Zhengding, China, Sept. 30: Thirty years ago, a young government official with a plum job in Beijing made an odd request: reassignment to a poor rural area.
At the time, millions of young people were still clawing their way back to China’s urban centres after being exiled to the countryside in the Mao era. But 30-year-old Xi Jinping bucked the trend, giving up a secure post as adviser to a top military leader to navigate the tumultuous village politics of Zhengding, in Hebei Province.
The move offers a window on the political savvy of Xi, who, despite a recent two-week absence from public view that raised questions about his health, is on the cusp of taking over as China’s supreme leader at a party congress that would begin November 8.
Xi (his full name is pronounced Shee Jin-ping) gained a measure of credibility to speak for rural Chinese compared with many other well-connected children of the elite. He also realised, according to several inside accounts, that his powerful family stood firmly behind him, ensuring that his stint in the countryside would be a productive and relatively brief exercise in résumé building that could propel him up the Communist Party hierarchy.
His powerful father, Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary-era military leader, helped orchestrate his transfer, selecting Zhengding because of its relative proximity to Beijing, and later having Xi reassigned when he ran into local opposition, Chinese experts who have researched Xi’s background said.
His connections allowed him to take chances in Zhengding. He pushed through market-oriented reforms when they were still considered cutting edge, and sidelined pro-Maoists. His stint in the countryside also helped him form new alliances with other offspring of the elite who would later prove important allies.
Even three decades into the country’s rapid industrialisation, China’s leadership still pays heed to its heritage as a party of peasants, and it has tended to promote officials who can claim to be deeply rooted in the rural struggle. But it has also tended to favour “princelings”, the privileged offspring of former leaders who had ties to the party’s revolutionary history.
After his time in Zhengding, Xi could check both boxes.
“People think of him as being from the new generation of technocrats,” says Jin Zhong, a Hong Kong-based analyst of Chinese political leaders. “But he’s really a continuation of the red bureaucracy of his father’s generation.”
Xi’s trajectory was similar to that of Bo Xilai, another princeling who used stints in the provinces to create an image of a bold reformer and champion of the poor before his career was derailed by a major scandal this year. Xi’s stay in Zhengding, however, was characteristically more cautious, even as parts of it have entered modern Chinese political lore.
When Xi volunteered for rural duty in 1982, he did so along with two other up-and-coming officials, including Liu Yuan, son of the former head of state under Mao, Liu Shaoqi.
The men’s decision to work at the grass roots caught the popular imagination after the author Ke Yunlu wrote a 1986 novel, New Star, about a party secretary who takes modern, market ideas to a backward province. The official meets many troubles but manages to triumph.
The novel’s hero was a composite character based on Xi and the other two young officials. The book was soon made into a popular television series and is still widely known as a classic of that early reform era.
What Xi found in Zhengding was less romantic than the novel. He had hoped to be a party secretary with direct authority over a town or county but the conservative provincial party secretary, Gao Yang, blocked that.
Disgusted by inexperienced but well-connected princelings like Xi parachuting into his domain, Gao made him deputy party secretary of Zhengding.
Still, Xi took on the assignment with gusto. He wore a green army greatcoat from his involuntary service in another rural area under Mao, roaming the town night and day to survey its problems.
Xi’s biggest challenge was managing the county’s roads, which were part of national north-south arteries. They were bad — strewn with manure, dirt and grain left out to dry.
Xi took firm action. He held mandatory classes for 43,200 people — 10 per cent of the county’s population — on how the roads should be handled. As a member of the county’s Politics and Law Committee, he also helped lead a draconian crackdown on crime, part of a nationwide attack on “Spiritual Pollution”.
Later in 1983, Xi was promoted to party secretary and kept a firm hand on social issues. Under his leadership, the local government strictly enforced the national one-child policy. The county sterilised 31,000 women and fit another 30,000 with intrauterine contraceptive devices.
Like the crime campaign, the family planning measures were part of a national policy and there is no evidence that Xi was more zealous than others. But it illustrates a truism for successful Chinese leaders — that social issues have to be dealt with firmly to create political space for market-opening economic measures.
Zhengding was a grain-growing centre, with peasants forced to grow huge amounts for central granaries. Xi formed a clever alliance with Maoists and used his family ties in Beijing to cut Zhengding’s grain quota by one-quarter.
That freed up farmers to use their land more lucratively, such as for raising fish, geese or cattle.
Xi caused even more of a stir in Zhengding when he tried to make it a centre of television filming. State television was filming the classic novel Dream of Red Mansions, which is set in a palace and surrounding grounds. Crews had already built an enormous replica of the park in Beijing.
But Xi used his political connections to get the mansion built in Zhengding, meaning the cast had to travel six hours to Zhengding to shoot indoor scenes.
Despite local opposition, Xi pushed through a plan to spend three times the original amount in a bid to make the set permanent.
The story of building the television studio is now firmly part of Xi’s official lore, touted as an example of his visionary economic leadership. In justifying the costs, he said it would help create a tourist attraction, and for many years it was popular because the television series was a huge hit. Several other shows were also filmed there.
But what is rarely mentioned is that the Rongguofu mansion now gets few visitors and has not been used as a set for 20 years. It also spawned two spinoffs in Zhengding that are bankrupt
Despite his clout, Xi was not promoted beyond county chief. He was blocked by Gao, the provincial party secretary.
In 1985 his father arranged to have him transferred to China’s wealthier and more reform-minded coast, where he served under a more sympathetic party chief with ties to his father.
“You can’t separate his accomplishments from his political support,” said Yang Zhongmei, a Xi biographer and lecturer at Yokohama City University. “This is the model you see today: if you have enough political support and money, you can accomplish a lot.”