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When Xi Jinping was catapulted to the top of the Communist party hierarchy in 2007 the only thing most people in China knew about him was that he was married to a hugely popular military folk singer called Peng Liyuan.
So the party’s propaganda machine turned to Ms Peng, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army, to introduce the man selected by a conclave of political power brokers to be the next leader of the world’s most populous nation.
“The first time I met him my heart pounded and I felt immediately that this was my ideal husband, he was so pure and thoughtful,” she said in an interview with Chinese state media. Ms Peng also described him as humble and dedicated to his work as a party official.
Like most of China’s top political leaders Mr Xi is an enigmatic figure whose manicured official biography and public pronouncements offer few hints of what his policies might be when he ascends the communist throne.
In China and overseas, people have been projecting their own biases and preferences on to the man who will almost certainly succeed president Hu Jintao as Communist party general secretary at the end of this year and president and head of the military soon after.
Some say he is a strong nationalist leader who could try to confront the west, others argue he is pro-western but isolated and some hopeful liberals even quietly speculate that he could be a Chinese Gorbachev, itching to introduce democracy the first chance he gets.
His visit to the US this week, where he was received as if he was already head of state, has done little to illuminate his political leanings although it has thrust him into the global spotlight, where he appeared confident if somewhat colourless.
But contrary to appearances and his airbrushed official bio, Mr Xi’s path to the pinnacle of Communist power has been anything but boring.
Born the “princeling” son of a revolutionary general in 1953, he was surrounded by privilege from a young age, living in a compound for top Chinese leaders with the kind of comforts – servants, telephones and a steady food supply – that most citizens in the impoverished nation couldn’t dream of.
But all of that was snatched away when his father, Xi Zhongxun, who was by now a vice-premier, was detained in 1962 in one of Mao Zedong’s vicious purges. Gone were the trappings of the elite and the status of the young Xi, who for the next 15 years would be branded the son of a counter-revolutionary.
Things only got worse as the Cultural Revolution engulfed the nation in the late 1960s and he was shipped out to the countryside at the tender age of 15 to toil with the peasants as one of millions of “sent-down educated youth”. In a small village in northern Shaanxi Province he slept like the locals on a flea-infested bed made of bricks in a cave dug into the yellow dirt. “I ate a lot of bitterness at that time,” Mr Xi later wrote. “But my experience there had a profound influence on me and formed my down-to-earth, striving character.”
Friends of his say it was this experience that instilled in him an all-consuming desire to become a top party official and return to the leadership compounds of his youth.
While his father languished in prison he tried 10 times to join the same party that had brought so much suffering to his family but was refused because of his “bad class background”. He finally convinced the party to admit him in 1974 and a year later he was accepted to Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University.
While he studied chemical engineering, the Cultural Revolution ended, Deng Xiaoping came to power and Mr Xi’s father was rehabilitated before being sent by Deng to rule Guangdong Province. In 1979 Mr Xi was given a plum job as assistant to Geng Biao, China’s defence minister and an old comrade of his father.
According to friends of Mr Xi and his family, he made a “calculated” decision in 1982 to head back out to the countryside in order to build his resumé as a grassroots official. He was eventually appointed governor of Fujian, the province that lies just across the strait from Taiwan, in 2000 and then party secretary of prosperous Zhejiang Province in 2003.
His elevation to vice-president and presumptive heir to Mr Hu in 2007 came just months after he was parachuted into Shanghai to replace disgraced former party secretary Chen Liangyu, the most senior official to be arrested for corruption in more than a decade.
This leap from obscurity to centre stage came partly thanks to his efforts carefully to cultivate his own image as a humble, down-to-earth public servant, after he suffered a major setback a decade earlier. In 1997, amid a backlash against the “princelings”, he came last in an internal vote by Communist elites to select the party’s 344-member Central Committee.
In an opaque system known for endemic graft and corruption, Mr Xi is regarded as “clean”, although he is not immune to controversy.
Critics point out that his doctoral degree in law from Tsinghua was received for an on-the-job course in “applied Marxist theory and ideological education” and some commentators have claimed he plagiarised all or part of the thesis he wrote while governor of Fujian.
His and Ms Peng’s only child, a daughter, is studying as an undergraduate under an assumed name at Harvard, leading many to question his confidence in China’s own elite education system.
None of these concerns will derail Mr Xi’s rise to the top at the end of this year. But it remains a mystery what path he will decide to take once he finally reaches the goal he set for himself as a young man.
“We don’t know much about his views on political reform or how he will approach relations with the west,” says Cheng Li, an expert in elite Chinese politics at the Brookings Institute. “To a certain extent Xi may not know himself which way he will go.”
The writer is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief
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