Murder, Sex and Corruption The Battle for China's Most Powerful Office


By Erich Follath and

Part 2: Xi Jinping's Rise in the Party

Shaanxi Province, northern China -- a cave dwelling dug into the hilly, greyish-yellow loess landscape.

Very few people in China are more familiar with future party leader Xi Jinping than his old friend Lü Housheng. He proudly shows us yellowed photos in which he is posing with Xi Jinping. "He was friendly and helpful, but he was also lonely," says Lü. The boy from Beijing, he says, would stay up all night reading Marx and Mao by candlelight. "There wasn't anything else to read at the time," Lü points out.

The dwelling where Xi lived back then is a modest, three-by-four-meter (130-square-foot) room, which is now used for storage. At the time, Xi, the son of a high-ranking party member, witnessed, within his own family, how quickly and deeply one could fall in the Mao dictatorship. When Xi was nine, the Great Chairman demoted his father, who had been head of the Communist Party's propaganda division in the 1950s, because of his alleged lack of loyalty. He was 15 when his father was sent to the prison, during the Cultural Revolution.

The party banished son Xi Jinping to the countryside, where he had to work long hours in the fields. Looking back on this period of unusually strenuous physical labor, Xi said: "It was a time of experiments, instructive for me, but generally a failure for the nation." The fact that his parents were strict in better times probably helped him to endure the hardships. At home, he was forced to wear hand-me-downs from his sisters, and he even painted their pink shoes black to avoid embarrassment.

The rural drudgery continued for six years. He wanted to get out and have a career, and in return he was willing to compromise with his family's tormentors. He submitted one application after the next to be accepted into the party, and the 10th application was finally approved. At 22, the ambitious young Xi was allowed to return to Beijing, where he was enrolled in the city's renowned Tsinghua University. He studied chemistry, law and Marxism, a strange mix of subjects. His degree helped him obtain a job with the military commission. Armed with connections in the Communist Party and the army, Xi was able to plan for the future. He was competent, prudent and didn't rub anyone the wrong way.

Even after leaving Shaanxi Province, Xi stayed in touch with his friend. "He's a loyal man," says Lü, leveling the rickety table at which the two friends used to sit. "He still asks about me regularly. He is someone who doesn't give up."

Beijing, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital where high-ranking functionaries live.

People in their fifties say reverently that anyone who goes to school here is learning "at Mao's court." Bo Xilai, son of the legendary Communist Party revolutionary and Finance Minister Bo Yibo, is part of this elite, the sort of people who go swimming in a pool reserved for the families of party officials, and who have access to food items that are scarce in China like chocolate and duck meat. Whether the young man met his later rival, Xi Jinping, during those days is unknown.

Bo had a different personality. Instead of being levelheaded like Xi, Bo was an adventurer. When the Cultural Revolution began, he was 17 and enthusiastically joined the Red Guard, which, with the blessing of the Great Chairman, was permitted to destroy the schools and berate figures of authority. The excited young man even reportedly denounced his father during a rally.

His mother, who died, was likely murdered by the Red Guard, and his father was thrown into prison and tortured. Bo's activities didn't do him any good, and he was forced to atone for his family's "revisionism." He languished in prison and in a labor camp for five years, and then went to work in a factory.

The tide turned and his family was rehabilitated when Bo was 29. His father rose to the position of deputy premier and forgave his son, making him his protégé. Bo was permitted to attend university. Unlike so many other top young officials, he didn't choose to study engineering or Marxism, but history and journalism.

He received an intimate look inside the inner sanctum at an early age. His first job took him behind the walls of Zhongnanhai, where he worked in the office of the Central Committee. Zhongnanhai would become both the object of his dreams and the focus of all of his risky machinations.

Xiamen, a rich and mysterious port city in Fujian Province, founded during the Ming Dynasty and humiliated by the British in the Opium War.

The sound of piano-playing drifts from colonial villas (the best pianists traditionally teach in Xiamen), while ships' sirens boom from the busy port. Money and smuggling have always been at home in Xiamen. Xi Jinping was the city's deputy mayor for 32 years -- a promising job.

He skillfully maneuvered through all potential pitfalls, demanding respect for the Communist Party but avoiding confrontation with the business world. He didn't dare tackle cronyism and promote necessary reforms, such as making the courts more independent. His rehabilitated father was more progressive. As the governor of Guangdong Province, he expedited the economic reform process in the early 1980s more decisively than his son did in Xiamen.

At a relatively early age, Xi was able to gain an impression of the United States. He went there for the first time in 1985, as a member of a delegation, and was invited to stay with a farming family in Iowa. He seems to have enjoyed his time there and was enthusiastic about how friendly the Americans were. When he returned to the United States in 2012, he made a point of visiting his host family once again, a gesture that helped him score points in the West. However, his statements, both then and today, do not suggest that he was particularly impressed by the democratic system.

A Test of Virtue

Xi eventually became governor of Zhejiang Province in eastern China. There he also attracted attention through his efforts not to attract too much attention. Although he often wrote about "innovation" in his column in the local party newspaper, aside from his general interest in private enterprise, which he wanted to involve in major government projects, contemporary witnesses say that his biggest concern was corruption among officials. "For small advantages like being taken out to eat, they forget their principles," Xi wrote. "And during the subsequent singing and dancing, they lose their propriety."

The party, as if to put him to an especially rigorous test one more time prior to a final ascent to its Mount Olympus, sent him to Shanghai in 2007. The city of sin had just lived up to its dubious reputation, when a scandal brought down the local party leader.

The cautious Xi sensed that there were traps everywhere. When he was offered an official residence in the former French quarter, he turned it down and moved into a modest apartment instead. When he was offered a special train for an official trip to a neighboring province, he chose to travel in a minivan instead. During his seven-month tenure as party chief in China's commercial capital, Xi lived up to his clean reputation, not showing any weaknesses, but also not embarking on any political reforms. He was a sound administrator, someone who was not to be led into temptation. Only one thing about Xi Jinping is glamorous and colorful: his second wife Peng Liyuan, 49, a soprano with a national career performing patriotic songs like "My Brother Soldiers."

As a member of the dance ensemble of the People's Liberation Army, she is also politically useful to her husband. She holds a civilian rank comparable to that of a major general, and she is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The couple sent their daughter Mingze, an only child, to Harvard, where, unlike the son of Bo Xilai, she is enrolled under a pseudonym and keeps a low profile.

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