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."
Li called Xi "very conservative."
Xi began his party work at a relatively low level, slowly and methodically working his way up through the system from the county level to the provincial level.
Yan Huai, a retired former official of the Communist Party's now-disbanded Young Cadres Bureau, said he did an assessment of Xi's work as a "young cadre" in 1983 in Zhengding county of Hebei province. After interviewing local officials, Yan said he reported at the time: "Xi Jinping is open-minded, knows the local situation well, works very hard and solidly, in a down-to-earth way."
In an interview, Yan said Xi, in Hebei province, "spent most of his time on working." Xi was educated - he studied chemistry at Tsinghua University - but he was serving in a largely rural, undeveloped province, where most local officials had little or no schooling. "He not only worked hard but also was good at expressing his own ideas or opinions," Yan said.
Yan recalled one instance when Xi pushed an idea over the objections of the locals in Zhengding. A television company wanted to set up operations in the county to film a series based on the Chinese classic "A Dream of Red Mansions." Many of the local officials thought that it was a frivolous waste of money and that the government funds should be used to advance agriculture. But Xi saw the project as the potential starting point for a new industry for Hebei to draw in tourists and other film projects.
"From that example, we came to know that Xi was a young cadre supporting new ideas and who dared to try new things," Yan said.
From Hebei, Xi went on to Fujian province, where he held a variety of local and provincial posts before becoming governor. He presided over the opening of Fujian to foreign investment from Taiwan across the Taiwan Strait. He is considered a capable, market-oriented economic manager.
In Fujian, and later in Shanghai, where he held the top party post for a few months, Xi moved to leadership positions after party officials became embroiled in scandal. That gave him a reputation as a "Mr. Clean" in the party that has become notorious for corruption.
One question many ask is whether Xi, once in power, might choose to emulate his father, who was known as a political reformer. Rehabilitated by Deng after the Cultural Revolution, Xi Zhongxun became a close ally of Hu Yaobang, the reformist who was purged from power in 1987 and whose death two years later started the demonstrations that led to the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.
Xi Zhongxun fell out of favor for opposing the army's use of force against the students at Tiananmen.
Will Xi the son follow the path of the father?
"He must know that if the party doesn't change and keeps on the same road as now, then the party cannot be sustained," said Zhang, the historian. "But when he finally wears the crown, it won't be just him who decides."
Researchers Wang Juan and Liu Liu contributed to this report.