Probing where Xi might be going, however, involves answering a question that, back home in China, is largely taboo: Where exactly is the leader-in-waiting coming from?
A brief, official biography issued by Xinhua News Agency makes no mention of Xi’s illustrious father, who commanded communist guerrillas in northwest China, rose to the rank of deputy prime minister after the 1949 revolution, got ousted by Mao Zedong in 1962 and, after 16 years in disgrace, reemerged to pioneer some of China’s boldest economic reforms. In written replies to questions submitted by The Washington Post, Xi did not answer a query about how he has been influenced by his father’s troubles.
That Xi’s father — who died in 2002 at age 88 — was once one of Mao’s trusted lieutenants and also one of his early victims is not a secret. Nor is the family’s suffering. Xi himself mentioned the trauma in a private August meeting in Beijing with Vice President Biden.
But the details of the elder Xi’s tumultuous career — his rupture with Mao, his close ties to other purge targets who are still on the party’s blacklist, and his defiance of rigid orthodoxy — are increasingly sensitive topics in a one-party state where history is shaped to serve the present.
Like father, like son?
Fixing an official line on the elder Xi “has become more and more complicated,” said Jia Juchuan, a party historian entrusted with writing an official biography of Xi Jinping’s father. He published a first volume in 2008, covering his life up to 1949, but a second volume recounting subsequent, strife-torn years is stalled. The text was finished three years ago, but Xi Jinping’s anointment since then as heir apparent has held up publication — each line of his father’s biography is now under microscopic scrutiny.
“So many officials and people want to make changes and add things,” said Jia, who works at the Party History Research Office in Shaanxi, the Xi family’s home province. “Lots of political factors have been introduced. Everyone, no matter whether they have jobs or are retired, wants to leave something for their own status.. . . People who don’t know about history are writing history, and people who don’t to how to write biography are writing biography.”
For China’s next leader, such a father is a mixed blessing. It connects him with the party’s heroic early years. But it also brings risks at a time of deep public resentment toward so-called “princelings.” Membership in this revolutionary aristocracy “is a serious liability” in terms of public image, said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Xi’s daughter, like the offspring of many senior Communist officials, studies in the United States, at Harvard.