Xi Jinping’s path to power: From outcast to ‘emperor’

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Xi Jinping’s ascension to a third term as China’s paramount leader at this week’s 20th Party Congress seems almost certain.

And yet it has been anything but pre-ordained.

Xi has harnessed a masterful combination of strategic planning and an uncanny aptitude to lead allies and enemies alike to underestimate his ambition to pave a path to becoming the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

Even when the Chinese Communist Party leadership chose Xi as leader in 2012, they believed he could be easily controlled, said Andrew J. Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University and an authority who focuses on Chinese politics and foreign policy.

“They saw him as a sort of malleable, loyal guy who would treat them as elders in the right way and not rock the boat,” Nathan said. “He has surprised us with his fierce control-freak mentality of taking over everything and purging a lot of people and consolidating power.”

Xi revealed his more authoritarian side quickly after taking power. In a speech in December 2012, he dismissed democracy as dangerous and argued that China needed to do whatever it takes to avoid a fate like the downfall of the Soviet Union after the end of its one-party communist system in 1989.

“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse?” Xi asked. “Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”

Now Xi is on the cusp of another decade as what David Shambaugh, an expert on Chinese elite politics, calls a “modern emperor.” The Party Congress, which starts Sunday and will continue over the course of the week, is a largely scripted event expected to result in a resounding endorsement of Xi’s ongoing rule.

The emperor’s plans include remaking the global order in a way that serves China — and its authoritarian system.

“The Chinese people will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us,” Xi said last year in a speech implicitly aimed at the U.S. "Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Xi has been able to act boldly thanks to personal relations with senior military officials and by dedicating massive resources to build high-tech weaponry that increasingly rivals that of the U.S. And in his first term as paramount leader, he was able to crush rivals without alienating a critical mass of powerful senior CCP officials and their families through a highly selective choice of targets.

Foreign diplomats who have observed Xi in person credit a retail political savvy as key to his success. “He's got the full suite of political skills — he knows how to play a room, he knows how to play on people's emotions,” said Kerry Brown, former first secretary at the British embassy in Beijing, now director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. “That combination is more than adequate to explain exactly why he is where he is.”

That skill set reflects Xi’s childhood spent in the heart of Chinese Communist Party elite politics as the son of former vice premier Xi Zhongxun. Mao Zedong’s move to purge the elder Xi in 1962 inflicted 16 years of torment on the family that taught Xi Jinping invaluable lessons in navigating the piranha pool of CCP power politics.

Xi “really knows the politics so well partly because he grew up in [the CCP leadership compound] Zhongnanhai until he was 13,” said Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. “He has a great sense of timing, and when to move and when to not move.”

For example, Xi’s launch in 2013 of the Belt and Road Initiative — through which China has poured billions into highways, power plants and high speed rail across the developing world — has delivered Beijing diplomatic wins. Twenty of the 29 countries that voted against or abstained from a U.S.-backed resolution to debate the human rights situation in Xinjiang last week were beneficiaries of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Xi began climbing the rungs of the CCP power structure in the late 1970s, following a seven-year stint as one of the millions of urban youth that Mao “sent down” to the countryside as part of a mass revolutionary “re-education” project. Between 1979 and 2007 he served in positions ranging from office secretary of the General Office of the State Council, acting governor of Fujian and Zhejiang provinces and secretary of the CCP’s Shanghai Municipal Committee.

Xi’s tenure in those positions was undistinguished. Rather than undertaking any significant initiatives, Xi’s record suggests he laid low and focused on avoiding both scandal and offending any potential CCP power brokers.

“He always kind of played the background, gave credit to the people around him and never really took credit for himself,” said Dimitar Gueorguiev, associate professor of political science at Syracuse University.

That approach caught the eye of former President Jiang Zemin and former vice president Zeng Qinghong. Jiang and Zeng saw Xi as a successor to President Hu Jintao who would serve the interests of the CCP’s old guard while tackling systemic issues including rampant corruption. That paved the way for Xi to ascend to the powerful roles of CCP Central Committee general secretary, chairman of the Central Military Commission as well as the more ceremonial role of president.

Xi started with the expected anti-corruption crusade, jailing high profile potential challengers on corruption charges that same year. Xi then replaced imprisoned or retiring senior party officials with loyalists to build a formidable power base.

At the same time, he began to craft a new persona: that of an implacable strongman whose anointed role is to usher in prosperity at home and superpower status abroad.

Xi claims he has purged China of the “intense humiliation” of past foreign domination and achieved “complete victory” over extreme poverty. Xi has fortified that image with a personality cult linked to catchphrase initiatives including “China dream” and “national rejuvenation.” Xi’s manifesto, theXi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era has entered the pantheon of CCP ideological guidance along with tracts by predecessors Mao Zedong, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. But Xi has gone them all one better by revising CCP history to give himself outsized credit that boosts the importance of his leadership second only to Mao’s. And textbooks on Xi Jinping’s political philosophy have been required reading for Chinese schoolchildren since last year.

Meanwhile, Xi’s foreign policy has become ever-more aggressive. He has pushed back hard at foreign critics of China’s human rights record, its draconianNational Security Law in Hong Kong and intensifying saber rattling at Taiwan. He’s invoked a “wolf warrior” diplomacy and built up a military machine designed to back his ambition of Chinese superpower status.

While Xi surprised rivals in the CCP, some in the U.S. administration saw it coming. A confidential cable sent from the U.S. embassy in Beijing to the U.S. State Department on Nov. 16, 2009 and subsequently published by Wikileaks laid bare Xi’s ambition.

“According to a well-connected Embassy contact, Politburo Standing Committee Member and Vice President Xi Jinping is ‘exceptionally ambitious,’ confident and focused, and has had his ‘eye on the prize’ from early adulthood,” the cable said. “Xi is supremely pragmatic and a realist, driven not by ideology but by a combination of ambition and ‘self-protection.’”

Now that Xi is all-but-assured the crown as long as he wants it, there are some inside the party who are worried they’ve ceded too much power.

Members of the hong’er dai — 1960s and 1970s-born descendants of Chinese political elites — are concerned about Xi’s masterful domination of the CCP’s power structure. Many worry about Xi’s cultivation of a personality cult reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s — which helped fuel the chaos and violence of the 1966-1976 Cultural revolution.

“There's a lot of unhappiness at reasonably high levels of the party,” said Joseph Fewsmith, professor of international relations and political science at Boston University.

But those hoping to sway Xi to softer stances, whether inside China or abroad, are likely to have a hard time.

“There's this siege mentality on the part of Xi Jinping that says, ‘I need to be strong [and] make the country strong because China has been abused,’” said Nathan, the Columbia University professor. “He doesn't trust the middle class, he doesn't trust the entrepreneurs, he doesn't trust careerist members of his own political party and he doesn't trust people who advise him that the United States would be willing to coexist [with China].”