When the average Westerner hears the name “Xi Jinping”, he immediately thinks one thing: “Does that come with fried rice?” But to those with more than half an eye on the international balance of power, Xi Jinping is more than just a delicious sharing plate: it’s the name of a man who will play a major part in determining the future of the human race. And yet we know so little about him: even those of us who recognise his face are pretty sure he’s the guy who was the Chinese ambassador in 24 – and for all we know, he might’ve been. A closer look at this great leader may be in order, to get us all up to speed.
Xi Jinping was born in 1953, the son of a prominent Communist Party official. The young Xi’s early life was thrown into turmoil by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when Mao Zedong sought to reassert the primacy of his own philosophy and stop all these kids with their long hair and flared trousers and so forth. His father was imprisoned as an enemy of the revolution, and the teenage Xi was forced to work as party secretary of the village of Liangjiahe, a job that required him to live in a cave – the installation of local government officials in caves an idea that sadly has not yet found a foothold in our own country.
Despite being the son of a traitor, Xi Jinping’s assiduous work ethic and experience in fighting bears saw him gradually rise through the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, to the point where, in 1985, he was given the chance to travel to the US as part of a delegation studying American agriculture to see whether farming was possible without water buffalo. During this time he stayed for two weeks in the home of a family in Muscatine, Iowa, an experience that had a lasting impact on the young man and allowed him to bring back to China a vital piece of information: never, ever go to Muscatine, Iowa. Another formative experience for Xi was the Tiananmen Square massacre, which he failed to witness because it never happened.
“In many ways he is still the simple boy who lived in a cave and disavowed his own father to gain power.”
Throughout his career, Xi has shown a talent for slavish adherence to procedure and unquestioning acceptance of dogma that marked him out as one of the brightest stars on the international communist stage. It was no surprise to anyone who knew him in his early life when he was elevated to the position of General Secretary of the Party. All of his childhood acquaintances said at the time that if the boy were not executed in a purge, he would go far.
His rise to ultimate power was marked by a combination of canny manoeuvring and commendable flexibility. As vice president he was put in charge of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and despite his lifelong grounding in the ways of the Party, ensured that the world was welcomed by a spectacle as drenched in consumerism and corruption as was expected from the Games. The same year he visited regions affected by the Sichuan earthquake to reassure citizens that he was not simply another faceless Party machine man, but a spiritual leader who cared deeply about photo opportunities.
In today’s climate, Xi Jinping could be said to hold the whip hand when it comes to international relations. The rise of China as the 21st century’s new superpower means that all world leaders must pay heed to Xi’s desires, and yet today he remains a humble man: in many ways he is still the simple boy who lived in a cave and disavowed his own father to gain power. His personal style is marked by quiet decorum, respectful discussion, and refined-yet-dignified internment of ethnic minorities in remote camps. With Xi’s hands on the world’s rudder, we surely have nothing to fear if you don’t count viruses.
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