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.