RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif.—This weekend's meeting between President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, at the Sunnylands estate outside Palm Springs, Calif., stems from what White House and Chinese officials have described as the presidents' mutual desire to develop a personal relationship.
If they feel like dealing with their own histories, they might find they have plenty to talk about.
As boys, both spent their childhoods without a father present. Obama’s parents separated almost immediately after he was born, and he met his father just once, when he was 10. In 1963, When Xi was 10, his father, then an opposition government figure, was "purged" and sent to a factory far from their home in Beijing, according to "China's Management Revolution" by Charles-Edouard Bouée, though Xi saw him occasionally after that.
Both fathers dedicated their lives to government work, Obama Sr. as an economic development technocrat and Xi Zhongxun as a leading member of the Community Party, one who helped usher in China’s political and economic revolutions.
Obama Sr., while he never attained the inner-party status of the elder Xi, was a dedicated civil servant. Bouée also writes that after Kenya won independence from British colonialism in 1963, he returned to the country from his American and European economics studies and became an influential economic and planning figure.
At his professional peak, Obama Sr. was the acting No. 2 at the Industry, Commerce, Tourism and Infrastructure Section in the Kenyan government, where he oversaw road construction, building, postal office plans, telecommunication development, harbors and airways. This promotion was redemption after Obama’s reportedly heavy drinking and arrogance fueled his dismissal from another economic and tourism job.
Like Obama Sr., Xi Zhongxun had an ability to restore and rise above professional setbacks. After he was "purged" again for allegedly supporting a controversial Chinese biography, he was fully "rehabilitated" by 1978 when he realigned himself with the economically liberal Communists who would vote to open the Chinese economy to the world.
It’s that second act in the early '80s that puts him in a more unique sect of Chinese revolutionaries, said Clayton Dube, the executive director of the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California.
“In some ways, he has a much longer tutelage than his predecessors,” Dube said. “When the party leaders said, 'This is the fellow we are going to groom for the top job,' they had seen something in him.”
Of course there are some major differences between Obama and his father, and Xi and his. Xi Zhongzun's party status is why many Western observers have considered Xi a “princeling,” a presidential moniker that is virtually unmentioned in Chinese media, Dube said.
Obama Sr.’s role never helped grease opportunity for his American son, according to the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer David Maraniss.
"[Obama the son] knew nothing about ... his father, or about the nature of his life’s struggle since he had returned to Nairobi—his drinking, his womanizing, his abusive temper, his serious car crashes, his job dismissals,” Maraniss wrote in "Barack Obama: The Story." “Barry could not know that perhaps the luckiest thing that happened to him in his young life was that his father had left, sparing his mother and him years of unpredictability and potential domestic violence.”
While the two presidents may not acknowledge their fathers’ legacies in meetings, they could bond over another fundamental similarity: their daughters. Sasha and Malia Obama are a few years younger than the 20-year-old Xi Mingze.
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Click image to see more photos. (Ned Redway)