Born Red

When Xi was fourteen, Red Guards warned, “We can execute you a hundred times.” He joined the Communist Party at twenty. Credit Illustration by Tavis Coburn

How Xi Jinping, an unremarkable provincial administrator, became China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao.

n anticipation of New Year’s Eve, 2014, Xi Jinping, the President of China and the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, permitted a camera crew to come into his office and record a message to the people. As a teen-ager, Xi had been sent to work on a farm; he was so delicate that other laborers rated him a six on a ten-point scale, “not even as high as the women,” he said later, with some embarrassment. Now, at sixty-one, Xi was five feet eleven, taller than any Chinese leader in nearly four decades, with a rich baritone and a confident heft. When he received a guest, he stood still, long arms slack, hair pomaded, a portrait of take-it-or-leave-it composure that induced his visitor to cross the room in pursuit of a handshake.

Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, read his annual New Year’s greeting from a lectern in an antiseptic reception hall. Xi, who took office in November, 2012, has associated himself with an earthier generation of Communists, a military caste that emphasized “hard work and plain living.” He delivered his New Year’s message at his desk. Behind him, bookshelves held photographs that depicted him as Commander-in-Chief and family man. In one picture, he was wearing Army fatigues and a fur hat, visiting soldiers in a snowfield; in another, he was strolling with his wife and daughter, and escorting his father, Xi Zhongxun, a hallowed revolutionary, in a wheelchair. The shelves also held matching sets of books. Xi’s classroom education was interrupted for nearly a decade by the Cultural Revolution, and he has the autodidact’s habit of announcing his literary credentials. He often quotes from Chinese classics, and in an interview with the Russian press last year he volunteered that he had read Krylov, Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Nekrasov, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Sholokhov. When he visited France, he mentioned that he had read Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Sartre, and twelve others. In his New Year’s remarks, Xi oscillated between socialist slogans (“Wave high the sword against corruption”) and catchphrases from Chinese social media (“I would like to click the thumbs-up button for our great people”). He vowed to fight poverty, improve the rule of law, and hold fast to history. When he listed the achievements of the past year, he praised the creation of a holiday dedicated to the Second World War: “Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.”

Xi is the sixth man to rule the People’s Republic of China, and the first who was born after the revolution, in 1949. He sits atop a pyramid of eighty-seven million members of the Communist Party, an organization larger than the population of Germany. The Party no longer reaches into every corner of Chinese life, as it did in the nineteen-seventies, but Xi nevertheless presides over an economy that, by one measure, recently surpassed the American economy in size; he holds ultimate authority over every general, judge, editor, and state-company C.E.O. As Lenin ordained, in 1902, “For the center . . . to actually direct the orchestra, it needs to know who plays violin and where, who plays a false note and why.”

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Source: The New Yorkers By April Issue

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