CHINA'S 19TH PARTY CONGRESS

Xi Jinping's village is testament to his rise in power

Parents photographing their children in front of the hostel where Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have lived during his time in Liangjiahe, China, on Oct 6, 2017.
Parents photographing their children in front of the hostel where Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have lived during his time in Liangjiahe, China, on Oct 6, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LIANGJIAHE, China (NYTIMES) - Almost 50 years after Chinese President Xi Jinping first trudged into this village as a cold, bewildered teenager, hundreds of political pilgrims retrace his footsteps every day.

They follow a well-trodden course designed to show how the seven years that the young Mr Xi spent in this hardscrabble village in China's barren north-west forged the strongman style that he now uses to rule the world's most populous nation.

Visitors peer down a well that Mr Xi helped to dig, admire a storage pit that he built to turn manure into methane gas for stoves and lamps, and sit for inspirational lectures outside the cave homes where he sheltered from the chaos of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

"When he first arrived in Liangjiahe, he wasn't prepared for the hardship," a guide told a tour group of officials, who listened attentively under drizzling rain.

The message, conveyed by the guides and the village's carefully tended buildings and artefacts, is that Mr Xi left Liangjiahe steeled for the leadership roles that he would one day assume.

Turning a leader's former home into a tableau for propagating his political-creation myth has a venerable precedent in the People's Republic. Back in the 1960s, the late leader Mao's birthplace, Shaoshan, was turned into a secular shrine for slogan-chanting Red Guards who looked on modern China's founder as a nearly god-like figure.

The devotion at Liangjiahe falls far short of the fervent cult of personality that Mao ignited. Even so, Mr Xi stands out for turning his own biography into an object of adoration, and zeal.

Neither of Mr Xi's recent predecessors as leader, Mr Hu Jintao and Mr Jiang Zemin, could tout a similarly dramatic tale of coming of age in a dim, flea-infested cave.

But more than that, Mr Xi's story embodies the authoritarian values he wants to restore in China - a "red-brown" melding of Communist revivalism and earthy nationalism rooted in a glorified rendering of China's ancient past.

SENT-DOWN GENERATION

Liberal-minded members of China's middle class bridle at that ideology. But others, including farmers and blue-collar workers, find a lot to like in Mr Xi's appeals to patriotic pride and homespun populism.

"Xi has the perfect resume. He's a son of the revolution, but not a child of privilege," said political analyst Trey McArver, who is also co-founder of Trivium/China, which advises companies working in China.

"What Xi's story says clearly is: He is a Communist born and bred, but he also understands the common people," said Mr McArver.

This storyline resonates with many of the nearly 18 million Chinese who were also sent to the countryside by Mao in a mass effort to re-educate urban youth in the rustic virtues of China's peasant majority, while defusing the fanaticism of the Red Guards.


Visitors in Liangjiahe, the village where President Xi Jinping spent a formative period of his youth during the Cultural Revolution. PHOTO: NYTIMES

This so-called sent-down generation now holds the reins of the Communist Party, including four spots on the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's highest rung of power.

Members of that generation said Mr Xi shared not only their experiences, but also their values of frugality and perseverance. They said that these have been lost in younger Chinese, especially those in urban centres like Beijing, who grew up after their nation's economic take-off.

"Beijingers who weren't sent to the countryside can't handle nearly as much hardship as those of us who did," said 66-year-old Xia Baoqing, who was also sent to work near Liangjiahe. "Of course, President Xi has some similar characteristics. He encourages thrift and avoiding waste, and he's very self-disciplined."

CEMENTING HIS POWER

The emergence of Liangjiahe as a popular tourist site attests to Mr Xi's speed in propelling himself to the centre of Chinese politics. He is poised to entrench his power at a Communist Party congress this month (October).

In the run-up, party newspapers and a new book have promoted the official line that Mr Xi is a strong leader with close ties to the common people because of his time in Liangjiahe.

"Finding high purpose in suffering always makes a good story. This is one such case," said Professor Yang Guobin at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the Cultural Revolution generation. "Like Mao, he is from the people, so the future legend might go."

But even with the worshipful official biography, it remains unclear how far Mr Xi can go in consolidating power.

While Mr Xi is expected to use the congress to fill more of the party's top tier with his backers, he could face stiff opposition, especially if he tries to keep his top ally and anti-corruption overseer, Mr Wang Qishan, in office despite reaching the usual retirement age.

Still, no other recent Chinese leader has amassed as much power as Mr Xi, 64. And no leader since Mao has used his personal biography to this extent in asserting his right to lead.

"There has been that sea change, and his style of leadership is much more personalist," said professor of Chinese politics Patricia Thornton at Oxford.

Just as Shaoshan did for Mao, Liangjiahe has come to figure prominently in Mr Xi's official biography.

When he arrived at the age of 15 in early 1969, as one of millions of Chinese youth sent to the countryside by Mao, the village's 360 residents lived in caves dug into the dry, ochre-coloured hillsides, and eked a meagre existence out of the dusty soil.

According to the current narrative, Mr Xi showed his first signs of greatness in the then-penniless village, rising to a position of local party leadership.

"The experience of being steeled by being sent to rural Liangjiahe was the wellspring of Xi Jinping's thinking, mind-set and feelings," Lei Pingsheng, a student from Beijing who was sent to work in the village, says in a new Chinese-language book, Xi Jinping's Seven Years As A Sent-Down Youth.

The book has been heavily promoted by the party-run media before the congress.

These days, Liangjiahe, which is about 611km south-west of Beijing, is thronged by officials, many of whom have been ordered to study Mr Xi's life.

About 2,500 people visit Liangjiahe each day, People's Daily reported, and many of them are ferried in on minibuses after paying a US$3 (S$4) ticket. Visitors are given a carefully airbrushed version of China's recent history.


A visitor looks at an old photograph of a young Xi Jinping with party members, in Liangjiahe. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The propaganda about Mr Xi's time at the village offers only hints of the ferocity of the Cultural Revolution that drove him and the other sent-down youth to villages like Liangjiahe in the first place.

Mr Xi has demanded reverence for Mao and banned historians from exploring dark episodes of starvation and persecution that could tarnish the party's image.

"It's a selective memory that is about the glories of collective sacrifice for the revolutionary cause," Professor Zhao Suisheng at the University of Denver, who was also sent to work in the countryside under Mao.

POLITICAL ARISTOCRACY

Mr Xi's time in Liangjiahe was also more turbulent than portrayed in these sanitised versions of history, according to less-guarded accounts that Mr Xi gave before he became national leader.

He was born into political aristocracy, the son of a revolutionary who followed Mao into Beijing after the Communist Party took power. But in 1962, Mao turned against his father, and Mr Xi's family was hounded and torn apart during the Cultural Revolution from 1966, when Mao let Red Guards attack his ex-allies. One of Mr Xi's sisters died in the mayhem, possibly by taking her own life.

Mr Xi has also contradicted some key parts of the official story. In a 2004 interview, given when Mr Xi was still an obscure provincial official, he recalled being glad to go to Liangjiahe because Beijing was more dangerous.

"On the entire train everyone was crying, but I was smiling," he said. "If I didn't leave, I didn't even know if I'd survive."

After three days of travel by train, truck and foot, Mr Xi and 14 other youths reached the village, where they were shocked by the levels of poverty. They also suffered an infestation of fleas that left their bodies covered in sores.

Mr Xi said that after a few months he could not cope and returned to Beijing, which the official narrative neglects to mention.

He eventually returned to the village, staying until the Cultural Revolution's waning days in 1975, when he was allowed to attend university in Beijing.

"Liangjiahe gave me everything, and I'll never forget it as long as I live," Mr Xi said as he prepared to leave the village for university, according to the new book.