A Pragmatic Princeling Next In Line To Lead China

Feb 14, 2012
Originally published on February 14, 2012 9:11 pm

Second of three parts

In northwestern China's Shaanxi province, a neatly manicured and landscaped memorial park the size of six soccer fields is one sign of the revolutionary lineage of Xi Jinping, the man set to become China's next leader.

Known as a Communist Party princeling, Xi is the 58-year-old son of Xi Zhongxun, a deputy prime minister and revolutionary hero who died in 2002.

The elder Xi was born in Fuping county in Shaanxi, more than 600 miles southwest of Beijing, and is considered a hometown hero.

On a recent day at the memorial park, a man who gives his name as Li says Xi Zhongxu "liberated the poor masses, and allowed us to live a good life." The man is referring to Xi's role as the architect of Deng Xiaoping's special economic zones, which played an important role in China's process of reform and opening up.

But in the memorial hall devoted to Xi, decades of his life are undocumented. That's because he fell out of favor in 1962, accused of disloyalty to the party. He spent many of the intervening 16 years in jail, some of it in solitary confinement, until he was rehabilitated in 1978.

His son, Xi Jinping, also suffered: He was labeled a "reactionary student" when he was just 14 years old, according to the state-run Shaanxi Farmers' Daily newspaper.

Despite that, the younger Xi — China's current vice president — spent much of that time trying to join the very Communist Party that was persecuting his father, applying as many as 10 times before his application was accepted in 1974, according to the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, citing an article said to be written by Xi himself.

"At that time, if you want to have a career, you do need to have that ticket," says Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explaining how joining the Communist Party was the only chance of social mobility in the political context of that era.

An Understanding Of Rural Life

From age 15, Xi Jinping was sent to live in the countryside, spending seven years in a remote Shaanxi village, first as an ordinary farmer, then as a low-level official.

"He told Chinese official media many times that was his formative experience. He learned a lot of things: humanity, humility, adaptability and endurance," Li says. "Certainly it also gave him a chance to understand rural China."

Xi's relatives still live at the ancestral home where his father grew up in Zhonghe village. His 81-year-old uncle, Xi Zhongfa, uses the one-story earthen hut with dirt floors as storage space. Eighteen years younger than Xi Zhongxun, the old man simply says of his older brother, "He was good to me."

Life is still hard in the village. These elderly relatives still don't have hot water inside their house, and depend on an outside faucet for cold water. They say they don't enjoy any perks, and the only sign of their famous relative is a small, broken plastic sign on the wall of the ancestral home, attesting to the fact that Xi Zhongxun lived there.

Xi Jinping has been back to the village at least twice to visit, and many neighbors appear to have been impressed as much by his generous girth as the low-key manner of his visit.

According to Xi's aunt, Ding Fengqin, he gave the relatives a coded warning against corrupt or unseemly behavior.

"He called for family unity among the cousins. He told them to act according to national rules, and not to cause trouble," she says.

Business-Friendly, Open-Minded

For much of his life, Xi's fame has been overshadowed by his second wife, Peng Liyuan, who is a major-general in the army and a very popular singer. For Xi's part, on graduating from Tsinghua University in Beijing, his first job was as secretary to Geng Biao, a powerful military bureaucrat and then defense minister.

After that, most of Xi's career has been far from the center, in the rich, eastern coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang and the city of Shanghai. He is seen as being business-friendly and having a no-nonsense attitude unusual among Chinese officials. Li Shih-wei, chairman of Ten Fu tea company and head of a Taiwanese investment association, describes their meetings in the 1990s.

"When he held meetings with us Taiwanese businessmen, he made sure the heads of the relevant government departments were present," Li recalls. "If we raised a problem, he'd ensure it was resolved then and there. He works very efficiently and in a very straightforward way."

Wang Jing, a businesswoman and chief executive of the Newland computer group, is another old friend. In 1993, she considered leaving Fuzhou, the provincial capital of Fujian, because of the bureaucratic difficulties in starting a business there. At the time, Xi was party secretary in Fuzhou, and Wang changed her mind after getting his help.

"He put much effort into supporting high-tech businesses," she says, describing him as being consistently ahead of the curve in his concerns. "Now the government is concerned about food safety. But back then, in Fujian, they were already looking at it. Another interest was building an ecological, environmentally friendly city."

Despite Xi's redder-than-red princeling background, friends say he's surprisingly open-minded. Jason Hsuan, the Taiwanese chairman of TPV, which bills itself as the world's leading computer-monitor maker, has known Xi for 22 years.

Hsuan describes Xi's voracious appetite for knowledge, saying the mainland Chinese politician has read widely about Taiwan's economic development and its democratization. He says Xi met a wide circle of Taiwanese in Fujian, including members of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which favors formal independence from Beijing.

In 1994, while on an official trip to Germany, Hsuan accompanied Xi on a stopover in Amsterdam. Hsuan says Holland's liberal policies toward drugs and prostitution fascinated Xi.

"I remember he asked so many questions, and I thought, 'Wow, he doesn't look like a communist,' " Hsuan says. "He was amazed at why the Dutch government has opened up this, but have pretty good control. He may not think it's a good idea to have this kind of thing in China, but he likes to learn."

Building Political Capital At Home

Hsuan says Xi has always shunned ostentation, preferring to eat simple food like dumplings or noodles with minced pork. The pair used to play tennis together, but normally played at what Hsuan says was "a very average" court at a local school, rather than the more rarefied surroundings inside the government guesthouse.

Xi has twice been sent in to clean up after major corruption scandals. Sources say his daughter, who studies at Harvard under an assumed name, leads a low-key existence, unlike some of the flashier offspring of princelings, who have made headlines with their champagne-swilling, high-society lifestyles.

Friends describe Xi as genial and loyal, willing to travel out of the way to catch up with old companions. According to Hsuan, Xi has a "very strong" sense of humor.

As an example, he describes an incident in 1992, when the pair tried to visit Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, during a tropical storm. Unwittingly they strayed onto the grounds of a military base, and were stopped by guards and asked to leave. On leaving, Hsuan says Xi joked, "Well, Jason, we have successfully occupied Pearl Harbor without any sacrifice of soldiers."

But that humor has not been on public display. Xi Jinping's most well-known public statement, and one indication of a more acerbic side to his personality, emerged on a tour of Mexico three years ago. Then, he criticized what he called "some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do than engage in finger-pointing."

"First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?" Xi said.

Nationalists at home went wild; others feared the comment was not statesmanlike.

Now, the stakes are higher. Faced with a political transition complicated by factional infighting, Xi needs a successful U.S. trip to burnish his credentials overseas and build political capital at home.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The man expected to be China's next leader is generating a lot of curiosity. To learn more about him, NPR's Louisa Lim has been talking with his family and friends, starting in China's northwest.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: I'm in a small town called Fuping in Shaanxi Province, and I'm standing in a landscaped, manicured memorial park. And this really shows Xi Jinping's revolutionary lineage, his status as what they call here a princeling, because it's dedicated to his father, Xi Zhongxun. He was a Communist revolutionary, a deputy prime minister, and he's seen here as a hometown hero.

LI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: He liberated the poor masses and allowed us to live a good life, says a man who gives his name as Mr. Li. In the memorial hall devoted to Xi Zhongxun, decades of his life are left uncovered. That's because he fell out of favor in 1962, accused of disloyalty to the party. He wasn't rehabilitated for 16 years, but his son, Xi Jinping, spent much of that time trying to join the very party that was persecuting his father.

CHENG LI: At that time, if you wanted to have a career, you do need to have that ticket. It's the only way.

LIM: Cheng Li from the Brookings Institution. He describes how Xi Jinping spent seven years in a remote Shaanxi village as a farmer and low-level official.

CHENG LI: He told the Chinese official media many times that was his formative experience. He learned a lot of things: humanity, humility, adaptability and endurance.

XI ZHONGFA: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Xi still has family in rural Shaanxi, including his 81-year-old uncle, Xi Zhongfa, who still lives next to the family home, a one-story earthen hut that's become something of a pilgrimage spot. Xi's been back at least twice. Life's still hard here. These relatives say they don't enjoy any perks

DING FENGQIN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: In fact, his aunt Ding Fengqin describes how on one visit Xi Jinping warned them to behave, making sure to respect national rules and not cause trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PENG LIYUAN: (Singing in Chinese)

LIM: This is Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan. She's a major-general in the army and a very popular star whose fame for many years outshone her husband's. Most of his career has been far from the center, in the rich, coastal cities of Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai. He's seen as being business-friendly and having a no-nonsense attitude, unusual among Chinese officials. Li Shih-wei, chairman of Ten Fu Tea Company, describes their meetings in the '90s.

LI SHIH-WEI: (Through translator) When he held meetings with us Taiwanese businessmen, he made sure the heads of the relevant government departments were present. If we raised a problem, he'd ensure it was resolved then and there.

LIM: Despite Xi's redder-than-red princeling background, friends say he's surprisingly open-minded. Jason Hsuan is the Taiwanese chairman of TPV, the biggest computer-monitor maker in the world. He's known Xi for 22 years. In 1994, Hsuan accompanied Xi on a stopover in Amsterdam. He says Xi was fascinated by Holland's liberal policies toward drugs and prostitution.

JASON HSUAN: I remember that he asked so many questions. I thought, wow, he doesn't look like a communist. He was amazed at why the Dutch government has kind of opened up this, but they have pretty good control of that. He may not think of this as a good idea right now to have that kind of thing in China, but he likes to learn.

LIM: Jason Hsuan mentioned Xi's sense of humor. He tells the story of how, in 1992, they tried to visit Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, but unwittingly strayed onto the military base. He describes how guards asked them to leave.

HSUAN: You are coming to a area that are prohibited for the visitors. But we have take a very quick glance of that. And then later he said, well, Jason, we successfully occupied Pearl Harbor without any sacrifice of any of the soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LIM: That humor has not been on public display.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

VICE PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: An acerbic side to Xi came out in Mexico three years ago. Then, he criticized what he called foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do than point fingers at China. China, he said, does not export revolution, famine or poverty. Nationalists at home loved it. Others feared it was not statesmanlike. Now the stakes are higher. Xi needs a successful U.S. trip to burnish his statesman credentials and build political capital at home. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, in the last part of her series, Louisa reports on the man likely to become China's next prime minister. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.