China is a huge country with diverse ethnic groups and cultures. It is no easy task knowing the land and its people with some sincere efforts. An attempt can be made to know a bit about this country by looking through the lenses of its great leader, Xi Jinping. He has been elected for the third term to serve as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It was unprecedented in the history of modern China. The recently concluded 20th National Congress of the CPC attracted the world’s attention as China matters much today. Therefore, it was a serious subject matter in almost every major capital city.
Acknowledging the challenges ahead to China’s rise, Xi Jinping said, “China needs to know more about the rest of the world, and the rest of the world also needs to know more about China”. This is a powerful statement from the Chinese leader. It reflects the leadership of Xi Jinping and his world vision. The assertion is that China is a major power and its interests and deserving status must be respected. A diplomatic duel with the United States over this issue continues to date. Also, it means China has to make the transition from a regional power to a global power smooth as far as possible to avoid strategic tensions with the other major powers.
Undoubtedly, China has performed much better than many other developing countries in terms of poverty alleviation and infrastructure development. In science and technology fields too, China has been termed a key competitor to major western powerhouses of science and technology. Trade war and technological competition underscore these realities. There are challenges to its rise and goals. Despite being a beautiful country, China has failed to gain much from its soft power diplomacy. One main factor is the CPC’s rule and tight security measures taken to manage and govern the 1.4 billion people with major hotspots such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. But one cannot ignore the fact that China is becoming an attractive destination for tourists and students from across the globe. Increasingly more and more people will accept this narrative in the coming days. One has to leave the political prejudice first to embrace China and its people.
Before talking much about China, let’s dig down to learn a few things about Xi Jinping. Who is Xi Jinping? What he talks about and does means a lot for students of China studies today. Capturing the image of China through this lens might not be a perfect exercise; however, knowing Xi’s leadership style, background, ideological stand and worldview can throw more light on where China will go from here.
Xi Jinping is a very popular leader in China. There may be some local variations though. During my PhD field trip visit to Yunnan Province of China in 2014, my limited interactions with Chinese scholars left me with the impression that the Chinese people have found a great leader in Xi Jinping. He is highly venerated. His leadership style is informed by his formative years in the old revolutionary base in Shaanxi province. Anybody looking for something on Xi has to revisit his Shaanxi days. Truly, he has not forgotten his roots yet.
Before delving into his early days, a cursory look at his first election as the general secretary of the CPC Central Committee in 2012 will be a useful tip. Just 24 days after his election to the position, on December 8, 2012, Xi Jinping visited Lianhuashan (Lotus Flower Mountain) park in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, to pay homage to the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. It was his first recorded visit outside Beijing as the top leader of the CPC. Twenty years back, Deng Xiaoping, the champion of China’s reform and opening up began his campaign famously known as the “southern tour” in 1992 from there. Being a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) since December 2001, China has enjoyed the fruits of economic globalization to build China into a relatively modern society during this period. This marked the Chinese leadership’s acknowledgement of the successful reform and opening up and its achievements as a major economy.
On October 23, 2022, Xi Jinping was reelected to a third term as general secretary of the CPC Central Committee. It was a break from the CPC’s tradition of limiting it to two terms only. The South China Morning Post carried a report on October 27, 2022, about the visit of Xi leading his newly-elected CPC Politburo Standing Committee members to Yan’an, the old revolutionary base of the Party located in Shaanxi province. Yan’an is the centre of China’s revolutionary tradition and spirit. What does this visit signify? He had lived and worked in the Yan’an area for seven years. He has memories of the places where he spent his days as a youth.
The sites visited by the team also included a hall used for the 7th party congress of the Party in 1945 and a former cave house of Chairman Mao Zedong. The 1945 party congress was a significant milestone in the history of the Party and China. The 7th party congress included Mao Zedong Thought in the party’s constitution for the first time. The 20th party congress held in October 2022 was historic from the point of view of the inclusion of Xi’s governing philosophical thoughts in the party constitution.
Xi has strong connections with Liangjiahe village, located about 80 km from Yan’an. He spent seven years of hard labour in the region. One must read the book ‘Xi Jinping’s Seven Years of Educated Youth’ published by the Party School of the Central Committee of CPC Press in August 2017. Xi was 15 years old in 1969 when he joined the “Down to the Countryside Movement” and took roots in Liangjiahe village, Yanchuan county, in Shaanxi province, from 1969 to 1975.
Xi Jinping as an urban educated youth (zhiqing) spent years in a poverty-stricken village and shared the joy, pain and suffering of the villagers. While this book is part of the trend of setting Xi apart from others as a paramount leader of modern China in the 21st century, the influence of those formative years of Xi continues till today. Xi is a hardliner in the party who has taken vigorous efforts to eradicate abject poverty in rural and mountainous regions.
Simply speaking, Yan’an and other old revolutionary bases are sources of inspiration for the incumbent party leaders. The Yan’an spirit remains a driving force for Xi to pave the way for China’s greatness as envisioned in the Chinese Dream and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. On external affairs, the visit was significant in terms of facing the challenges from the west to China’s emergence as a major power and a hub of technological innovation.
Historically speaking, Mao Zedong’s rise as the paramount leader of the CPC was consolidated during the Yan’an Rectification Movement (Zhengfeng) from 1942 to 1945. The 20th Party Congress marked the consolidation of Xi Jinping’s position as the supremo of the CPC and leader of China in the 21st century. In other words, China is getting prepared to face the challenges as the west led by the United States poses both internal and external problems to China’s consolidation as a major power. Xi has to play a historic role in it.
Born in Fuping county, Shaanxi province, in June 1953, to a revolutionary party leader’s family, Xi Jinping is a princeling by birth. His mother Qi Xin joined the party in 1943 at the age of 17. His father Xi Zhongxun served as deputy Prime Minister of China and was a comrade-in-arms of Mao Zedong. However, Xi’s father was a victim of Mao’s political purge during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). As a result, Xi Jinping left the luxurious life of the cities and went to Shaanxi to live and struggle with the peasantry class. Xi’s journey from the status of a manual labourer working in the agricultural commune to becoming the President of the second largest economy of the world is a long journey with trials and tribulation.
He was elected president of China by the National People’s Congress on March 14, 2013. Before that, he was elected as vice president of China in March 2008. Earlier, he had served in various capacities in several provinces and cities. In a major achievement, ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ was enshrined into both the state and party constitution leaving no room for suspicion that Xi Jinping’s leadership is supreme in China. The 20th party congress was the culmination of all those achievements.
The popularity of Xi Jinping as the leader of China is balanced by his wife Peng Liyuan, a popular Chinese soprano and contemporary folk singer. Married to Peng Liyuan in 1987, Xi Mingze is the lone child of the couple. The Harvard-educated daughter of Xi Jinping made her first public appearance in February 2015 during the family’s visit to Liangjiahe village, Shaanxi province, for the Chinese Lunar New Year. Xi’s first wife is Ke Lingling, the daughter of Chinese diplomat Ke Hua. The two parted ways after their three-year marriage ended in 1982.
With a background in chemical engineering from Tsinghua University, Xi Jinping is driving China’s science and technology development. The ‘Made in China 2025’ plan is a true reflection of where China is going. Also, Xi has a long experience working in poor villages where poverty alleviation programmes are being implemented to lift people out of poverty. Sharing the fruits of China’s development across various regions and inclusion of all ethnic minorities in poverty alleviation demonstrates Xi’s ambition to see a poverty-free China. It is a continuation of his works at Lianjiahe village during the Cultural Revolution period.
On diplomatic and foreign policy fronts, Xi Jinping is a hardliner with a good strategic mind. Some of the major events during his last two tenures include the Doklam standoff, the Galwan clash, the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, and military drills around Taiwan following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in August 2022. Xi does not fall into the category of a reckless leader. The strategic partnership with Russia remains a major stabilizing factor in the international order. Despite the high tensions with the United States, Xi has always shown patience with Washington to wait for the right time for negotiation and compromise. Emboldened by the Yan’an spirit, Beijing is head-on into competition with the United States following the start of the trade and technology war under the Trump Administration. Xi is the Chinese leader born and trained to lead China towards building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects by 2050.
The writer is a former Research Associate/Associate Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi and Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), New Delhi. He is also an Imphal-based independent researcher and founder of Wakonpung, a community library and sustainable livelihood initiative.
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