Xi Jinping’s Rise to Power
From obscurity to being called the world’s most powerful person by Forbes, Xi Jinping has seen an exponentially steep rise to fame.
Just a decade ago, Xi Jinping was best known to the world as the son of Communist Party revolutionary and one-time deputy prime minister, Xi Zhongxun. From that position of a borrowed legacy, the younger Xi grew to occupy positions of real power in China, by 2012.
A year later, in 2013, he was made President.
This is his story.
Xi was born in Beijing in 1953, and as the son of a liberal minded vice premier, he was no stranger to politics. Although his father had fought in the Communist revolution, and was a party official, Xi senior was later purged and jailed during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 - 76. It wasn’t until Mao’s death, that he was allowed back into society.
During his father’s incarceration, in his teenage years during the throes of the Cultural Revolution, Xi Jinping was sent to work in the countryside, and had to witness abject poverty. This was a part of the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement" imposed on millions of youngsters, who were mandated to be re-educated by farmers and labourers during the tumultuous time.
In a rare interview filled with candid moments in 2004, Xi mentioned the solace he found, on being allowed to shift away from Beijing. He said that as his train was pulling away from the capital, towards the rural unknown, he felt a palpable relief from the political pressure he was under. "I remember it very clearly, it was January 1969, everyone was crying, there wasn't anyone on the train who didn't cry. But I was only one laughing, the only one laughing," he recalled in the interview. "At the time, my relatives beside the train asked me: 'Why are you smiling?’"
"I told them that if I had to stay, then I'd be crying, because I wouldn't even know if I'd survive."
He is said to have found comfort at the time, in the Communist Youth League. In 1974, at the age of 21, he joined the very Party that had excommunicated his father.
Two years later, Mao died. As China went into mourning, Xi - 23 at the time - was studying chemical engineering at Tsinghua University.
Deng Xiaoping took over leadership of the country from Hua Guofeng, who was Mao’s handpicked successor. Xiaoping strove to get China on to a more pragmatic path of industrialisation and foreign relations. This marked a shift from the starkly dogmatic line of governance taken by Mao until then. Under his reign, the National People’s Congress adopted a new constitution, which limited presidents and vice presidents to two five-year terms. This came on the heels of Mao’s 27 year reign, and there was a clear desire from Party leadership to prevent the consolidation of power in the hands of one person for too long.
Throughout this time, Xi was more or less unknown. He spent two decades focussing on advancing his political career through local governance at the county, municipal and provincial levels. He held a number of positions, the most prominent of which was as the party chief of the Zhejiang province, from 2002 to 2007. Under his aegis, the province saw strong economic growth and the establishment of a vast number of local private enterprises.
This earned him the attention - and grudging support - of political elites. From then, it was just a matter of when and where he would be placed into a position of leadership.
He slowly rose until in 2007, when he reached what many consider the zenith of his consolidation of power - he was promoted into the Politburo Standing Committee - the most elite political body in China.
To put this into perspective - The Communist Party of China is said to have nearly 90 million members. The Party Congress has 2000 members. The Central Committee has about 205 full members. The Politburo has 25. The Politburo Standing Committee only has 7 members - the most concentrated consolidation of power, second only to the General Secretary.
He simultaneously became a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, a huge honour in its own right. In dizzying succession to this, in early 2008, the National People’s Congress elected Xi as the vice president.
Soon after, on November 15, 2012, Xi was named the General Secretary of the Communist Party, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission - thus being granted the top-most position in the party and the military.
Four months was all the time it took. On the 14th of March, 2013, the National People’s Congress elected Xi as President.
The irony here was that although this was the least powerful of his roles, it was symbolically critical, and allowed Xi to build a platform on which China could exhibit a global presence.
He did exactly that, and the response has been clear. First, in in 2017, he was granted a second term as the General Secretary of the Party. Then, in 2018, he began his second year as President. Also in 2018, the National People’s Congress voted nearly unanimously to abolish term limits for the presidency.
All barriers to Xi’s rule had officially been removed.
Today, as President Xi meets with PM Modi, there are clearly a number of issues that need to be addressed - Sino-Indian trade relations, China’s stance on the Kashmir issue, the border disputes in Arunachal Pradesh, and more. But what remains clear, above all, is this - No matter how much the Chinese President’s power is downplayed, as his career trajectory tells us, he is a force to be reckoned with.