Xi Jinping, anointed last month as China’s new leader, was an impressionable 9-year-old in 1962 when his father, a prominent revolutionary and vice premier, fell out of favor with Mao Zedong.
Six years later, as his father languished in prison, Mr. Xi was among the millions of “intellectual youth” who were banished from urban areas to the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which sought to enforce communism across China.
He was sent to Liangjiahe, a remote village in China’s impoverished northwestern province of Shaanxi, where he worked as an agricultural laborer.
“He spent six years there, cutting hay, reaping wheat and shepherding in the daytime, and then reading books in the dim light of a kerosene lamp while enduring the harassment of fleas at night,” according to Mr. Xi’s official biography published in China’s state media.
Recalling those days, Mr. Xi would later tell a Chinese magazine: “I ate a lot more bitterness than most people.”
Born in Beijing in 1953, Mr. Xi is a “princeling,” a term given to children of high-ranking Communist Party officials.
For most of his life, Mr. Xi has had to battle the negative perceptions associated with princelings, whose political success is seen by many Chinese as a consequence of their elite parentage rather than their own talent or hard work.
Mr. Xi was openly critical of the Cultural Revolution but did not shun the Communist Party. Instead, Mr. Xi “chose to survive by becoming redder than red,” as an acquaintance of his said, according to a leaked U.S. Embassy cable,
“This is a man who knows how to make friends, both in the party and outside the party,” said Yang Jianli, president of Initiatives for China, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to advancing peaceful democratic change in China.
On Nov. 15, Mr. Xi was confirmed to lead China for the next decade when he was named secretary general of the Communist Party of China.
Mr. Xi stands in stark contrast to the man he has succeeded: Hu Jintao.
“You feel relaxed when you talk to him. He is approachable. He is not a bureaucrat,” said Chi Wang, president of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation, who has met Mr. Xi a few times, including in Washington earlier this year.
After Mao died in 1976, Mr. Xi’s father was rehabilitated and appointed party secretary of Guangdong province, where he oversaw economic reforms.
His father’s connections helped secure him a spot in the elite Tsinghua University and later a job as personal secretary to Geng Biao, who was defense minister at the time.