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2022.10.19 习近平:一个独裁者的诞生

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习近平:一个独裁者的诞生
世界上最有权力的人背后的故事

2022年10月19日


作者:黄淑琳

习近平13岁时被拖到一个院子里,被迫戴上一顶傻子帽。这顶铁帽子非常重,以至于他不得不用双手托起它,上面写着揭示他罪行的中国文字。习近平是一个反革命分子。群众高呼 "打倒习近平"。舞台边坐着习近平的母亲,她在空中挥舞着拳头,与众人一起高呼。

那是1966年,文化大革命刚刚开始。习近平最后被关进了一个为被清洗的政府官员的子女设立的拘留所。在他的母亲被迫告发他之后,习近平从窗户逃出,在大雨中跑回家。他说:"妈妈,我饿了。"他的牙齿颤抖着。但他的母亲把他扔到了夜里,穿着沾满泥土的衣服,肚子还在咕咕叫。然后她报告了他--她的另外两个孩子在家里,还没有被告发。那是一段孤立和恐怖的岁月。16岁的习近平与其他数百万年轻的城市中国人一样,被派往农村向农民学习。他第一次在那里遇到肉,就饿得生吃了。


半个多世纪过去了,这个受惊的逃亡者现在坐在曾经威胁要压垮他整个家族的党的掌舵人的位置上。当他在2012年被任命为中国共产党的领导人时,一些人希望这位中国共产党残暴机器的受害者可能会逐渐改革它。相反,习近平的中国是世界上监控最多的国家,由控制和他本人的命令来定义。

在毛泽东发动的疯狂行动之后,他的继任者发誓不再让一个人掌握这样的权力:责任将由领导人分担;决定将由共识作出。习近平撕毁了这本规则书,将权力巩固在自己手中,并废除了领导人只能有两个五年任期的惯例。中国14亿人的未来,以及更多的人的未来,都取决于一个人的思想。然而,关于他的信息流是如此严格控制,只有通过挖掘他的过去,我们才能收集到关于他的线索。


习近平曾一度被认为会在今年北京的党代会上交出权力。相反,当习近平开始第三个任期时,在场的2300名共产党员--以及整个中国--将被要求为他鼓掌,这是自毛泽东以来前所未有的。这个曾经在同龄人手中忍辱负重、忍饥挨饿的男孩将表明,现在没有人可以藐视他。

习近平并不是他家族中唯一被打倒的成员。当他经历自己的屈辱时,他的父亲习仲勋作为毛泽东的亲密顾问,已经被清洗了。在长达十年的文化大革命期间,毛泽东试图通过释放忠于他的暴民(称为红卫兵)来赶走他的批评者,他们殴打、折磨和杀害他们认为是敌人的人。习家记得他们的族长默默地坐在家里,孤独地坐在黑暗中。他接受了 "自我批评 "课程,并多次受到红卫兵的追捕。据习近平的妹妹说,有一次,他们 "用聚光灯照亮他的眼睛,用扩音器在他耳边叫喊"。习仲勋被送走,先是被送到一个遥远的工厂,然后被送到劳改所。习近平有七年时间没有见到他的父亲。


也有其他的悲哀。家里的房子被洗劫一空。习近平多次被关起来,被迫做苦工。有一次,红卫兵威胁要杀死他。"习近平在2000年发表的一篇采访中说:"他们说我活该被枪毙100次。"我想,被枪毙一次和被枪毙100次没有什么区别,所以有什么好怕的?" 叛军给了他五分钟的时间来忏悔。

更糟糕的事情还在后面。他的一个姐妹也受到红卫兵的迫害,自杀了。(在公开场合,习近平只说过他生命中的四件事让他哭泣。她的死就是其中之一)。

在许多方面,习近平在1960年代的中国经历远非独一无二。正是他对苦难的反应使他变得不同寻常。当文化大革命在1976年随着毛泽东的去世而结束时,许多被平反的 "太子党"--像习近平这样的革命家庭的孩子--喝酒和约会,对西方电影和书籍津津乐道。另一些人则认为这个制度已经不可逆转地崩溃,并离开了中国。




小王子 "小红书 "是毛泽东中国的必读书目(上)。在文化大革命期间,红卫兵殴打、折磨和杀害他们认为是敌人的人(中)。习近平的父亲习仲勋是毛泽东的亲密顾问(下)。
习近平做了一些不同的事情。正如一位内部人士所说,他 "选择通过变得比红色更红来生存"。他没有背离革命的理想,而是决定为之献身。他总结说,文化大革命期间的问题不在于党本身。而是党已经失去了控制。

他喜欢足球,声称每天游泳1000米,是《西雅图夜未眠》、《教父》和《拯救大兵瑞恩》的粉丝。这些都是我们所知道的关于这位世界上最有权势的人的简短的、精心编排的细节清单中的一部分。除了表面上的开放--他自己带伞,不穿西装,不穿雨衣,在饺子店自己付钱吃饭--他是一个谜。世界上最有影响力的国家的领导人在电视上与他们的对手辩论,并在采访中被问及他们政策声明的细枝末节;他们的部长们的来往被兴高采烈的媒体所记录。然而,即使是习近平的讲话,也往往在事件发生后几个月或几年后才被公布。他的顾问也是如此;有时我们甚至不知道他们的名字。


我们对他的官方背景故事有更详细的了解--1960年代,他和其他数百万城市中国人一起,在农村的一个偏远村庄里劳作了数年,所遭受的艰辛。这些寓言故事告诉我们,习近平希望人们如何看待他:一个承受了巨大痛苦才升到最高职位上的人。

习近平向国家媒体讲述了他刚到中国西北部的梁家河村时,如何用一坨过期的面包喂流浪狗,并以其奢侈的行为吓坏了村民们。他避免与他们聊天,并以吸烟作为休息的借口。他的一个朋友说,当习近平的弟弟去看他时,他们都被跳蚤咬了;习近平求他不要告诉他们的母亲他的生活条件。(现在的梁家河村是共产党的迪斯尼乐园,到处都是穿着红军制服的游客)。


中国宣传机构制作的文章、书籍和电视节目中对习近平早年经历的认可叙述,是习近平在中国获得信誉的部分原因。尽管它淡化了毛泽东在这一时期对数百万人造成的创伤,但这个苦难的故事在全国引起了共鸣,让人们感觉到习近平在某种程度上与他们一样。中国国家电视台的纪录片,如 "山洞里的学者",讲述了习近平如何认识到自己的错误:在农村呆了几个月后,他逃回北京,但被逮捕,并被强迫加入一个铺设下水道的苦力团伙。大约一年后,他回到梁家河,决心改善生活,至少在官方的描述中,他成为一个坚韧不拔、勤奋工作的人,住在山洞里,"一年工作365天",学会了缝纫和被子,并认识了他生活的村民。

习近平流传这样的轶事是有用的,部分原因是他事实上与其他中国人不同。他的父亲曾与毛泽东并肩作战,开创了共产主义革命,并成为主席的得力助手之一。他的母亲也是一位热心的革命者,在1940年代遇到了他的父亲,当时两人都在内战中与国民党作战(国民党后来逃到了台湾)。当这对夫妇在1944年结婚时,他们得到了在战场上很难得到的日常必需品:牙刷和牙膏。

毛泽东掌权后,习家作为 "红色家庭 "享有特权地位,是共产党开国元勋的一部分。他在一个为党的精英保留的大院里长大,里面有保姆、保安和管家,当时全国大多数人都在勉强维持生计。他的父亲在第一次婚姻中有三个孩子,在第二次婚姻中有四个孩子--习近平是第二年轻的孩子。他们都上了国家的顶级学校。

生活并不完全是奢侈的。为了保持革命的节俭和纪律,习仲勋强迫他的儿子穿二手衣服。"我有一个哥哥,但有四个姐姐,所以不是很好,"习仲勋曾经回忆说。"花衣服,花鞋子,我不可能想穿这些东西,但我没有选择。"




禁止王国 许多党内精英成员,包括习近平的父亲,在文化大革命中被公开谴责(顶部)。学生们依靠公示来了解哪些领导人不再受宠(中)。像许多受过教育的青年一样,习近平在1960年代被送到农村(下图)。
他的父亲也是一个粗暴的管教者。习近平必须保持站立,直到他父亲坐下来。据一位家庭朋友说,他记得习仲勋说:"在家里不尊重父母的人一旦进入现实世界,就会被抽打。" 习仲勋说,孩子们被送去了寄宿学校;当他们回家过节时,他的父亲 "会让我们靠墙排队,对我们进行训话"。

最重要的是,习近平和他的兄弟姐妹们从小就相信他们是毛泽东伟大事业的继承者。"习近平在2003年的一次采访中说:"他告诉我们,我们也将成为革命者。"他将解释什么是革命。我们听得太多了,以至于我们的耳朵都长茧了。" "维基解密2009年发布的一份美国外交电报说:"这个革命精英的孩子们被告知,他们有一天也会在中国领导层中占据应有的位置。


他们并不是都走上了红砖之路。习近平的弟弟远平(就是那个去农村看他的人)在香港变得 "既肥胖又非常富有......拥有昂贵的珠宝和名牌服装",据外交电报称,他在香港定居时,香港还处于英国统治之下。他的妹妹安安离开中国前往加拿大。像大多数与习近平有关的事情一样,关于他的兄弟姐妹所发生的其他细节也很模糊,几乎无法确认。

与此同时,习近平正在为家族的名字工作。随着毛泽东的离去,习近平的父亲重新回到政府,成为新的中国领导人邓小平的热心支持者,邓小平正在开放中国的经济。在父亲的帮助下,1979年,习近平得到了一份舒适的工作,担任高级将领耿飚的私人秘书,耿飚在中国与越南的短暂战争中遭受意外损失后,被要求对人民解放军进行现代化改造和加强。


第二年,习近平与当时中国驻英国大使的女儿柯玲玲结婚。据报道,这对夫妇经常争吵,结婚三年后,习近平的妻子想回到伦敦。习近平有不同的想法。如果他要在家族企业中获得成功,他需要通过在各省服役来证明自己对党的价值。他离开了军队职位,在河北省的一个农村县做了一份低级别的工作,担任第二号官员。"很多人不理解我的决定,"他后来在一次采访中回忆说。习近平和他的妻子分开了。习近平知道他的未来是在中国。

1989年春天,北京爆发了大规模的民主示威活动。抗议活动加剧了党内现有的分裂,强硬派赢得了胜利:6月4日,邓小平命令军队清空天安门广场。数百名,甚至数千名示威者在周围地区被杀害。

这个臭名昭著的场景并不是唯一的动乱地点。在中国南部沿海的山区省份福建,和中国各地的城市一样,学生也走上了街头。福建的抗议者不仅对缺乏问责制和民主感到愤怒,也对已经形成的腐败感到愤怒。

当时,习近平是福建最大城镇之一宁德的最高官员。一些省级领导人正在观看敌对派别在北京的斗争,并等待着结果。但是,甚至在首都发生大屠杀之前,习近平就阻止了一支进入宁德参加抗议活动的学生车队。他的行为完全符合党内强硬派的要求。然后,他发表了一篇演讲,援引了文化大革命的创伤。"这些日子还能重演吗?没有稳定和团结,一切都不可能。" 他的新妻子彭丽媛是一位以爱国主义歌曲闻名全中国的歌手,她甚至在大屠杀之后为北京的军队唱歌。(那次演出的照片,就像关于那段黑暗时期的其他一切,现在在中国受到严格审查)。

自他在河北省的第一个省级工作以来,习近平已经取得了长足的进步,当时一些地方干部抱怨他太年轻,甚至没有面部毛发,因此不能被信任来处理重要事务。他在那份工作中一丝不苟。根据一位官员的回忆录,大多数党员官员会坐车去视察当地,但习近平骑着自行车,几乎走遍了县里的每一个乡镇。




习近平是这样的人 在20世纪80年代,习近平被视为一个勤奋的党内官员(上图)。1979年,邓小平对美国的访问有助于改善国际关系(中)。1985年,习近平与中国代表团在美国呆了两周(下)。
在中国之外,北京的大屠杀是共产党历史上的一个开创性事件。在国内,习近平看着党在其他更基本的方面失去控制。他父亲的关系帮助他搬到了福建,在那里他的职位不断上升。20世纪90年代和21世纪初是中国的疯狂年代。在邓小平发动经济改革后,快速致富的机会大量涌现。党的官员是控制经济资源的人,在一个经常奖励关系而不是人才和辛勤工作的系统中,腐败成为每个行业的隐患。

在许多地方可以看到这些新势力的行动,其中之一是福建一座被称为红楼的七层楼房。在这座享乐的宫殿里,二楼是一家餐厅,工作人员都是香港的顶级厨师,并备有高级葡萄酒和白兰地。三楼是一个水疗中心。卡拉OK室和舞池在四楼;五楼和六楼是妓女的包房。

赖昌星,一个来自农村的有魅力的半文盲,负责红楼的工作。他在顶楼有一间办公室。赖昌星的业务范围很广,但他的核心业务是充当未来的企业家、党的官员和在福建执行规则的警察之间的中间人。有时这涉及到关系的建立,有时则是直接的贿赂。他的小公司发展成为一个在全省各地都有利益的企业集团。到20世纪90年代末,赖是一个家喻户晓的名字。有一次,他的公司进口了中国六分之一的石油。

最终,腐败现象变得非常严重,令人无法忽视。1999年,中国总理派遣调查人员前往福建,并将数百名与赖昌星有关系的人定罪。一些人被判处无期徒刑,包括在安全、海关、武装部队、税务和金融部门工作的党和政府官员。赖昌星得到消息后,逃到了加拿大。


没有证据表明习近平当时在福建度过的近15年时间里曾经去过红楼。当赖的罪行被揭露时,习近平刚刚被任命为福建省省长,并被传唤到北京,解释这些罪行怎么可能在他的眼皮底下发生。习近平承诺要进行清理。他在提交给省议会的一份报告中说:"我们将毫不留情地清除腐败分子,""无论涉及什么级别或什么人。"

这是人民共和国历史上最大的腐败丑闻--而习近平在某种程度上走出了困境,看起来像是福建唯一的清官。他是如何逃脱的?也许他有能力保持廉洁,至少在金钱方面是如此。或者他被他父亲的名字所救,或者达成了一个交易。我们可能永远不会知道。


随着中国经济的蓬勃发展,官员和商人都在寻求赚取快钱,类似的腐败案件在全国各地不断出现。为1989年的示威活动推波助澜的愤怒情绪继续隆隆作响,并不断增长。在接下来的十年里,爆发了数十万次针对腐败、环境污染和虐待劳工的抗议活动。由于官员们为了分得一杯羹,政府被内讧所束缚。

对习近平个人来说,1990年代是一个稳步上升的时期。在福建工作17年后,他被提拔为附近一个富裕省份的领导,然后空降到上海,清理该市最近被赶下台的领导人的腐败丑闻。2007年,他被任命为继承人。但就在习近平最终达到党的最高层时,一种不安的感觉开始蔓延,即党对权力的控制可能会动摇。

1985年,习近平与其他五名中国官员组成的代表团在美国呆了两个星期。他们参观了火鸡养殖场和玉米田。在主人发现习近平读过马克-吐温的书后,他们在密西西比河上坐船出游。习近平参加了一次聚餐,并第一次尝试了爆米花。

当习近平在2012年掌权时,人们对他知之甚少,以至于一些观察家谨慎乐观地认为,他对美国文化的短暂体验指向了两个大国之间更加友好的未来。也许更重要的是,他的父亲习仲勋曾在开放中国经济方面发挥了关键作用。(老习也曾访问过美国,并与米老鼠合影)。即使是习近平的妻子,歌手彭丽媛,与她不太光彩的前辈相比,看起来也是美国第一夫人的典范。这对夫妇把他们的女儿送到了哈佛大学。冷战已经结束。美国不是赢了吗?




唤醒红色的习近平在福建省度过了17年的时间,在职场上不断晋升(上)。1989年6月4日,人民解放军部队向北京的抗议者开火(中)。习近平比毛泽东以来的任何一位中国领导人都更有权力(下)。
然而,习近平从冷战的结束中得出了一个非常不同的结论。他的强烈感受直到很久以后,即2012年的一次演讲才变得清晰起来,他在演讲中把苏联的解体归因于普通人对一个意识形态空洞的腐败政党失去信心。"为什么我们必须坚持党对军队的领导?" 习近平说。"因为这就是苏联解体的教训。" 苏联的领导层是如此的软弱,以至于失去了控制。而当戈尔巴乔夫允许解体发生时,习近平说,"没有人有足够的勇气站出来反抗。"

习近平显然认为他是足够的男人。经过他在文化大革命期间的经历,以及近二十年来在福建的腐败、犯罪和非同寻常的变化中游走,习近平知道权力是如何运作的。"他在1992年告诉《华盛顿邮报》:"即使你不理解,你也被迫理解。"它使你更早地成熟。" 他还亲身经历了失去权力的零和游戏。"很少接触权力的人,远离权力的人,总是把它看成是神秘和新奇的,"习近平曾说。"但我看到的不仅仅是表面的东西:权力、鲜花、荣耀、掌声。我看到的是监狱......和世界的虚伪。"

在任命习近平为国家领导人时,共产党的长老们选择了一个真正的信仰者,对他来说,党是需要保护的遗产。对习近平来说,确保中国不遵循苏联的命运意味着确保党不再迷失方向--文化大革命的混乱或1989年的民主抗议活动不能再发生。就习近平而言,只有他才有资格驾驭这条通道。但即使是长老们也可能低估了习近平准备将这一信念发挥到何种程度--以及它对中国和世界其他地区可能意味着什么。

2020年1月初,八名医生被中国中部的武汉省政府指控为 "造谣"。在私人聊天群中,这些医生一直在讨论该市的一种新疾病,这种疾病会导致神秘的肺炎。几周后,习近平在北京会见了世界卫生组织的负责人。他说:"我正在亲自下达命令,"。"我正在亲自制定计划。" 一周后,因谈论该病毒而受到惩罚的八名医生之一李文亮死于新的冠状病毒。


执政七年来,习近平已经巩固了权力,对腐败进行了残酷的打击,使400万人受到牵连,其中包括一些党的最高层,并建立了自己的平行治理体系,以绕开既定的国家机器。党的意识形态渗透到从电视剧到学校课程和办公室生活的各个方面。他利用人工智能构建了一个警察国家,进行审查和监视,压制非政府组织、宗教团体和民权律师。曾经自由和开放的香港正在成为一个警察国家。在遥远的西部地区新疆,多达100万穆斯林被拘留--他们的主要罪行显然是相信比共产党更高的权威。控制仍然是当时的指导原则。

但新的疾病是什么?习近平动用了他的政治机器:他让李文亮和其他大声疾呼的人闭嘴,把人们锁在家里,并制定了一个前所未有的监控系统来监测疾病的蔓延。今天,在大流行病发生近三年后,习近平继续支持严厉的限制措施,以遏制疫情爆发,并坚持使用国产疫苗,而不是更有效的进口疫苗。全国各地的许多人都欢迎国家在监视和监测方面的非凡权力,以 "保护 "他们免受一种已经在世界各地造成数百万人死亡的疾病的影响。

当习近平在中国共产党大会后走上舞台,标志着他第三个任期的正式开始时,不会有任何戏剧性的场面,也不会有挥舞拳头。现在,没有人被允许喊出 "打倒习近平"。他体现了自己成为党的真正继承者的雄心。在没有指定继承人的情况下,他可以想统治多久就统治多久。但是少年习近平的经历继续引起共鸣:混乱和控制之间的界限总是很薄。

黄淑琳是《经济学人》杂志的中国记者,也是关于习近平的八集播客 "王子 "的主持人。



Xi Jinping: the making of a dictator
The story behind the world’s most powerful man

Oct 19th 2022

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By Sue-Lin Wong

Xi Jinping was 13 when he was dragged into a courtyard and forced to don a dunce’s cap. The iron cone, so heavy that he had to prop it up with both hands, was covered in Chinese characters that revealed his crime: Xi was a counter-revolutionary. The crowd shouted “down with Xi Jinping”. By the stage sat Xi Jinping’s mother, pumping her fist in the air and chanting along with the hordes.

That was 1966 and the Cultural Revolution was just getting going. Xi ended up in a detention centre for the children of purged government officials. Sometime after his mother was forced to denounce him, Xi escaped through a window and ran home in the pouring rain: “Mum, I’m hungry,” he said, his teeth chattering. But his mother tossed him back out into the night in his sodden clothes, stomach still rumbling. Then she reported him – two of her other children were at home and hadn’t yet been denounced. These were years of isolation and terror. Aged 16, Xi Jinping was sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants, along with millions of other young, urban Chinese. The first time he came across meat there he was so hungry he ate it raw.


More than half a century on, that frightened runaway now sits at the helm of the party that once threatened to crush his entire family. When he was anointed leader of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, some hoped that this victim of its brutal machinery might gradually reform it. Instead, Xi Jinping’s China is the world’s most surveilled state, defined by control and his own personal command.

After the madness unleashed by Mao, his successors vowed never to let a single person hold such sway again: responsibilities would be shared by leaders; decisions would be made by consensus. Xi has ripped up that rule book, consolidating power in himself and scrapping a convention that leaders are limited to two five-year terms. The future of China’s 1.4bn people, and so many more people beyond, hinges on the mind of one man. Yet so tightly controlled is the flow of information about him, that only through excavating his past can we glean clues about what makes him tick.


Xi had once been expected to hand over power at this year’s party congress in Beijing. Instead, the 2,300 members of the Communist Party present – and all of China – will be required to applaud Xi as he embarks on a third term of office, unprecedented since Mao. The boy who once withstood humiliation and starvation at the hands of his peers will show that no one, now, can defy him.

Xi Jinping wasn’t the only member of his family to be cast down. By the time he experienced his own humiliation, his father, Xi Zhongxun, had already been purged as a close adviser to Mao. During the decade-long Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong tried to oust his critics by unleashing mobs loyal to him, called Red Guards, who beat, tortured and killed anyone they saw as an enemy. The Xi family remember their patriarch sitting at home silently, alone and in darkness. He was subjected to “self-criticism” sessions and repeatedly hounded by Red Guards. On one occasion they “blinded him with a spotlight and screamed in his ears through a megaphone,” according to Xi Jinping’s sister. Xi Zhongxun was sent away, first to a distant factory, then to a labour camp: Xi Jinping didn’t see his father for seven years.


There were other sorrows, too. The family home was ransacked. Xi was repeatedly locked up and forced to do hard labour. At one point, Red Guards threatened to kill him: “They said I deserved to be shot 100 times,” Xi Jinping said in an interview published in 2000. “I thought being shot once is no different from being shot 100 times so what’s there to be afraid of?” The rebels gave him five minutes to repent.

Worse was to come. One of his sisters, also persecuted by Red Guards, committed suicide. (In public, Xi Jinping has talked of only four events in his life that made him cry. Her death is one of them.)

In many ways Xi Jinping’s experience of China in the 1960s was far from unique. It was his response to the bitterness that made him unusual. When the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, many rehabilitated “princelings” – children of revolutionary families such as Xi’s – drank and dated, lapped up Western movies and books. Others concluded that the system was irrevocably broken and left China.




The Little Princeling “The Little Red Book” was required reading in Mao’s China (top). During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards beat, tortured and killed anyone they saw as an enemy (middle). Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a close adviser to Mao (bottom)
Xi did something different. He “chose to survive by becoming redder than the red” as one insider put it. Rather than turn away from the ideals of the revolution, he decided to dedicate himself to it. The problem during the Cultural Revolution wasn’t the party itself, he concluded. It was that the party had lost control.

He likes football, claims to swim 1,000 metres a day and is a fan of “Sleepless in Seattle”, “The Godfather” and “Saving Private Ryan”. These are among the short, carefully choreographed list of details we know about the world’s most powerful man. Beyond a veneer of openness – he carries his own umbrella, shuns suits for anoraks, pays for his own meal at a dumpling shop – he is an enigma. Leaders of the world’s most influential countries go on tv to debate their rivals and are interrogated in interviews about the minutiae of their policy statements; the comings and goings of their ministers are documented by a gleeful media. Yet even Xi’s speeches are often released only months or years after the event. His advisers are just as remote; sometimes we don’t even know their names.


We have far more detail on his official backstory – the hardships he suffered when, along with millions of other urban Chinese, he spent years toiling in the countryside in a remote village in the 1960s. These fables tell us how Xi wants to be seen: a man who withstood great pain before rising to his rightful place in the highest office.

Xi has recounted to state media how, when he first arrived in the village of Liangjiahe in north-western China, he fed a lump of stale bread to stray dogs and horrified villagers with his extravagance. He would avoid chatting to them, and took up smoking as an excuse to take breaks. A family friend recounts that, when Xi’s brother went to visit him they both became covered in flea bites; Xi begged him not to tell their mother about the conditions he lived in. (These days the village of Liangjiahe is a Communist Party Disneyland full of tourists in Red Army uniforms.)


The approved narrative of Xi’s early years, parroted in articles, books and television shows produced by China’s propaganda machinery, is part of what gives Xi credibility in China. Though it downplays the trauma that Mao inflicted on millions of people during this period, the story of suffering resonates throughout the country, giving people a sense that Xi is somehow like them. Chinese state television documentaries with titles such as “The Scholar in the Cave”, tell how Xi came to see the errors of his entitled ways: after just a few months in the countryside, he fled back to Beijing but was arrested and made to join a hard-labour gang laying sewer pipes. About a year later, he returned to Liangjiahe, determined to make a better go of things and, in the official account at least, became a resilient, hard-working man of the people who lived in a cave, “worked 365 days a year”, learned to sew and quilt, and got to know the villagers he lived among.

It is useful for Xi to circulate such anecdotes partly because he was not, in fact, like other Chinese. His father had fought alongside Mao to forge the communist revolution, and became one of the chairman’s right-hand men. His mother, too, was a dedicated revolutionary who met his father in the 1940s when both were fighting against the Nationalists in the civil war (the Nationalists later fled to Taiwan). When the couple married in 1944 they were given daily essentials that were hard to come by on the battlefield: toothbrushes and toothpaste.

After Mao took power, the Xi family held a privileged position as a “red family”, part of the Communist Party founding royalty. He grew up in a gated compound reserved for the party elite and peopled with nannies, security guards and housekeepers at a time when most of the country eked out an existence. His father had three children from his first marriage and four from his second – Xi was the second-youngest. All of them attended the country’s top schools.

Life wasn’t entirely luxurious. To keep the frugality and discipline of the revolution alive, Xi Zhongxun forced his son to wear hand-me-downs. “I had one older brother but four older sisters so it wasn’t great,” Xi once remembered. “Floral clothes, floral shoes, there was no way I’d ever want to wear any of this stuff but I had no option.”




Forbidding kingdom Many members of the party elite, including Xi Jinping’s father, were publicly denounced in the Cultural Revolution (top). Students relied on public notices to find out which leaders were no longer in favour (middle). Like many educated youths, Xi was sent to the countryside in the 1960s (bottom)
His father was also a brutal disciplinarian. Xi had to remain standing until his father sat down. He’d be smacked if he didn’t kowtow to his father properly at Chinese new year, according to a family friend, who remembers Xi Zhongxun saying, “People who don’t respect their parents at home will be disasters once they enter the real world.” The children were sent away to boarding school; when they came home for holidays, his father “would make us line up against the wall to lecture us”, said Xi.

Most of all, Xi and his siblings were raised to believe they were the inheritors of Mao’s great cause. “He would tell us that we too would be revolutionaries,” said Xi in an interview in 2003. “He would explain what revolution was. We heard so much about this that our ears became callused.” “The children of this revolutionary elite were told that they too would someday take their rightful place in the Chinese leadership,” read one American diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks in 2009.


They didn’t all follow the red-brick road. Xi Jinping’s younger brother, Yuanping (the one who visited him in the countryside), became “both obese and very wealthy…sporting expensive jewellery and designer clothing” in Hong Kong, where he moved while it was still under British rule, according to the diplomatic cable. His sister An’an left China for Canada. Like most things relating to Xi, other details of what happened to his siblings are vague and almost impossible to confirm.

Xi, meanwhile, was working the family name. With Mao gone, Xi’s father was back in government, an eager supporter of the new Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, who was opening up China’s economy. With the help of his father, in 1979 Xi got a cushy job as a private secretary to a top general, Geng Biao, who had been asked to modernise and strengthen the People’s Liberation Army after China suffered unexpected losses in a brief war with Vietnam.


The next year, Xi married Ke Lingling, the daughter of the then-Chinese ambassador to Britain. The couple reportedly fought a lot, and three years into the marriage, Xi’s wife wanted to return to London. Xi had different ideas. If he was to make a success of the family business, he needed to prove his worth to the party with a tour of duty in the provinces. He left his army position for a low-level job as the number-two official in a rural county in Hebei province. “A lot of people didn’t understand my decision,” he would later recall in an interview. Xi Jinping and his wife split up: Xi knew his future was in China.

In the spring of 1989 huge pro-democracy demonstrations broke out in Beijing. The protests exacerbated existing splits in the party and the hardliners won: on June 4th, Deng Xiaoping ordered troops to clear Tiananmen Square. Hundreds, if not thousands, of demonstrators were killed in the surrounding area.

This infamous scene wasn’t the only site of turmoil. In the mountainous province of Fujian on China’s southern coast, as in cities across China, students also took to the streets. The protesters in Fujian were angry not just at the lack of accountability and democracy, but also the corruption that had taken hold.

By then, Xi was the top official in Ningde, one of Fujian’s biggest towns. Some provincial leaders were watching rival factions battle in Beijing and awaiting the outcome. But even before the carnage in the capital, Xi stopped a convoy of students entering Ningde to join the protests. He behaved exactly as the party hardliners wanted. Then he gave a speech invoking the traumas of the Cultural Revolution: “Can these days be repeated? Without stability and unity, nothing is possible.” His new wife Peng Liyuan, a singer famous across China for her patriotic hits, even sang to the troops in Beijing after the massacre. (A photo of that performance, like everything else about that dark period, is now heavily censored in China.)

Xi had come a long way since his first provincial job in Hebei province, when some local cadres complained that he was so young he didn’t even have facial hair – and therefore couldn’t be trusted to handle important business. He was meticulous in that job. Most party officials would take a car to inspect their local area, but Xi rode his bicycle and visited almost every township in the county, according to the memoir of one official.




Xi’s the man In the 1980s Xi was seen as a diligent party official (top). Deng Xiaoping’s visit to America in 1979 helped improve international relations (middle). In 1985 Xi spent two weeks in America with a Chinese delegation (bottom)
From outside China, the massacre in Beijing was a seminal incident in the history of the Communist Party. Closer to home, Xi was watching the party lose control in other, more fundamental ways. His father’s connections had helped him move to Fujian, where he rose through the ranks. The 1990s and early 2000s were wild years in China. After Deng Xiaoping unleashed economic reforms, opportunities proliferated to get rich quick. Party officials were the ones in control of the economic resources, and in a system that often rewarded connections over talent and hard work, corruption came to blight every industry.

One of the many places to see these new forces in action was a seven-storey building in Fujian known as the Red Mansion. Inside the pleasure palace was a restaurant on the second floor, staffed with top Hong Kong chefs and stocked with fine wine and cognac. On the third floor was a spa. The karaoke rooms and dance floors were on floor four; on five and six were the private rooms with prostitutes.

Lai Changxing, a charismatic, semi-literate man from the countryside, was in charge of the Red Mansion. He kept an office on the top floor. Lai had a varied portfolio, but his core business was acting as an intermediary between would-be entrepreneurs, party officials and policemen who enforced the rules in Fujian. Sometimes this involved relationship-building, sometimes outright bribery. His small company evolved into a conglomerate with interests all over the province. By the late 1990s, Lai was a household name. At one point, his company was importing one-sixth of China’s oil.

Eventually, the corruption became too egregious to ignore. In 1999, China’s prime minister dispatched investigators to Fujian and convicted hundreds of people for their ties to Lai Changxing. Several were sentenced to life imprisonment including party and government officials who worked in security, customs, the armed forces, tax and finance. Lai, tipped off, fled to Canada.


There is no evidence that Xi ever went to the Red Mansion during the nearly 15 years he’d spent in Fujian by then. Xi had just been appointed governor of Fujian when Lai’s crimes were revealed and was summoned to Beijing to explain how they could have happened on his watch. Xi pledged to clean up. “We will remove corrupt elements without mercy,” he said in a report to the provincial assembly, “no matter what level or who is involved.”

This was the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the People’s Republic – and Xi Jinping somehow came out of it looking like the only clean official in Fujian. How did he escape? Perhaps he could afford to be incorruptible, at least as far as money was concerned. Or maybe he was saved by his father’s name, or cut a deal. We may never know.


Similar corruption cases were emerging all over the country as China’s economy roared and officials and businessmen sought to make a quick buck. The anger that had fuelled the demonstrations in 1989 continued to rumble and grow. Over the next decade, hundreds of thousands of protests broke out against corruption, environmental pollution and labour abuses. As officials manoeuvred for a share of the spoils, the government was hamstrung by infighting.

For Xi personally the 1990s were a period of steady ascent. After 17 years in Fujian, he was promoted to lead a wealthy province nearby, then parachuted into Shanghai to clean up a corruption scandal involving the city’s recently ousted leader. In 2007, he was anointed heir-apparent. But just as Xi was finally reaching the top of the party, an uneasy feeling began to spread that its grip on power might be wavering.

In 1985, Xi had spent two weeks in America with a delegation of five other Chinese officials. They visited turkey farms and corn fields. After his hosts found out Xi had read Mark Twain, they took a boat out on the Mississippi. Xi went to a potluck dinner and tried popcorn for the first time.

When Xi assumed power in 2012, so little was known about him that some observers were cautiously optimistic that his brief experience with American culture pointed to a more cordial future between the two powers. Perhaps more importantly, his father, Xi Zhongxun, had played a key role in opening China’s economy. (The elder Xi had also visited America and had his photo taken with Mickey Mouse.) Even Xi’s wife, the singer Peng Liyuan, looked like the model of an American First Lady compared with her less glamorous forebears. The couple had sent their daughter to Harvard University. The cold war was over. Hadn’t America won?




Waking the red Xi Jinping spent 17 years in Fujian province rising through the ranks (top). On June 4th 1989 People’s Liberation Army troops opened fire on protesters in Beijing (middle). Xi is more powerful than any Chinese leader since Mao (bottom)
Yet Xi Jinping had drawn a very different conclusion from the end of the cold war. The intensity of his feelings didn’t become clear until a speech he gave much later, in 2012, in which he attributed the fall of the Soviet Union to ordinary people losing faith in a corrupt party with a hollow ideology. “Why must we stand firm on the party’s leadership over the military?” Xi said. “Because that’s the lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union.” The Soviet leadership was so weak that it lost control. And when Gorbachev allowed the breakup to happen, Xi said, “nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”

Xi clearly thought that he was man enough. After his experiences during the Cultural Revolution, and nearly two decades navigating the corruption, crime and extraordinary changes in Fujian, Xi knew how power worked. “Even if you don’t understand, you are forced to understand,” he told the Washington Post in 1992. “It makes you mature earlier.” He had also experienced first-hand the zero-sum game of losing power. “People who have little contact with power, who are far from it, always see it as mysterious and novel,” Xi Jinping once said. “But what I see is not just the superficial things: the power, the flowers, the glory, the applause. I see the jails…and the hypocrisy of the world.”

In appointing Xi as the country’s leader, the Communist Party elders had chosen a true believer, someone for whom the party was an inheritance to be protected. For Xi, ensuring that China does not follow the fate of the Soviet Union means ensuring the party never loses its way again – the chaos of the Cultural Revolution or the pro-democracy protests of 1989 cannot be repeated. As far as Xi is concerned, only he is qualified to navigate the passage. But even the elders may have underestimated just how far Xi Jinping was prepared to take this belief – and what it might mean for China and the rest of the world.

In early January 2020, eight doctors were accused of “rumour-mongering” by the government of Wuhan province in central China. In private chat groups, the doctors had been discussing a new illness in the city that was causing a mysterious pneumonia. A few weeks later, Xi met the head of the World Health Organisation in Beijing. “I’m personally giving the orders,” he said. “I’m personally making the plans.” One week later, Li Wenliang, one of the eight doctors punished for talking about the virus, died from the new coronavirus.


Seven years into his rule, Xi Jinping had already consolidated power, launched a brutal crackdown on corruption that ensnared 4m people, including some at the highest level of the party, and set up his own parallel system of governing to bypass the established machinery of state. Party ideology infused everything from tv dramas to the school curriculum and office life. He had used artificial intelligence to construct a police state that censors and surveils, repressing ngos, religious groups and civil-rights lawyers. A once free and open Hong Kong was becoming a police state. In the far-western region of Xinjiang, as many as 1m Muslims had been detained – their main crime, apparently, was to believe in a higher authority than the Communist Party. Control was still the guiding principle of the day.

But what of the new disease? Xi Jinping deployed the mastery of his political machine: he silenced Li Wenliang and others who spoke up, locked people into their homes and enacted an unprecedented surveillance system to monitor the contagion. Today, nearly three years into the pandemic, Xi continues to back draconian restrictions to contain outbreaks and insists on using home-grown vaccines rather than more effective imported ones. And many people across the country welcome the state’s extraordinary power of surveillance and monitoring for “protecting” them from a disease that has killed millions around the world.

When Xi Jinping walks on stage after the Chinese Communist Party congress to mark the official beginning of his third term in office, there will be no drama, no pumping fists. No one, now, is allowed to shout “down with Xi Jinping”. He embodies his ambition to be the true inheritor of the party. And without an anointed successor, he can rule for as long as he wants. But the experience of the teenage Xi continues to resonate: the line between chaos and control is always razor thin.■

Sue-Lin Wong is China correspondent for The Economist and is the host of an eight-part podcast on Xi Jinping called “The Prince”
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