BEIJING (AP) — When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, it was not clear what kind of leader he would be.
His low-key personality during a steady rise through the ranks of the long-ruling Communist Party gave no indication that he would become one of the modern Chinese most dominant leadersor that he would put the economically and militarily emerging country on a collision course with the US-led international order.
It is almost certain that Xi will receive a third five-year term as party leader at the end of a year big party congress starting Sunday — a break with an unofficial two-term limit that other recent leaders had followed. What is not clear is how long he will remain in power and what that means for China and the world.
“I see that Xi is usually having a good time at the 20th Congress. The question is how much more powerful he will come out of it,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies. “He doesn’t look weaker.”
He has already amassed and centralized power over the past 10 years in ways that far surpass his immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, even rivaling the two other dominant Communist Party leaders – Mao Zedong, who led the country until his death. in 1976, and Deng Xiaoping, who launched China in 1978 as it emerged from poverty to become the world’s second largest economy.
One of Xi’s signature policies was an anti-corruption campaign that was popular with the public and handily enabled him to sideline potential rivals. A former Minister of Justice and a former deputy minister of public security received suspended death sentences last month.
The ongoing anti-corruption campaign, Tsang said, shows that “anyone who stands in his way will be crushed”.
Xi, 69, had the right pedigree to climb to the top. He enjoyed a privileged childhood in Beijing as the son of Xi Zhongxun, a former deputy prime minister and guerrilla commander in the civil war who brought Mao’s communists to power in 1949.
However, his family faced the capriciousness of Mao’s rule during the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, which exiled intellectuals to the countryside and subjected many to public humiliation and brutal beatings in the name of class struggle.
His father was imprisoned and Xi, aged 15, was sent to a poor rural village in Shaanxi Province in 1969 as part of Mao’s campaign to educate educated urban youths to learn from farmers. He lived like villagers in a hut carved into the cliffs of the area.
The experience would have hardened Xi and given him insight into the struggles of the rural population. He stayed in the village for six years until he received a coveted scholarship to the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“Knives are sharpened on the stone. People are refined by hardship,” Xi told a Chinese magazine in 2001. “Whenever I ran into problems later on, I thought about how hard it had been to get things done back then, and nothing seemed difficult.”
After college, Xi began his climb up the bureaucratic ranks with a three-year stint at the Ministry of Defense. He then became party chief of a province south of Beijing before spending 17 years in Fujian province, where he started as vice mayor of Xiamen city in 1985 and rose to governor of the province in 2000.
A first marriage broke up after three years and in 1987 he married his current wife, Peng Liyuan, a well-known singer and officer in the song and dance troupe of the People’s Liberation Army. They have a daughter, Xi Mingze, who studied at Harvard University and plays no public role in Chinese politics.
Alfred Wu, who reported on Xi for Chinese state media in Fujian, remembers him as quiet and unobtrusive and said he was not as assertive as he has become as a national leader.
“Today, Xi Jinping is completely different from Xi Jinping as governor,” said Wu, now an associate professor of public policy at the National University of Singapore.
Xi was moved to neighboring Zhejiang province in 2002, where he was party leader for more than four years, the highest position above the governor. He then briefly became party secretary in nearby Shanghai in 2007, after his predecessor was caught up in a corruption scandal.
During his time in Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, Xi was seen primarily as a pragmatist who did not make bold proposals, but generally supported the economic reforms Deng had initiated and benefited from in certain coastal areas such as those three jurisdictions.
He also spoke out against corruption as governor in Fujian after a major smuggling scandal, perhaps a hint of the national crackdown that followed his rise to the top.
Xi was pushed into the national leadership in 2007. He then joined the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, a prelude to his nomination to the top position at the next Congress in 2012.
Xi has taken control economic and military affairs and had his name enshrined in the party constitution alongside Mao by adding a reference to his ideology – Xi Jinping thought.
The ideology is vague, but emphasizes the revival of the party’s mission as China’s political, economic, social and cultural leader and its pivotal role in achieving the goal of “national rejuvenation”, restoring the country to a leading position in the world.
His administration has increased the role of state industry while cracking down on monopolies and data security against high-flying private sector companies, including e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and Tencent Holding, the owner of the popular WeChat messaging service.
Xi has also revived a 1950s propaganda slogan “common prosperity” as a nod to a widening gap between rich and poor, though it’s unclear whether the government is planning major initiatives to address that.
With the economy sinking from the constraints of the pandemic era and a government crackdown on rising real estate debt, concerns are mounting that Xi is manipulating a shift from Deng’s “reform and opening” strategy that delivered four decades of growth.
Wu views Xi as a disciple of Mao who rebels against Deng, who allowed the private sector to prosper and seek positive relations with the West. “He’s really anti-US and anti-West,” Wu said.
Xi’s more confrontational approach stems from the belief that now is the time for a stronger China to play a greater role in international affairs and resist outside pressure.
Xi has thwarted Japan, India and other Asian neighbors by making claims to disputed islands in the South and East China Seas and to territory high in the Himalayas. He has also stepped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, the island democracy the Communist Party of China believes is.
Relations with the US have fallen to the lowest level since diplomatic ties were established in 1979, with the Biden administration maintaining tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump and President Donald Trump. Block Chinese access to important American technologies.
However, if anyone in the party leadership thinks Xi is leading the country in the wrong direction, it’s hard to decipher, given China’s opaque political system and control over the media.
“We have no idea whether people at the top think Xi Jinping is underperforming or not,” said Joseph Torigian, a Chinese political expert at American University in Washington.
Within China, the Communist Party under Xi has tightened surveillance, tightened already strict control over speech and media, and has continued to crack down on dissent, censoring even mildly critical views and imprisoning those it believes went too far.
Authorities have arrested an estimated one million or more members of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in China’s Xinjiang region in a crackdown on anti-extremism campaign that has been labeled genocide by the US. In Hong Kong, Xi’s government responded to mass protests with a tough national security law that has eliminated political opposition and changed the city’s once-generous nature.
Xi faces a challenge from his government’s tough “zero-COVID” policy, which has taken an economic and human toll. Small groups of residents staged protests during a two-month lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year.
In a rare political protest, someone put up banners of an elevated highway in Beijing this week calling for freedom, not lockdowns, and workers and student strikes to oust Xi. They were quickly removed, the police deployed and any mention of the incident was quickly wiped from the internet.
The government is sticking to the policy, which was previously seen as a success when COVID-19 ravaged other parts of the world. While there is a lingering discontent, especially as life returns to normal in other parts of the world, most people are afraid to speak out.
Associated Press journalists Dake Kang and Joe McDonald contributed to this story.
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