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.
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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.
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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."
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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.