But this is only one part of Xi. What happens when the lights go off and the audience scatters, when the man on the stage removes his makeup and struts home? What kind of man is that Xi Jinping? Is he an attentive spouse and father? A loyal friend? How secure does he feel about his power? Most important of all, to what extent do his private thoughts and values differ from those he defends publicly? The short answer is that we do not know.
This may sound puzzling. Few individuals anywhere in the world have been the target of as much attention as Xi Jinping. Nearly every day, mainstream media outlets in China lead with reports on his speeches and activities. The problem is that this material is all about Xi carrying out his official duties, not about his individual passions or personality. It is telling that we know more about the private life of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, another strongman in charge of a party even more secretive than the CCP, than we do about Xi. This is largely because Kim, unlike his Chinese counterpart, spent several years abroad in his youth. His foreign biographers have thus been able to track down former high school friends and even a few close family members or collaborators. His mother’s sister and the Kim family sushi chef, for instance, now live in the United States and Japan, respectively. Xi’s biographers have had no such luck.
This has put scholars in a pickle. Developing an accurate assessment of the personality of China’s leader is crucial for calibrating engagement with the Party across a wide range of sectors, from government to academia. However, this is extremely difficult to do when most of the information we have is either produced by the Party’s propaganda arms or comes from individuals who are several layers removed from Xi, or whose motives and credentials are open to question. This explains why most foreign language books about Xi have been short, and why, even when they have titles that suggest otherwise, they turn out to be studies of Xi in his official roles rather than of the man behind the masks.
None of this has deterred Alfred L. Chan. A professor emeritus at Huron University College in London, Ontario, Chan recently produced a massive account of Xi’s life for Oxford University Press. At more than 700 pages and with copious notes, it is the most substantive volume on China’s leader to appear in English. It is not, however, a conventional biography, nor is it without bias: Chan relies overwhelmingly on Chinese official sources. He frequently cites the Xinhua News Agency, for instance, as well as mainland secondary publications, most of which date from the late 1990s onwards. As a result, he does not uncover anything new on the past or private life of Xi.
This might disappoint some readers, but there is only so much that scholars like Chan can do while CCP archives remain closed and Xi’s confidants unreachable. Chan himself admits that the Party is a “black box.” As a result, the hard — if frustrating — truth is that much of the Xi story will remain blank for the foreseeable future.
Xi Jinping was born in Beijing in 1953, the son of Xi Zhongxun (1913–2002), an early convert to the communist cause. The elder Xi was part of the fabled group of figures at Yan’an, an isolated base area in Central China, where Mao and his band of bedraggled guerrilla fighters regrouped in 1935 at the end of the Long March. There, Xi Zhongxun met and wed Qi Xin (b. 1926), his second wife and Xi Jinping’s mother.
We know little about the first nine years of Xi Jinping’s life beyond the fact that he led a privileged existence. Along with his siblings — two elder sisters from his father’s first marriage, a younger brother and elder sister from the second — he attended elite schools for the children of Party and military officials. During that time, his father’s career progressed well, and in 1959 he was appointed vice-premier and secretary general of the State Council. The family’s future looked bright.
It all came crashing down in 1962, when Mao suspected Xi Zhongxun of supporting the publication of a book that indirectly criticized him. At first, the elder Xi was merely demoted and exiled to Luoyang, a city in Central China, where he worked as a deputy manager in a factory. But things soon took a turn for the worse, and he ended up spending most of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) under arrest, often in solitary confinement.
The Cultural Revolution was a traumatizing experience for Xi Jinping’s family, as it was for so many others. At various moments, Chan tells us, the young “Xi was either locked up in ‘reeducation-through-labor’ schools for juvenile delinquents or left homeless.” His siblings were not spared either; one of his elder half-sisters probably died by suicide. Then, in early 1969, Xi followed millions of youths to the countryside, where he worked in near-destitute conditions, without any formal educational opportunities.
It would be fascinating to have unbiased firsthand records of Xi’s experiences at that time. Alas, all we have are official CCP accounts, which are too polished and self-serving to be taken at face value. Chan summarizes them thus: when he first arrived in the countryside, Xi had no “intention of fitting in.” He began smoking heavily because this “was the only excuse to slack off.” Unable to bear the harsh conditions, he decamped to Beijing, but was quickly caught. He then spent several months doing hard labor. Gradually, he came to realize the error of his ways. When he returned to the countryside for a second time in early 1970, he was determined to succeed. He worked hard and grew strong, and before long, he was carrying heavy wheat bags over distances “commonly regarded as impossible.” He also took on added responsibilities as a “barefoot doctor, a bookkeeper, and an agricultural technician,” and even found time to read poetry. “Xi’s house became the center of the village,” a place where all gathered at night to hear him tell stories from the Chinese classics or recount colorful tales of life in Beijing. It is an inspiring story: spurred by his communist faith, Xi overcame all challenges and grew into a model cadre. But is it true?
Some commentators claim that thenceforth, Xi’s progress was unremarkable. In Xi: A Study in Power, a brief but informative volume that is an excellent alternative to Chan’s, Kerry Brown writes that, as late as the 1990s, Xi “was a provincial leader largely regarded as undistinguished and unlikely to gain national prominence.” Chan offers a different perspective: with each promotion, Xi was often one of the youngest at his level. In 1990, for instance, he was appointed municipal Party secretary of Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province, when he was only 38. A decade later, at the relatively young age of 47, he took charge of the entire province as governor.
According to Brown, one of the reasons Xi did not attract much attention is that until 2007, when he briefly ran Shanghai as Party secretary before moving to Beijing the same year as heir apparent to Hu Jintao, Xi had spent his entire career in county and provincial governments, far from the limelight of the capital. That is a fair point, but as an explanation, it is not entirely satisfactory either. The fact that Xi was off the radar for so long probably says more about the collective blind spots of the China-watching community than about his leadership abilities.
Relying on official sources as extensively as Chan does can be a problem. For one thing, they have little to say about issues the Party considers sensitive. Take, for instance, the June 4 massacre that ended the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Xi’s father was one of the rare senior officials, perhaps the only one, who opposed the use of force against demonstrators. Only a few days after the tragedy, however, Xi Jinping’s second wife, a well-known People’s Liberation Army songstress, crooned for the troops. How did Xi reconcile these two different attitudes? Since the Party is silent on this question, so is Chan, and he dismisses the entire episode in a sentence or two.
Chan’s approach — and his judgment — fails most conspicuously when he discusses human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the far western region of the PRC. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of non-Han people — over a million of them, by some estimates — most of them Uyghurs, have been forcibly interned in a vast network of camps. Chan admits that CCP measures in the region are “oppressive” and that “hard-line crackdowns” have taken place, but he equivocates when he writes that “[o]fficial rhetoric from both sides contains half-truths and exaggerations” and that “Beijing’s record in Xinjiang can scarcely be compared with the blunders and lasting damages inflicted on their indigenous populations by settler states such as the United States, Canada, and Australia.” This, needless to say, misses the point. Chan would be well advised to review the assessment of the UN High Commission for Human Rights published in August 2022, which concludes that the policies and actions of the CCP in Xinjiang “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
It has been 10 years this fall since Xi Jinping took control of China. He is now 69, somewhat overweight, perhaps smoking again, and shouldering stressful responsibilities. Yet there are no indications that he is preparing to retire or that he has started planning for the inevitable power transition. Analysts were hoping for clues of his intentions at the 20th Party Congress in October, but neither Xi nor the Party offered any. In his book, Chan wisely does not speculate. But if the past is any guide, the handover could be rocky.
Planning for smooth transitions is not the CCP’s forte. Liu Shaoqi (1898–1969), first in line to succeed Mao in the 1950s, was purged during the Cultural Revolution and died in prison after months of mental and physical mistreatment. Lin Biao (1907–1971), subsequently tapped for the top job, perished in a plane crash while seemingly trying to escape in the wake of what might have been a failed coup attempt — the details remain nebulous to this day. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping engineered the dismissal of two CCP secretary generals, Hu Yaobang (1915–1989) and Zhao Ziyang (1919–2005). Depending on how strictly one defines “smooth transition,” there has only been one since the Party took power in 1949, when Jiang Zemin, Deng’s last chosen successor, handed the reins to Hu Jintao in 2002.
Why? This is the question political scientist Joseph Torigian tries to answer in his first book, Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao. His analytical framework is somewhat artificial — he develops three sets of hypotheses on how transitions can play out, and tests these against particular sets of facts — but his book is nonetheless useful for those interested in understanding how actors in Leninist systems fight for power.
His conclusion is not reassuring: “[E]ven immediately after the deaths of exceptionally dominant leaders, when the lessons of strongman rule are at their most robust, and even in the most ‘institutionalized’ Leninist authoritarian systems, rules are simply not potent enough to allow for a politics of deliberation and exchange.”
In his section on China, Torigian focuses on the immediate post-Mao years, from 1976 to 1982, the period when Hua Guofeng, Mao’s last chosen successor, pushed aside the Gang of Four before himself getting the boot from Deng Xiaoping.
Torigian claims that ideological differences were of little import during these transitions: “The Gang had no real strong policy viewpoints of their own” and merely carried out “whatever they thought Mao wanted.” What they had galore — or so many feared — was compromising material on senior Party officials. It is telling that Hua, an intriguing figure who continued working as a minor official for decades after his fall from the top, did not rely on suasion or appeals to established Party rules to bring the Gang to heel. Instead, he bluntly ordered their arrest and incarceration.
Policy differences between Hua and Deng were not significant either, according to Torigian. Both deemed reform necessary. In fact, it was Hua, not Deng, who first initiated the processes that led to China’s economic opening. It was only after Hua tried to expand his influence within the military, a threatening move to Deng, who saw the armed forces as his preserve, that the latter moved decisively against the former.
Hua could have put up a fight — someone with a different personality might have — but he did not, even though he enjoyed sizable support in some quarters, particularly among young CCP members. After the turbulence of the Mao years, he understood that the Party needed stability and he decided to spare it an internal fight. But there are no guarantees that those waiting for Xi to leave the stage will be equally pliant or as easily mollified. Torigian compares political successions in Leninist states to a “knife fight with weird rules.” If he is right, the post-Xi transition could get nasty.
Martin Laflamme is a Canadian Foreign Service Officer who has served in Tokyo, Beijing (twice), Kandahar, and Taipei. The views presented here are his own.