Rising leader Xi Jinping's family suffered in Chinese power struggles

The recent elevation of Vice President Xi Jinping to a vice chairmanship of China's powerful Central Military Commission appeared to place him squarely in position to become the country's next president. Xi's ascent marks the rise of China's "princelings," the children of top party elders.
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 6:00 AM

IN BEIJING For China's leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, growing up as the son of a prominent revolutionary brought more pain than privilege.

His father - Xi Zhongxun, a contemporary of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping - lost out in a power struggle in 1963 and was banished and later jailed. As a teenager, Xi had to leave school and work in the fields doing farm labor for seven years.

Ultimately, it was the younger Xi's survival instincts that helped him navigate the shifting currents and competing blocs of the modern-day Chinese Communist Party. He succeeded to the point where he stands ready to become China's next leader, if all goes according to a carefully rafted succession plan.

What is known about Xi's background suggests that he is unlikely to be a bold or commanding leader in the mold of Mao, Deng or even the gregarious Jiang Zemin, who used to surprise his Western hosts by singing popular show tunes.

Rather, for reasons rooted in biography as well as politics, Xi is more likely to prove cautious and bureaucratic, presiding over a collective leadership with a style more like that of the current president, Hu Jintao, according to academics, party officials and others who study the party's inner works.

"I think he has learned how to survive," said Zhang Lifan, a historian who has studied the Communist Party and whose father was a friend and ally of Xi's father. "In his childhood, Xi Jinping suffered a lot. All of this experience greatly affected him.''

Xi's role as heir apparent to Hu was cemented last weekend, when the Central Committee of the Communist Party elevated Xi, 57, to vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, which oversees the People's Liberation Army. He would replace Hu as party secretary in 2012 and as president the following year.

As the son of a former revolutionary, Xi (pronounced "she") is among a generation of Chinese officials known as "princelings." They are sometimes described as having "royal blood," meaning they are descended from privilege and wear their leadership roles as comfortably and effortlessly as a well-tailored Western suit. They are often described as polar opposites of another group, the "tuanpai," who came from humbler backgrounds and whose ranks include Hu and the current premier, Wen Jiabao.

But one thing that many princelings share is that their parents suffered during the Cultural Revolution and the various intraparty power struggles of the past. Take, for instance, Bo Xilai, a politburo member and a party chief in Chongqing. His father, Bo Yibo, was imprisoned for 15 years under harsh conditions, and his mother was beaten to death. Bo Xilai was himself jailed as a teenager. And Liu Yuan, an army general, is the son of Liu Shaoqi, China's onetime head-of-state, who was labeled a "capitalist roader" and removed. The father died under harsh conditions.

Those early Cultural Revolution experiences, analysts said, have probably caused the princelings to learn, above all, how to maintain power, move cautiously and avoid making enemies. "I ate a lot more bitterness than most people," Xi told China Parenting Magazine in 1996, in one of the few known interviews in which he discussed his past.

Cheng Li, researcher with the Brookings Institution, refers to the current Chinese leadership as a "team of rivals," borrowing a popular phrase used often to describe President Obama's Cabinet.

"Xi Jinping is very low-profile and cautious, which might have some connection with his past experience in the 1960s when his father was kicked out of the power center," said Li Datong, a Beijing-based political commentator. "He actually did not enjoy many benefits assumed to be extended to the 'princelings' in those times."

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