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What Xi Jinping’s Past Means

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China Power

What Xi Jinping’s Past Means

Much has been made of what Xi Jinping’s past will mean for his presidency. We shouldn’t read too much into it.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping has been a regular in the news because of his recently concluded U.S. visit, and much been made in the media of his personal history. Xi spent 7 years in a village in central China doing manual labor during the Cultural Revolution, when educated young people were sent to the countryside.  The Wall Street Journal describes his youth as spent living in a “Spartan cave dwelling” in “Early Hardship Shaped Xi’s World View,” while the Los Angeles Times, in an article titled “China political star Xi Jinping a study in contrasts,” also detailed his apparently tough living conditions: “A thin quilt spread on bricks was his bed, a bucket was his toilet. Dinners were a porridge of millet and raw grain.”

There were many other pieces along the same lines – articles that started out by describing his youth, his rise to power, and how his personal hardships would make him more accessible and open to the needs of the rural class in China. A New York Times editorial by Ho Pin went so far as to say, “His past sufferings will most likely make him an advocate of ordinary people’s interests.”

But there are a few points that need mentioning. First, Xi was born and spent much of his childhood as a princeling – the son of Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary and vice premier under Mao Zedong – until he was purged. That means that for much of his upbringing, he had a very privileged existence.

The backgrounds of leaders have also not proven to be direct indicators of their policies. Leaders who have studied abroad haven’t necessarily proven to be more Western-friendly or liberal. Also, before current President Hu Jintao took office in 2003, his background – particularly his time at the Central Party School (where he allowed open discussion of political reform) and a speech supporting the rule of law – seemed to indicate that he would push for social and economic equality and perhaps even advance political reform. This hasn’t happened.

Additionally, Xi’s background isn’t so different from many other Chinese leaders – Mao was a peasant, but many of his policies (especially the Great Leap Forward) were distinctly not rural friendly. 

Xi may have a background that lends itself to poetic musings, but this distant past shouldn’t be relied upon too heavily in anticipating his future actions. It isn’t safe to assume that time spent in the countryside will lead to more support for economic and social equality.  Instead, it’s safer to look at his more recent past, when he was the leader of such market-friendly areas as Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Fujian.

Shanghai has often been used as a laboratory for new economic reforms, including renminbi convertibility, and Zhejiang is known for its focus on small and medium-sized businesses. In Zhejiang, Xi simplified registration processes for new companies, expanded the ability of private companies to obtain loans, improved protections on private property, and supported the local automaker Geely.  He’s also a personal friend of former U.S. treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. 

Based on this more recent history, one can venture to say that he will be a friend of market liberalization.

Though China’s growth engine continues to chug along, there are some significant issues that must be corrected in order to maintain the engine. There must be a transition in growth from export-led and resource-heavy, to consumption-led and innovation-based, in part due to the imminent demographic transition that will reduce the Chinese labor pool. Also, in order to more efficiently and effectively integrate into the global market, capital controls must be loosened, while in order to reduce inefficiency in the domestic market, state-owned enterprises must be de-prioritized to allow private enterprises to gain a more secure foothold.    

When making any prognostications about Xi’s future presidency, it’s important to keep in mind what Brookings scholar Cheng Li notes in a recent interview: “China today is very much a collective leadership. Xi is only the first among equals.” This means that his rule will not be absolute, but rather characterized by constraints and compromises. No matter how much or how little an impact his personal history has on his actions, his actions will be restricted by China’s collective leadership structure.