When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, it wasn’t clear what kind of leader he would be.
His low-key persona during a steady rise through the ranks of the long-ruling Communist Party gave no hint that he would evolve into one of modern China’s most dominant leaders, or that he would put the economically and militarily ascendant country on a collision course with the US-led international order.
Xi is all but certain to be given a third five-year term as party leader at the end of a major party congress
“I see Xi having his way at the 20th congress, mostly. It is a question of how much more powerful he will be coming out of it,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies. “He is not coming out looking weaker.” He has already amassed and centralized power over the past 10 years in ways that far surpass his immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, and even rival the Communist Party’s two other dominating leaders — Mao Zedong, who led the country until his death in 1976, and Deng Xiaoping, who launched China in 1978 on its rise from poverty to become the world’s second largest economy.
One of Xi’s signature policies has been an anti-corruption campaign that has been popular with the public and conveniently enabled him to sideline potential rivals. A former justice minister and a former deputy public security minister received suspended death sentences last month.
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The continuing anti-corruption campaign, Tsang said, shows that “anyone who stands in his way will be crushed”.
Xi, 69, had the right pedigree to climb to the top. He enjoyed a privileged early youth in Beijing as the son of Xi Zhongxun, a former vice premier and guerrilla commander in the civil war that brought Mao’s communists to power in 1949.
His family, though, fell afoul of the capriciousness of Mao’s rule during the anarchy of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which banished intellectuals to the countryside and subjected many to public humiliation and brutal beatings in the name of class struggle.
His father was jailed and Xi, at the age of 15, was sent to live in a poor rural village in Shaanxi province in 1969 as part of Mao’s campaign to have educated urban young people learn from peasants. He lived as villagers did in a hut carved into the area’s cliffs.
The experience is said to have toughened Xi and given him an understanding of the struggles of the rural population. He stayed in the village for six years, until receiving a coveted scholarship to prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“Knives are sharpened on the stone. People are refined through hardship,” Xi told a Chinese magazine in 2001. “Whenever I later encountered trouble, I’d just think of how hard it had been to get things done back then and nothing would then seem difficult.” After university, Xi began his climb up the bureaucratic ranks with a three-year stint in the Defense Ministry. He then was made party chief of a county south of Beijing before spending 17 years in Fujian province, starting as vice mayor of the city of Xiamen in 1985 and rising through a series of posts to governor of the province in 2000.
A first marriage fell apart after three years, and in 1987 he married his current wife, Peng Liyuan, a well-known singer and an officer in the People’s Liberation Army’s song and dance troupe. They have one daughter, Xi Mingze, who studied at Harvard University and has no public role in Chinese politics.
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Alfred Wu, who covered Xi for Chinese state media in Fujian, remembers him as quiet and low-profile, saying he wasn’t as assertive as he has become as national leader.
“Nowadays, Xi Jinping is totally different from Xi Jinping as a governor,” said Wu, now an associate professor of public policy at the National University of Singapore.
Xi was moved to neighbouring Zhejiang province in 2002, where he was party leader for more than four years, the top position outranking the governor. He then briefly was made party secretary in nearby Shanghai in 2007, after his predecessor fell in a corruption scandal.
Over his time in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai, Xi was seen mainly as a pragmatist who didn’t originate bold proposals but generally backed the economic reforms that Deng had initiated and benefited in particular coastal areas such as those three jurisdictions.
He also spoke out against corruption as governor in Fujian after a major smuggling scandal, a hint perhaps of the national crackdown that came after his rise to the top.
Xi was thrust into the national leadership in 2007. That’s when he joined the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, a prelude to being named to the top position at the next congress in 2012.
Xi has taken control of economic and military matters and had his name enshrined in the party constitution alongside Mao by adding a reference to his ideology — Xi Jinping Thought.
The ideology is vague but emphasizes reviving the party’s mission as China’s political, economic, social and cultural leader and its central role in achieving the goal of “national rejuvenation,” the restoration of the country to a position of prominence in the world.
His government has increased the role of state industry while launching anti-monopoly and data security crackdowns on high-flying private sector firms including e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and Tencent Holding, the owner of the popular WeChat messaging service.
Xi has also revived a 1950’s propaganda slogan “common prosperity” in a nod to a burgeoning gap between the rich and the poor, though it’s unclear if the government plans any major initiatives to address that.
With the economy sagging from pandemic-era restrictions and a government crackdown on spiralling real estate debt, concern is rising that Xi is engineering a shift away from Deng’s strategy of “reform and opening up” that delivered four decades of growth.
Wu views Xi as a disciple of Mao rebelling against Deng, who allowed the private sector to flourish and sought positive relations with the West. “He’s really anti-US and anti-West,” Wu said.
Xi’s more confrontational approach stems from a belief that now is the time for a stronger China to play a larger role in international affairs and stand up to outside pressure.
Xi has antagonised Japan, India and other Asian neighbours by pressing claims to disputed islands in the South and East China Seas, and territory high up in the Himalayas. He has also ramped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, the island democracy that the Communist Party says belongs to China.
Relations with the US have tumbled to their lowest level since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979, with the Biden administration maintaining tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump and blocking Chinese access to important American technologies.
If anyone in the party leadership thinks that Xi is leading the country in the wrong direction, though, it’s hard to decipher, given China’s opaque political system and control of the media.
“We have no idea whether people at the very top think Xi Jinping is performing poorly or not,” said Joseph Torigian, a Chinese politics expert at American University in Washington.
Within China, the Communist Party under Xi has increased surveillance, tightened already strict control over speech and media and cracked down further on dissent, censoring even mildly critical views and jailing those it believes went too far.
Authorities have detained an estimated million or more members of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in China’s Xinjiang region in a harsh anti-extremism campaign that has been labelled genocide by the US. In Hong Kong, Xi’s government responded to massive protests with a tough national security law that has eliminated political opposition and altered the once-freewheeling nature of the city.
Xi is facing a challenge to his government’s harsh “zero-COVID” policies, which have taken an economic and human toll. Small groups of residents staged protests during a two-month lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year.
In a rare political protest, someone hung banners from an elevated highway in Beijing this week calling for freedom, not lockdowns, and worker and student strikes to force Xi out. They were quickly removed, police deployed and any mention of the incident speedily wiped from the internet.
The government has stuck with the policy, which earlier was seen as a success as COVID-19 ravaged other parts of the world. Although there is simmering dissatisfaction, particularly as life returns to normal in other parts of the world, most people don’t dare to speak out.