on the train who didn’t cry. But I was only one laughing, the only one laughing,” he recalled in the interview.

“At the time, my relatives beside the train asked me: ‘Why are you smiling?’

“I told them that if I had to stay, then I’d be crying, because I wouldn’t even know if I’d survive.”

Mr Xi also admitted in the interviewthat at first he wasn’t accustomedto the hard work in the countryside, and after just three months fled back to Beijing where he was locked up for half a year.

His only option to escape was to return to Liangjiahe Village in Yan’an, the famous revolutionary base, where he spent the remaining six years immersed in poverty, intensive labour while adjusting to living in the cave homes that were dug into the hillsides.

‘They ate bitterness’: A generation who doesn’t give up easily

A black and white photo of Xi Jinping as a young man.

It reportedly took Xi Jinping 10 attempts before he was accepted as a Communist Party member in 1974.(Weibo: China Youth Daily)

Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, told the ABC that it was a formative time for Mr Xi’s generation, and his father being absent also forced him to become “very independently minded”.

Professor Brown writes in his book — CEO, China: The rise of Xi Jinping — that compared with his predecessor Hu Jintao, who opted to keep his public persona relatively “faceless”,Mr Xi proceeded to use his own life story and varied experiences to earn himself “political validation”.

“Xi Jinping is sort of typical of that generation in having a pretty tough outlook,” Professor Brown said.

“As they say in Chinese … they ate bitterness and so they’re not people who give up easily. It made a pretty tough generation.”

A cave dwelling with back and white photos aligning the right hand side of the wall.
Xi Jinping was sent to Liangjiahe Village in Yanchuan County in Yan’an in 1969.(Yanchuan County Lvyou)

As the Cultural Revolution wound down in the mid-1970s, one of Mr Xi’s anonymous friends said he chose to become “redder than red” — red symbolising the communist party’s ideology — to survive, according to an unpublished WikiLeaks

batch of US diplomatic cables.

“Unlike many youth who ‘made up for lost time by having fun’ after the Cultural Revolution, Xi ‘chose to survive by becoming redder than red,'” the friend was quoted as saying.

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In 1973, Mr Xi started on his impressive political journey by applying to join the Communist Party, but it reportedly took him some 10 attempts before he was accepted — likely due to his “bad family background” after the purge of his father.

And as China went through a period of transformation with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 followed by the rise of Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping was also going through his own personal transformation.

In 1975, the 22-year-old was admitted to the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijingto study chemical engineering, and later worked at the Central Military Commission as former defence minister Geng Biao’s secretary after graduating in 1979.

Over the next two decades, Mr Xi advanced his political career through various county, municipal and provincialleadership positions across the country.

In 1987, Mr Xi married folk singer Peng Liyuan — his second marriage after his first one, of which little is known, ended in divorce a few years earlier.

Peng Liyuan, left, and Xi Jinping, right, stand in front of international flags.

Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan have a daughter called Xi Mingze.(Reuters: Wolfgang Rattay)

At one point, Peng even reached the rank ofmajor-general in the People’s Liberation Army musical troupe — though it’s unclear whether she still holds that rank — and is also the World Health Organisation’s Goodwill Ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

“Until 2007, you would have said that she was way more famous than him [and] probably way more influential than people think,” Professor Brown said — Peng was renowned for her impactful and catchy propaganda songs.

“She’s a forceful and powerful person who is extremely successful in her own right.”

The couple’s daughter, Xi Mingze, born in 1992 under the one-child policy, reportedly studied at Harvard University under a pseudonym as Mr Xi’s political career continued to thrive.

Xi builds himself a network among Beijing’s elite

A map showing the locations of Beijing, Hebei, Shaanxi, Zhejiang and Shanghai.

Xi Jinping served across four provinces and in the municipality of Shanghai in varying levels of governance.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

One of the more prominent positions Mr Xi held was as party chief of Zhejiang province, from 2002 to 2007, where he supported local private enterprises and oversaw strong economic growth.

His achievements in Zhejiang won him the support of political elites, and when former Communist Party boss of Shanghai Chen Liangyu was sacked in one of China’s highest-level corruption scandals in 2006, Mr Xi was controversially chosen to replace him in the senior position.

It was a huge leap from the days when he was voted last in the rankings of alternate members of the 15th Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1997.

The structure of China's Communist Party in the form of a pyramid.
The Communist Party is said to have almost 90 million members.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

But during it all, Mr Xi kept a low profile in Shanghai — giving no ammunition to potential rivals — and just seven months into his appointment, he was unexpectedly promoted directly to the country’s most elite political body at a party congress gathering in late 2007.

“He was elected onto what we call

the Standing Committee of the Politburo — that’s the ultimate [leadership] group,” Professor Brown said.

“At that time nine people were running the country … so he had evidently built up a network around him in the elite Central Committee that supported him.”

Mr Xi and Li Keqiang, the current Chinese Premier, were both widely considered to be likely successors to then-president Hu Jintao.

But Mr Xi’s appointmentas vice-president in March 2008 indicated that he was likely being positioned to succeed Mr Hu as president.

It’s still unclear why Mr Xi was put forward, but China expert Ross Terrill believes it was partially related to his one great historical advantage: his father.

“His father was a well-known figure who had been a leading communist in the 1930s, and was revered because he got cut down in the Cultural Revolution,” Dr Terrill, an associate in research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies, told the ABC.

“[Chinese] people now are very sympathetic to anyone who was cut down.”

A black and white photo of Xi Jinping carrying a tool in the countryside.

Xi Jinping was the secretary of the Ningde Prefectural Committee of the Communist Party in 1989.(Weibo: Xinhua)

And although the wider world knew little about Mr Xi, and what sort of leader he would become, one candid moment captured during a 2009 trip to Mexico offered a little insight.

“There are some foreigners from better-off countries who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs,” the then-vice president said during a filmed lunch meeting.

“China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you — what else do you have to criticise us about?”

After taking up the top posts of General Secretary of theCommunist Partyand the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, he became the President of China of the People’s Republic of China in March 2013.

Xi’s rise to the top: ‘Transparency is

vulnerability, a weakness’

Xi Jinping, left, Jiang Zemin, centre, Hu Jintao, left, stand behind a rail.

It’s widely believed that Jiang Zemin, centre, pushed for Xi Jinping, left, to succeed Hu Jintao.(Reuters: Damir Sagolj, File)

Experts agree that while Mr Xi had come a long way from ranking last in the Central Committee in 1997 to becoming China’s helmsman, his rise occurred with little transparency.

Professor Brown said the lack of visibility from the outside could have stemmed from the secrecy surrounding guerilla warfare during Mao’s time and the days ofImperial China.

“[The Communist Party] doesn’t see why it should be transparent, it feels that transparency is sort of a vulnerability, a weakness,” he said.

A graphic showing where Zhongnanhai is located in relation to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen.

China Zhongnanhai serves as the central headquarters for the Communist Party of China and the State Council of China.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

The opaque political system in China has meant that it has never been made public exactly how Mr Xi surpassed his rivals to become the country’s next president, let alone how a president is even elected in China in the first place.

Professor Brown said it likely involved a large selection panel including consultations with former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin as well as former and current members of the Politburo.

Until this day the public and the media continue to speculate how it all unfolded — one common belief is that Mr Xi was a behind-the-scenes compromise because Hu Jintao’s first pick was thought to be premier Li Keqiang.

Former US president Gerald Ford and his wife meets with former Chinese vice premier Deng Xiaoping in Beijing, China in 1975.

Chinese vice premier Deng Xiaoping, centre, in Beijing, China in 1975.(Wikimedia Commons: Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library)

Laikwan Pang, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said most people in China would come to believe that initial reformer Deng Xiaoping picked both the third- and fourth-generation leaders, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, “to make sure that China’s politics could function in the most peaceful way”.

“[There was] a lot of these calculations and strategies going on [to] ensure that this is going to be a peaceful change in power,” she said.

And based on media reports, rather than anything official, she said it was also widely believed that Jiang Zemin pushed for Xi Jinping.‘Never telling the whole truth’In the first part of our China Watch series we take a look at how Beijing is buying up broadcast space on foreign airwaves and pages inside newspapers to increase its influence abroad.Read more

Steve Tsang, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies China Institute at the University of London, said it was likely that Mr Xi was able to persuade the party that he would be a better candidate for the position.

“Xi presented himself as somebody who was kind of a candidate who could work with anybody and everybody within the

party, [and] he was non-threatening,” he told the ABC.

“And then at the [2012 party congress right before he was tapped for president] you had the situation where Xi Jinping again played a very clever game, because just before the party congress he simply ‘disappeared’ for a few weeks,” Professor Tsang said.

With weeks to go until the once-in-a-decade leadership transition, Mr Xi did not appear in the media nor did anyone know exactly where he was for an entire fortnight in September.

“We never had a top explanation as to why he disappeared for that period of time,” Professor Tsang said.

“He clearly had [made] some kind of a deal [as] he came back to take over the party’s leadership and started making changes.”

Unprecedented power: Xi’s ‘dream beginning’ as leader

Chinese president Xi Jinping's three leadership titles including General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping acquired all three leadership roles by the start of his tenure in 2013.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

Unlike his predecessor Hu Jintao, Mr Xi acquired all three leadership roles — head of the Communist Party, military and state — by the start of his tenure in 2013.

Mr Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin had opted to cling onto the leadership of the military, so former president Hu only was able to control the party and the state.

“Xi had a dream beginning [as leader] with no one breathing down his neck, so I think that’s what made the difference [in empowering his leadership],” Professor Brown said.China’s bribery cultureDespite Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign, patients continue to slip doctors thousands of dollars in red envelopes.Read more

The first major policy Mr Xi introduced after becoming President in 2013 was a far-reaching anti-corruption crackdown on “tigers and flies” — a slang phrase referring to high-ranking officials and local civil servants — which has reportedly snared more than 1.5 million government officials, according Chinese state media.

The signature anti-corruption campaign

was noted by many for its resemblance to the same internal power struggles that led to his father being purged in the 1960s.

According to the South China Morning Post, 23 “tigers” were detained in 2018, 19 of whom were sentenced, including senior regional official Sun Zhengcai, who had been tipped to be among China’s next generation of leaders.

While Mr Xi’s fight against corruption made him enormously popular among the Chinese people, it no doubt simultaneously created many enemies among China’s elite and powerful.

“No one could be a leader of the Communist Party of China without being pretty ruthless,” Professor Kerry said.

“It’s a world without solid sentiment, it’s a winner takes all game.

“So there is no room for mercy in this system.”

Abolishing presidential term limits and ‘self-preservation’

Inside the Great Hall as Chinese politicians vote to abolish presidential term limits

Inside the Great Hall as Chinese politicians vote to abolish presidential term limits

Not only has China’s paramount leader managed to keep his competitors at bay, but a highly controversial constitutional amendment was passed on March 11, 2018 that removed the country’s 10-year presidential term limits so that he could rule indefinitely — Mr Xi’s tenure was due to expire in 2022.

The amendments also included inserting Mr Xi’s political theory into the constitution, a feat no other leader since Mao had managed while in office.China’s move towards dictatorshipAt this congress, delegates will rubber stamp critical changes to the constitution that will give the party more control than ever and give one man, President Xi Jinping the potential to rule for life, Matthew Carney writes.Read more

The limit of two consecutive five-year presidential terms was written into China’s constitution after Mao’s death in 1976 by Deng Xiaoping, who recognised the dangers of one-man rule and the cult of personality, and instead espoused collective leadership.

However, the five-year terms also had a side effect of encouraging incumbent leaders to begin grooming their proteges halfway through the 10-year term.

A New York Times report at the time cites supporters saying that ending the term limit “would allow Mr Xi to avoid becoming a lame duck in his second term, and give him added authority to pursue other parts of his agenda: overhauling the military, stamping out [corruption], reducing extreme poverty and fixing an economy grown dependent on debt and heavy industry.”

Senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, Richard McGregor, said while staying in the job was a way of protecting his policy and legacy, it could also be an “element of self-preservation as well”.

“Xi Jinping has so many enemies [within] China after the anti-corruption campaign because he destroyed the livelihoods and the families and the wealth and the networks of so many wealthy people,” he said.

“If Xi were to ever step down, he would be in danger himself of somebody investigating him.”

Dr Terrill added that the only way to remain protected was to stay at the top for longer, adding that “power is a very strong drug to wean yourself off”.

President Xi Jinping applauds after the parliament passed a constitutional amendment lifting presidential term limit.

President Xi Jinping applauds after Congress passes a constitutional amendment lifting the presidential term limit.(Reuters: Jason Lee)

In contrast to Deng Xiaoping’s motto of “hide your strength and bide your time”, Mr Xi has championed a more assertive foreign policy including pushing the envelope on the South China Sea by building artificial islands in disputed regions.Xi takes control of armed forcesThe Chinese military has seen the biggest shake-up in decades, with most of the top leadership being replaced with Xi Jinping’s generals.Read more

Beijing is also urging more countries, as well as international organisations, to acknowledge its One-China Policy and inviting world leaders to sign up to its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

“The [BRI] is a very clever idea because it’s vague. Chinese politicians are extremely good at being clever by being vague,” Dr Terrill said.

“If you want to be critical of Beijing, you can say this is [a] kind of imperialism, this is a way of softly asserting a global reach.
“They like to leave it vague because it can inspire hope and a little bit of fear in some quarters.”
Xi Jinping wades into ‘unknown territory’ and risk
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he is clapped by his supporters at China's 19th Party Congress.

An expert has warned that if China were to face a crisis, there would only be on man to blame.(AP: Mark Schiefelbein)

Mr Xi’s more aggressive approach to foreign affairs is receiving increasing pushback from countries including Australia, which announced a foreign interference law in December 2017 amid growing concerns within the intelligence community about the influence of Chinese Government agents and political donations.

Mr McGregor said the overarching challenge for Mr Xi in the coming years will be China’s economic slowdowna key point of discussion at this year’s National People’s Congress — and developing a different approach to economic growth.

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Dr Terrill added that Mr Xi and his party need to make sure that there is decent economic growth moving forward to avoid a “drastic” change in Chinese politics.

“So I think we’re moving into sort of unknown territory in a way, in terms of what the Communist Party does when the ec

economy is no longer the sort of key thing that it’s trying to base its legitimacy on,” he said.

While it could be said that Mr Xi has had a “pretty smooth leadership” and a good run both domestically and internationally, Professor Brown said the election of US President Donald Trump and the imposition of tariffs could be seen as a turning point in the Xi presidency.

“We’ll see what happens, but it seems as if it’s knocked a bit of the veneer off of the Xi leadership and made it look a little bit more clumsy,” he said.

“They might be able to pull something amazing out of the hat, but at the moment it looks a little bit flat-footed, so I wonder whether that would be the turning point.”


Experts say the overarching challenge for Xi Jinping is the economic slow down.(Reuters: Bobby Yip)

Mr Xi has recently also warned that the country must be on high alert against “black swans” and “grey rhinos” — phrases pertaining to extreme unforeseen events such as protests — in the face of a slowing economy.

And if China were to face a crisis — as some signs are already pointing to — Professor Tsang warns that there would be only one man to blame.

“Where things can go wrong with Xi Jinping would be that because he’s in charge of everything, all major policies, and if the economy should bomb … they might see that Xi Jinping is responsible for it and he may have to go,” he said.

“But they would only do so if they think they can politically completely neutralise Xi Jinping, because if they fail, they know what will await them.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s father tried to poison a teacher when he was 14