Xi Jinping's US Visit: China's Next Leader Takes Center Stage

By Wieland Wagner

Part 2: Long Years in the Cave

Photo Gallery: Xi Jinping Goes to Washington Photos
REUTERS

Lü receives visitors in a traditional cave dwelling in Liangjiahe, a village in the northern province of Shaanxi. The dwellings look like beehives dug into the sides of the region's grayish-yellow hills.

Lü hobbles across the courtyard and opens the door to another cave, which is now used as a storage room. "This is where Xi lived," he says. A red wooden table with a petroleum lamp is leaning against the wall. According to Lü, Xi used to read by the light of the lamp.

Like millions of other young Chinese, Xi had been sent into the countryside in 1969, during Mao's Cultural Revolution. One day the party might very well turn Lü's cave home into a museum dedicated to Xi -- as a reminder of the deprivations suffered by the current Beijing political celebrity during his youth in the midst of ordinary people.

It could also serve as a symbol of Xi's well-developed instincts for political survival. Even though his father was ostracized, Xi wrote his applications for acceptance into the Communist Party in Lü's cave. The party turned the son down nine times, until 1974, when Xi's persistence finally paid off. He was named the local party secretary before long.

Long Route to the Top

Xi later studied chemistry at Beijing's elite Tsinghua University, and he was soon developing valuable contacts within the military. His father, who had since been rehabilitated, found him a job as an assistant to a general in the People's Liberation Army. Here, once again, his political instincts served him well. He resigned before his new boss fell into disgrace with the leadership.

Instead, in 1982 he began a long, slow grind to the top by way of the provinces, which is still the most reliable route to the top of the political ladder in Beijing. At first, he served the party in the northern Chinese province of Hebei, where he made a name for himself as a pig-breeding expert. He and a delegation of farmers even visited the US state of Iowa, to which he will return this Wednesday for a photo op with his former hosts.

After Hebei, he moved to the coastal province of Fujian, where he formed close economic ties with nearby Taiwan, the democratic island republic ostracized by Beijing as a "renegade province."

In 2007, Xi temporarily served for seven months as party secretary in the commercial metropolis of Shanghai, where his predecessor had been brought down by a corruption scandal. In that position, Xi intensified his relationship with his mentor Jiang, the powerful godfather of the so-called Shanghai clique.

As a provincial official, Xi met Western businesspeople, including Henry Paulson, the then CEO of investment bank Goldman Sachs and later US treasury secretary. Paulson recently praised Xi as "clearly pragmatic" and a "strong leader."

A Taste for Hollywood

In truth, the Americans are having trouble sizing up the future leader of the Asian world power. Classified diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Beijing, which were leaked by WikiLeaks more than a year ago, reveal how horrifyingly sparse their information about Xi is.

In the cables, US diplomats described Xi as having "strong ambitions," but as a nice guy nonetheless. He apparently likes watching Hollywood films about World War II. The diplomats also rehashed some old gossip about Xi's first wife, who now lives in Britain. They "argued almost every day," one embassy cable reads, referring to Xi's failed marriage with the daughter of a diplomat. The reports also stated that Xi has an older sister living in Canada and a younger brother in Hong Kong.

Some of Xi's earlier public appearances offer better insights into his character and his possible future course. On a 2009 trip to Mexico, the red prince revealed his displeasure with the West. During the global financial crisis, Xi told a group of fellow Chinese, China had fed its enormous population and thus made "the greatest contribution to mankind." But "a few foreigners with full bellies," he added, had nothing better to do than to point fingers at the People's Republic.

The oppressed Tibetans cannot expect a relaxing of Beijing's rigid stance on Tibet from Xi. After numerous Buddhist monks had publicly set themselves on fire, Beijing had its security forces seal off areas where members of the Tibetan minority lived. Chinese police allegedly shot and killed a number of Tibetan protesters.

Speaking in the Tibetan capital Lhasa last summer, Xi said: "[We] should thoroughly fight against separatist activities by the Dalai clique by firmly relying on all ethnic groups... and completely smash any plot to destroy stability in Tibet and jeopardize national unity."

'Harmony and Stability'

And until his power is solidified, this will remain the central tenet of Beijing's policy on Tibet. At a New Year's reception in January, Xi told education officials that it was their duty to ensure that universities are ideologically oriented toward "harmony and stability."

What else could China's future strong man have said? As the first among equals, he will have to bargain over compromises in the politburo.

Even Lü, his boyhood friend from Shaanxi, doesn't believe that Xi will be able to meet with him in the future, as he has done in years gone by. "As president, Xi will no longer be a free man," says Lü.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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