The Creation Myth of Xi Jinping

What do we really know about China's new leader?

LIANGJIAHE, China — If every modern president needs a creation myth, then Xi Jinping's begins on the dusty loess plateau of northwest China. It was here that Xi spent seven formative years, working among the peasants and living in a lice-infested cave dug into the silty clay that extends around the Yellow River. Gradually, the selfless peasants and the unforgiving "Yellow Earth" -- a term for China's land that symbolizes relentless toil and noble sacrifice -- transformed this pale, skinny, and nervous-looking teenager into the man who in November will take control of the world's second-most powerful country.

"When I arrived at the Yellow Earth, at 15, I was anxious and confused," wrote Xi in 1998, by which time he was working his way to the top of the Communist Party hierarchy in the prosperous coastal province of Fujian. "When I left the Yellow Earth, at 22, my life goals were firm and I was filled with confidence."

When Xi describes himself as "always a son of the Yellow Earth," as he did in that rare biographical essay published in a book titled Old Pictures of Educated Youth, he was not only setting up his personal narrative as a leader who has toiled with the masses, in contrast with an increasingly corrupt governing elite. He was also alluding to the idealistic creation story of the Chinese Communist Party, in which his own father, former Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun, played a starring role in setting up the wartime bastion of Yanan, just down the road. Yanan, as the local museum puts it, "is the holy land of the Chinese revolution" and "birthplace of New China."

Xi Zhongxun during the Cultural Revolution

The Yellow Earth story matters, says Geremie Barme, director of the Australian National University's Centre on China in the World. "It is … the log cabin of American politics, and Xi Jinping can claim it." It's a narrative that affirms that he "suffered hardship" and "knows what it's like at China's grassroots," says Zhang Musheng, an intellectual whose father was a high official, explaining why Xi and others of his leadership cohort are more qualified than their predecessors to represent the Chinese people.

If all goes to plan, China's 1.3 billion people will be officially told on Nov. 15 that Vice President Xi Jinping has been named general secretary of the Communist Party, a position he'll likely hold for a decade, in the first and most important leg of a three-stage transition from President Hu Jintao. In March 2013, he will take the title of president, and depending on the outcome of apparently fraught backroom negotiations, he will also take control of the military at some point in the next three years.

Officials, analysts, and business people in and outside China are desperate to understand the incoming leader and what he might mean for a rising China. Awkwardly, in a once-in-40-year coincidence, China's quiet and managed leadership transition will be juxtaposed against the world's most heavily contested and scrutinized election, on Nov. 6. And while there has been an endless flood of news, commentary, and images about U.S. President Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, Xi's policy preferences, record in government, and even his family circumstances are closely guarded secrets.

Xi Zhongxun and his sons

Xi has managed to rise to where he is by not offending important people and by avoiding standing out. If he is responsible for any notable achievements, or egregious mistakes, they have already been submerged beneath the Communist Party's insistence on collective leadership. His crowning political achievement is to have risen with barely a trace. "Everything we say about Xi Jinping is prefaced with 'I guess' or 'He might be,'" says Dai Qing, a Beijing-based writer and activist, who shares a similar revolutionary pedigree to Xi -- her adoptive father was former Defense Minister Ye Jianying.

Xi has rarely allowed the outside world glimpses of how he governs. In the few examples known publicly, Xi has shown himself to be a capable politician, seeming to appeal to all key constituencies, even those whose interests and ideologies are irreconcilable with one other. He has played the anti-Western card and the Maoist card, yet while defending private enterprise and sending his daughter, Xi Mingze, to study under a false name at Harvard University.

But the opacity and contradictions do not stop people from forming judgments on whatever slivers of information they can glean. "He's spent his whole career pretending he could not threaten anybody," says an influential Chinese economist, who asked to remain anonymous. "We cannot, therefore, rule out the possibility that he is very smart."

Beyond China, diplomats, multinational chief executives, and world leaders are often (perhaps overly) impressed by Xi's presence, his willingness to set aside talking points and hold a genuine conversation, and even the way he likes to place his large frame in the middle of a spacious room and greet his guests with a deep and mellifluous "ni hao," or hello. The relief, after a decade struggling to connect with the robotic President Hu, is palpable.

But Xi's family history also tells us something about the man. He is far less guarded than Hu because he was born into the upper tier of the Communist Party aristocracy. He has the space to act, communicate, and relate to people with a confidence that comes from living a life in which power and resources naturally flowed his way. But he also suffered from, and was shaped by, the vicissitudes of power. Like many in the elite, Xi experienced both palace life and peasant toil. According to many of Xi's peers, his experience in Liangjiahe has given Xi an earthy pragmatism that distinguishes him from Hu, who was raised on Communist Party ideology and spent his working life inside the party machine.

* * *

Xi Jinping's father, Xi Zhongxun, joined the Communist Party in 1928 when he was 15, in prison, where he was being held for political crimes. He helped create and lead a revolutionary base around Yanan, where the exhausted remnants of Mao Zedong's Long March finally found refuge in 1935. Mao's forces soon returned the favor by saving Xi Zhongxun from literally being buried alive -- at age 22 -- in a factional dispute.

Xi Jinping (center) in front of a cave with his sister and brother

Experiences like these led Mao to promote Xi to be his youngest cabinet-level minister in the early 1950s. In 1952, Mao said Xi had been "tempered by fire," according to Communist Party historians who have access to internal archives. The four characters Mao used to describe the elder Xi -- luhuo chunqing -- alluded to the furnace of immortality that had forged the Monkey King, a mythical being who through great struggle acquires supernatural Taoist powers.

But months after Xi Jinping was born in 1953, Xi Zhongxun's career was thrown off course by the purge of his key patron, then Vice Chairman Gao Gang. Xi himself was purged in 1962. That's why Xi Jinping sometimes jokes that he could never actually be called a "princeling" -- the ubiquitous and disparaging term for children of senior Chinese leaders -- because his father was in political purgatory for most of the years he had known him, says a close family friend, whose father worked directly under Xi.

In some ways it was a stroke of luck that the purge of Xi's father excluded the son from taking part in the princeling-led "red terror" that rocked Beijing in the early months of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. The princelings' actions, including beating and imprisoning teachers, still rankle today. Xi was exiled to the peaceful village of Liangjiahe roughly 70 miles from Yanan, which he now calls his "second home."

Even today, Liangjiahe remains a tiny backwater. There are just roughly 90 households in this small hamlet, but bulldozers are refashioning the landscape. Earthmovers have been busily expanding the flat spaces to make room for more corn, sweet potato, and construction, and the valley walls have been freshly scraped and manicured to prevent erosion. A concrete access road has just been laid from the highway, and the spring-filled creek has been newly dammed and stocked with fish -- improving on a more modest dam that Xi himself helped build with hand tools four decades before. When Xi arrived, there was no electricity or mechanical tools, and the nearest motorized transport was a 30-hour walk away.

The older folk at Liangjiahe still remember the tall, slight lad whom they referred to as one of the "student babies" who arrived from Beijing as a 15 year-old in 1969, carrying little more than two bags of books. At first, he lacked the strength to work with the peasants. But he soon learned to eat the fibrous corn bread they lived on -- when it was available -- and came to hold his own in the fields. Nobody in the village seems to have a bad word to say about him.

"He had holes and patches in his pants like the rest of us,'' says an elderly woman who runs a small shop down at the bottom of the village road, who did not wish to be named. She fondly recalled Xi joining her group to sing revolutionary songs. "If there was no Communist Party, there would be no New China," she says, recalling a line of a song Xi used to sing. "He was tall and pretty handsome, and at that time he was really skinny -- not like now with his plump, round, and pale face on television."

Further up the valley, 81-year-old Lu Nengzhong recalls how the young Xi wasted little time in contributing to their subsistence existence. "His legs had power in them," he says, squatting in the courtyard that fronts the cave in which he lives. "He never used to quarrel with anyone."

Nearby, the facade of Xi's old home consists of a mud-brick wall inlaid with Chinese wooden window panels, which once supported fibrous homemade paper. At night, says Lu, Xi would retire to his cave and often read books under a kerosene lamp that still hangs there today, next to his old water bottle and satchel.

* * *

When Xi was allowed to leave the village for good in 1975, he headed for prestigious Tsinghua University, where he had been admitted on the basis of nominations from local cadres. In 1978, his father was rehabilitated and sent to run Guangdong province, one of China's most important regional positions and the site of its first special economic zone.

Xi's father's revitalized connections saw his son land a plum job in the secretariat of the Central Military Commission, introducing the son to a network of generals that he has cultivated to this day. In 1983, Xi Jinping opted out of the Beijing bureaucracy and began his rise through the provinces, beginning with a lowly county in the northern province of Hebei, a journey that will come to an end when Xi takes the top job in November.

Xi and the Communist Party publicly portray his Cultural Revolution experience as a romantic, voluntary ordeal, like the heroes in the Stalinist literature they had been devouring. But though it's now seen in soft focus, it had its devastating moments. Before Xi left for the countryside, Xi's father, like many high officials in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, had been paraded around town and at mass criticism sessions at Beijing's Workers' Stadium, with a heavy placard dangling from his neck. Seething crowds hurled insults in his direction.

Xi Zhongxun, despite his noble exterior, drank too much and would occasionally explode with anger. His children were sometimes on the receiving end, according to a close family friend who witnessed such occasions.

Xi Jinping and his father Xi Zhongxun

And when political watchers compile the Xi family tree, they usually list the four children by Xi Zhongxun's second wife and Xi Jinping's mother, Qi Xin, and sometimes the two children by Xi Zhongxun's first wife. Few mention Xi Zhongxun's first child, Xi Heping -- whose given name means "Peace" and who killed herself in the dying days of the Cultural Revolution. She left behind two children, who now live near Xian.

"The family doesn't want to talk about it, but yes, it was suicide, under great pressure during the Cultural Revolution because her father was under attack," says a source close to the family, who has chronicled the family's affairs. "There was no question it was suicide. I heard but have not confirmed that she hung herself from a bathroom shower rail." Unconfirmed Hong Kong reports say the news of her death prompted one of the only known occasions when Xi shed tears.

The 2003 book by Sinologists Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley, China's New Rulers, cites a report claiming Xi ran away from his farm in August 1969, only to be arrested by police in Beijing and returned a year later. In a 1992 interview with the Washington Post, Xi recalled how in 1968 he was locked up "three or four times" and was forced to attend daily struggle sessions, at which he often had to denounce his father: "'Even if you don't understand, you are forced to understand,' he said with a trace of bitterness. 'It makes you mature earlier.'"

By the time Xi left, he could rightfully claim that he had been battle-hardened for anything life could throw at him, just like his father. "Fat in January, thin in February; half-dead in March and April," wrote Xi in his 1998 biographical essay, recalling the seasonal rhythms of the time. "We say a sword is made on a grinding stone and man is forged in hardship."

* * *

Back in Liangjiahe, in the Yellow Earth, the testament to his hardship remains. "When it rained we gathered together and Xi told us stories," says Lu, gesturing to the cave where Xi would often sleep alongside Lu's son. The stories were mostly from classic novels including Journey to the West, in which the Monkey King is tempered in the furnace of the immortals. Xi also told stories from Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms -- and about political leaders in Beijing.

Xi returned only once here since leaving in 1975 -- a brief visit in 1993, accompanied by a sister and younger brother, and trailed by an entourage in suits. Lu says he hobbled down from the fields, with an injured leg, and Xi put his shoulder under his arm to help him along.

In the middle of our conversation, three village heavies entered Lu's courtyard. They chastised the old man for spreading "rumors" and creating a new "personality cult" around Xi, as they pushed us out of the old man's home and called the police.

They then returned to overseeing a team of bulldozers that were clearing space for what looked like it might become a hotel, or even a mini tourist display, alongside Xi's officially preserved cave, a dark hole in the Yellow Earth, barred to foreign visitors.

Feng Li/Getty Images


Swiss Cheese

The EU's "strong" sanctions on Iran are full of holes, but might they be enough to prevent the U.S. going to war?

BERLIN — It's been a big week for the EU. The union won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, Oct. 12, and if all 27 of its foreign ministers accept, it'll mark the first time its recipients won't fit on a dais. To cap it off, the Europeans finally united in their opposition to Iran's illicit nuclear activities, enacting a new round of sanctions for which Washington has long waited.

On Monday, Oct. 15, European diplomats passed a new round of economic sanctions on Iran that may bolster President Barack Obama's street cred on foreign policy as he heads into a dog-eat-dog battle for reelection -- and a key debate on international affairs with Mitt Romney early next week -- amid charges that his administration provided inadequate security for U.S. diplomats in Libya, where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in a terrorist attack last month.

Romney has been lambasting the administration for being weak on Iran. In October, he charged that Obama's Iran policy has endangered the United States and the world. Iran, Romney said, "has never posed a greater danger to our friends, our allies, and to us. And it has never acted less deterred by America, as was made clear last year when Iranian agents plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in our nation's capital."

So has the EU come to America's rescue? The move to outlaw Iranian gas imports and place new restrictions on its financial system, decided at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg, will certainly increase pressure on Tehran. And Iran's leaders are already feeling the pinch: Earlier this month, they watched helplessly as the rial plunged by 40 percent against the dollar, causing rioting in the streets.

Over the last two years, the White House has consistently lobbied the Europeans to put Iran in a vise -- part of Obama's signature multilateral foreign policy approach. While travelling with the president on the election campaign, White House spokesman Jim Carney promptly issued a response to the EU sanctions push: "Rallying the world to isolate Iran and increasing the pressure on its leadership so that they stop pursuing a nuclear weapon has been a top priority for the president."

Catherine Ashton, the EU's chief diplomat and lead negotiator with Iran, stressed that it is "very, very important that Iran is sent a very strong signal from this European Union foreign affairs council that we want to see a negotiated agreement."

But Ashton might be a bit optimistic about EU members' abilities to hold a tough line. European doves, including Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, continue to hold out hope for carrots over sticks toward Iran. "I think there are voices that sound like they want a war," Bildt said in connection with the new EU sanctions. "We don't want war."

Nonetheless, the EU's new sanctions package contains a ban on Iranian gas imports, new restrictions on Iran's Central Bank (CBI), and measures strengthening existing penalties on Iranian shipping. In addition, the EU's top diplomats froze the assets of 34 Iranian organizations -- including the National Iranian Oil Company and Iran's Ministry of Petroleum -- to prevent Tehran from raising funds it might divert to its nuclear program. It also singled out Iran's minister of energy, Majid Namjoo, for activities related to Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the sanctions will turn the screws on Iranian bank transactions: "The level of the threshold will depend on the sector, with humanitarian trade in food and medicines having a ceiling of 100,000 euros. But for many other items, any transaction over 10,000 euros with an Iranian bank will need preapproval."

However, the sanctions announced are still targeted, not broad-brush measures that could grind Iran's economy to a halt.

The new EU measures build on an earlier round of restrictions on the Iranian economy. On July 1, European oil sanctions went into effect, preventing the energy-starved Europeans from importing more Iranian crude oil. BBC Persian business reporter Amir Paivar neatly captured the effect of the sanctions: "the European Union implemented an oil embargo to slow down the ‘blood circulation' in the Iranian economy. The financial sanctions approved today target the ‘nerve system."'

Compounding Europe's potent economic measures, its primary satellite provider Eutelsat also kicked official Iranian media off its outlets. Eutelsat spokeswoman Vanessa O'Connor said Monday that the satellite service will not permit the broadcasting of Iran's state-run Press TV and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting's nine TV channels and 10 radio stations because of "reinforced EU council sanctions."

And last week, perhaps in anticipation of new shipping sanctions, the world's largest container company, the Danish conglomerate Maersk, pulled the plug on deliveries and pick-ups in Iranian ports.

The economic toll that U.S. and EU sanctions have taken on Iran is breathtaking. The number of ships docking at Iranian ports has shrunk by more than half in 2012. The International Energy Agency reported that Iran's September oil production plummeted to its lowest levels since the Iran-Iraq War. And the EU's new sanctions will inflict further pain on Iran's interconnected energy and maritime industries by preventing EU citizens or companies from "transporting or storing Iranian oil or petrochemical products."

To Obama's credit, his strategy of economic warfare is making Iran bleed. Targeted sanctions caused Iran's oil profits to shrink to $2.9 billion in July, from $9.8 billion a year earlier. And the collapse of the rial has only compounded Tehran's economic misery.

On Oct. 8, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed sanctions for disrupting Iran's economy, and blasted the Europeans as "foolish" for moving forward with them.

The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to trumpet these successes. It touted its record in a fact sheet on the White House website earlier this year, and with the new EU legislation, it takes another step forward. Nonetheless, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney still sees Obama's Iran strategy as his opponent's Achilles heel. "Iran today has never been closer to a nuclear weapons capability," Romney said in an October address at the Virginia Military Institute.

When it comes to imposing sanctions, the Europeans have always lagged behind Washington, and Romney could capitalize on their fears of war to make them sacrifice even more of their trade with Iran. The EU's ability to influence Iranian behavior cannot be overemphasized. The 27-member union conducts annual bilateral trade of over 25 billion euros with the Islamic Republic. That's a lot more than just rugs and pistachios.

European economic giants like Germany export vital engineering equipment to Iran, including civilian equipment that can be used for military purposes. The German engineering giant Herrenknecht AG has apparently delivered heavy tunneling equipment to Iran, which could be used to construct underground nuclear facilities.

But even these latest sanctions leave it to individual countries to craft their own definitions of "dual-use" technologies, meaning the Iranians might manage to get hold of more than President Obama and his closest allies might wish.

All of which explains Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming whirlwind tour of European capitals, on which observers expect him to push for even harsher sanctions on Iran. Upping the pressure on Europe has also been on the Americans' sanctions agenda for at least the past several months. In early September and early October, David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury's under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, visited the continent for a series of discussions on greater coordination with respect to Iran sanctions efforts.

Indeed, Europeans have traditionally shown skepticism about the morality and efficacy of sanctions. But there are changing moods on the this side of the Atlantic. One senior European official told the Christian Science Monitor that if sanctions brought about a new government in Iran, that would be "really the best result.... But for the moment, we are not seeing that."

The weakest link in the chain may be Switzerland, Washington's interlocutor in Tehran. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Swiss assumed the role of representing U.S. interests in Iran. But speaking for Washington's interests isn't the same as acting in concert. In a public rebuke during the last round of EU energy sanctions on Iran, in June 2012, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Donald S. Beyer said "We expressed our disappointment. We would like them to [follow the EU on Iran sanctions]."

The Swiss have refused to implement the EU's full sanctions on Iranian oil, or crack down on the Central Bank of Iran and other key Iranian financial institutions. As a non-member of the European Union, Switzerland is not required to adhere to the EU's Iran policies, but as early as 2010, the Swiss business newspaper Handelszeitung quoted Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger saying that the EU expected it would eventually adopt them. Two years later, the Swiss government has yet to come around.

The revelation in late September that the Swiss company Vitol had bought and sold millions of barrels of Iranian oil triggered concerns from the U.S. embassy in Bern. Since 2008, the U.S. has repeatedly rebuked the Swiss for their 18-billion euro energy deal with the National Iranian Gas Export Company. In sharp contrast to other major European energy companies, which have dissolved their oil and gas contracts with Iran, the Swiss-owned EGL still maintains a 25-year deal to import more than 5 billion cubic meters of Iranian gas every year. (EGL inked its contract with the National Iranian Export Company -- a subsidiary of the National Iranian Gas Company, which was placed on the United Kingdom's Proliferation Concerns List in February 2009.)

And like the Germans, Swiss companies are also reported to have delivered to the Iranians heavy earth-moving equipment, including technology suited for deep-tunnel building -- precisely the type of machinery used to construct underground facilities.

But tough as the new EU sanctions are, whether the package can actually affect Tehran's behavior is still open to question. Russia and China continue to trade with Iran, and remain spoilers at the U.N. Security Council, where they shield it from more dramatic international action. And the Obama administration hasn't succeeded in pushing the Europeans to issue blanket sanctions.

Meanwhile, the EU refuses to designate Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization, which would make it much harder for Iran's ruling elites to travel and raise money, isolating and perhaps forcing them to reconsider their recalcitrance. The IRGC is believed to control as much as 50 percent of Iran's economy.

Romney says that if he wins the presidency, he'll raise the pressure on Iran even further, making the Europeans nervous that he might attack Iran's nuclear installations, or look the other way if the Israelis do.

The Europeans know they won't have a free lunch from Obama, either, but they've nonetheless shown a willingness to help him. And Europe's new sanctions could take another bite out of Iran's economy, just in time for Obama to claim that they're working -- and that they're the last, best hope for peace.