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Breaking News VOTE 2018

The Real Xi A Guarded Secret

As China’s president moves to become leader for life, it is striking how little is known about him, despite his having held the country’s highest posts since 2012.
Issued: 2018-03-05



BEIJING — One Sunday last month, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, traveled to a village in the mountains of Sichuan Province. He wore an olive overcoat with a fur collar, which he kept zipped up even when he entered an adobe house to meet with villagers. Around an indoor fire pit, he sat among a circle of people wearing traditional clothes of the Yi minority group.

“How did the Communist Party come into being?” he asked at one point as he extolled the virtues of socialism. Without hesitating, he answered. “It was established to lead people to a happy life,” he said, and then he added:

“That’s what we should do forever.”

Mr. Xi’s remark — specifically its open-ended pledge — suddenly resonates more deeply than before. Barring the unexpected, delegates gathering this week for the annual National People’s Congress in Beijing will rubber-stamp constitutional changes that will enable Mr. Xi to remain the country’s leader indefinitely by presidential term limits.

Mr. Xi, who will turn 65 in June, has done more than any of his predecessors to create a public persona as an avuncular man of the people, even as he has maneuvered behind the scenes with a ruthless ambition to dominate China’s inscrutable elite politics.

The government’s propaganda apparatus regularly depicts him as a firm yet adoring patriarch a leader who fights poverty and corruption at home while building China’s prestige abroad as an emerging superpower.

Hagiography aside, what is striking is how little is known about Mr. Xi’s biography as a leader, despite having held the country’s highest posts since 2012 — president, general secretary and commander in chief, among others.


Even the move to stay in power, announced on Feb. 25, caught many here by surprise. It has shaken Chinese politics and stirred an unusual amount of rumblings, if not open dissent. In hindsight, though, scenes like the one in Sichuan have for years been building the foundation for Mr. Xi’s elevation to a status unlike any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.


In one recent video shown on state television, he was depicted as the “arms, legs and heart” of the entire nation. The script evoked the “family-state” ideal at the center of Confucianism, showing a cutout of Mr. Xi guiding a bicycle with a young girl behind him. In the report from Sichuan, part of a 23-minute feature that appeared on state television two days later, not one but two villagers uttered the same refrain on the theme.

“He is like our parents,” each said.

Out of public view, Mr. Xi’s deliberations and decisions unfold in utmost secrecy. Leaks have all but ended in the Xi era, a reflection of fear as much as loyalty. Even a move that could profoundly reshape China’s destiny was opaque to all but the few who work closely under him in Zhongnanhai, the government compound beside the Forbidden City that is, for ordinary Chinese, an informational black hole.

“We know nothing about how this decision came about,” said Kerry Brown, a professor at King’s College London and author of a 2016 biography, “C.E.O., China: The Rise of Xi Jinping.”

He and other experts described the extreme secrecy around China’s leader — even where Mr. Xi lives is not broadly known — as symptomatic of an affliction that can often hobble autocratic leaders: living inside a closed bubble of self-affirmation, echoed by yes-men (all men, in his case).

“The reason it is hard to see inside,” Mr. Brown said of Zhongnanhai, “is in part because it is hard to see out.”

The secrecy certainly contributes to the mystique of power in China, as elsewhere, but the closed and by all accounts small circle where decisions are made could also lay the foundation for challenges to his rule, especially if China faces unforeseen crises in the years ahead, experts say.

That could explain why the government seemed not to anticipate the opposition to removing the term limits, which sent the censors into overdrive last week, blocking mentions of words like “my emperor.” The state news media has since played down the issue as if it were a small, routine matter.


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