CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Elite and Deft, Xi Aimed High Early in China
Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times
By IAN JOHNSON
Published: September 29, 2012
ZHENGDING County, China — Thirty years ago, a young government official with a plum job in Beijing made an odd request: reassignment to a poor rural area.
Changing of the Guard
Articles in this series are examining the implications for China and the rest of the world of the coming changes in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
Changing of the Guard: China Politics Stall Overhaul for Economy(September 27, 2012)
Xie Huanchi/Xinhua, via Associated Press
At the time, millions of young people were still clawing their way back to China’s urban centers after being exiled to the countryside in the Mao era. But 30-year-old Xi Jinpingbucked the trend, giving up a secure post as adviser to a top military leader to navigate the tumultuous village politics of Zhengding, in Hebei Province.
The move offers a window on the political savvy of Mr. Xi, who, despite a recent two-week absence from public view that raised questions about his health, is on the cusp of taking over as China’s supreme leader at a party congress that officials announced Friday would begin Nov. 8.
Mr. Xi (his full name is pronounced Shee Jin-ping) gained a measure of credibility to speak for rural Chinese compared with many other well-connected children of the elite. He also realized, according to several inside accounts, that his powerful family stood firmly behind him, ensuring that his stint in the countryside would be a productive and relatively brief exercise in résumé building that could propel him up the Communist Party hierarchy.
His powerful father, Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary-era military leader, helped orchestrate his transfer, selecting Zhengding because of its relative proximity to Beijing, and later having Mr. Xi reassigned when he ran into local opposition, Chinese experts who have researched Mr. Xi’s background said.
His connections allowed him to take chances in Zhengding. He pushed through market-oriented reforms when they were still considered cutting edge, and sidelined pro-Maoists. His stint in the countryside also helped him form new alliances with other offspring of the elite who would later prove important allies.
Even three decades into the country’s rapid industrialization, China’s leadership still pays heed to its heritage as a party of peasants, and it has tended to promote officials who can claim to be deeply rooted in the rural struggle. But it has also tended to favor “princelings,” the privileged offspring of former leaders who had ties to the party’s revolutionary history.
After his time in Zhengding, Mr. Xi could check both boxes.
“People think of him as being from the new generation of technocrats,” says Jin Zhong, a Hong Kong-based analyst of Chinese political leaders. “But he’s really a continuation of the red bureaucracy of his father’s generation.”
Mr. Xi’s trajectory was similar to that of Bo Xilai, another princeling who used stints in the provinces to create an image of a bold reformer and champion of the poor before his career was derailed by a major scandal this year. Mr. Xi’s stay in Zhengding, however, was characteristically more cautious, even as parts of it have entered modern Chinese political lore.
When Mr. Xi volunteered for rural duty in 1982, he did so along with two other up-and-coming officials, including Liu Yuan, son of the former head of state under Mao, Liu Shaoqi.
The men’s decision to work at the grass roots caught the popular imagination after the author Ke Yunlu wrote a 1986 novel, “New Star,” about a party secretary who takes modern, market ideas to a backward province. The official meets many troubles but manages to triumph.
The novel’s hero was a composite character based on Mr. Xi and the other two young officials. The book was soon made into a popular television series and is still widely known as a classic of that early reform era.
What Mr. Xi found in Zhengding was less romantic than the novel. He had hoped to be a party secretary with direct authority over a town or county but the conservative provincial party secretary, Gao Yang, blocked that. Disgusted by inexperienced but well-connected princelings like Mr. Xi parachuting into his domain, Mr. Gao made him deputy party secretary of Zhengding.
Still, Mr. Xi took on the assignment with gusto. He wore a green army greatcoat from his involuntary service in another rural area under Mao, roaming the town night and day to survey its problems. Wang Youhui, a local official, wrote in a published essay that he recalls seeing Mr. Xi for the first time and being taken aback by his plain style.
“I realized that this guy, who from his style of dress made him look like a lad from the canteen crew, was the new deputy party secretary,” Mr. Wang wrote.