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.
Mr. Xi rose through the party ranks in China’s eastern Fujian province, where he became governor in 2000. Seven years later, he assumed the role of Communist Party secretary in Shanghai after his predecessor was ousted in a corruption scandal.
Barely six months into his new job, Mr. Xi was elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee – China’s top political body – in a sign that he was expected to succeed Mr. Hu. In October 2010, he was appointed vice chairman of the central military commission, removing any doubts about his imminent rise to the very top.
“We know a lot about Xi Jinping, but little is known about which direction he is going to take,” said Mr. Yang. “He has no political achievement whatsoever. … He has no good record, but he also has no bad record.”
Few expect Mr. Xi to be a different leader in substance from his predecessors.
“He is party chief of the political system. He is bound by very, very strong interests,” said Mr. Yang.
One of the reasons Mr. Xi will find it hard to make his own mark is that the Communist Party’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee takes major policy decisions by consensus.
“There is really very little evidence that Xi himself is going to be a major innovator, that he is going to try and shake things up or change things. He has benefited from the system, and there is not much evidence that he would want to rock the boat,” said Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
Mr. Xi is expected to focus early in his tenure on tackling China’s rampant corruption and turning around a slowing economy.
“Corruption in China is out of control,” said Mr. Wang of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation. “He should take care of the home front first,” before focusing on foreign policy, he added.
Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution, said the new Chinese leadership will “continue to push for much bolder economic reform.”
“Now there is good opportunity for them to prove they are capable economic administrators,” Mr. Li said at Brookings forum recently.
The U.S.-China relationship will continue to be dominated by Chinese concerns over the U.S.’s Asia pivot. Despite assurances from the Obama administration, the new policy initiative is widely viewed in China as an attempt to check its rise globally. On a visit to Washington in February, Mr. Xi met with President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
“The Chinese are going to be more prickly, more assertive, when it comes to territory and other issues of nationalism,” said Mr. Cheng of the Heritage Foundation.
“So, for U.S. policy, what we’re looking at is a very great likelihood that we are going to wind up with a China that is going to be more assertive toward U.S. allies, more aggressive in some ways.”
Mr. Xi has a more emotional bond with the United States than Mr. Hu. Unlike Mr. Hu, who first traveled to the U.S. in 2002, Mr. Xi has visited the U.S. many times. He first came as part of an agricultural delegation in 1985 and stayed with a family in Muscatine, Iowa. Mr. Xi has a daughter who is studying at Harvard University.
“His U.S. experience should have given him some understanding of America. That is important,” said Mr. Wang.
Few expect Mr. Xi to present a softer image when it comes to human rights.
Mr. Yang, who took part in the 1989 pro-democracy protests, is pessimistic about the chances of an improvement in China’s human rights record.
“Human rights have taken a backseat [in the U.S.-China relationship], so in that sense Mr. Xi does not have to make any gestures of human rights improvement in order to maintain or improve the relationship with the U.S.,” he said.