After years of persecution by a Communist Party he helped bring to power, Xi Zhongxun was hauled from solitary confinement and taken to see his family. The purged revolutionary could barely recognize his own offspring and recalled a melancholy Tang Dynasty poem: “My children do not know me. They smile and say: ‘Stranger, where do you come from?’ ”
More than three decades later, his son is set to become China’s next leader. Just months from his near-certain elevation to the country’s most powerful post — general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party — 58-year-old Xi Jinping arrived in Washington on Monday for a visit that U.S. officials hope will clarify the direction of the world’s fastest-rising economic and military power.
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.
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.
Xi nonetheless has a reputation for probity, and his close relatives are not known to be multimillionaires. He was raised, according to biographer Jia, on frugal values: The elder Xi, after taking a bath, made his son bathe in the same water. In an interview with Chinese television, Xi Jinping recalled having to wear flowery hand-me-down clothes from his sisters. As a teenager, after his father’s fall, he was banished to a poor village in Shaanxi.
He “takes after his father’s excellent qualities,” the official biographer said.
A big question, though, is whether those include his father’s political outlook, or whether his father’s troubles left Xi convinced that unwavering toughness and extreme caution offer the best hope for survival. Although respected by crusty conservatives and neo-Maoist firebrands, Xi senior is particularly popular with many liberals, who remember him as unusually open-minded and tolerant — and hope that his son, under a carapace of political rectitude, is perhaps similar.
There is no sign that China is about to get its own Mikhail Gorbachev, a seemingly conventional apparatchik who rose to the summit of the Soviet party and then destroyed it. Xi does not have to deal with a calamity that drove dramatic change in Moscow: China’s economy is not dying.
All the same, many still “hope that after he takes power, Xi Jinping will be as enlightened as his father,” said Gao Wenqian, a U.S.-based scholar who spent years combing through secret party documents in Beijing for a biography — banned in China — of former premier Zhou Enlai. “There are two Xi Jinpings,” Gao said. “One . . . has the enlightened genes of Xi Zhongxun in his blood. The other is heir to the red nation of the Communist Party. The latter is dominant, but you can’t exclude the influence of the former.”
Frank Dikotter, a Dutch scholar who is working on a book on the party’s early years in power, urged caution in viewing Xi’s father as a “great moderate.” Archive material records him demanding an “active attack” against Christian churches. He never questioned one-party rule. But, said Dikotter, he does seem to have been broader-minded than the norm and “doesn’t come across as a big mister nasty” who saw violence as a solution.
While in charge of a vast swath of northwestern China in the early 1950s, the elder Xi resisted pressure from some colleagues to crush an early uprising by Tibetans and insisted on negotiating. When Deng Xiaoping ordered tanks into Tiananmen Square to clear protesters in 1989, Xi said nothing publicly but is widely thought to have been appalled. (His official biographer declined to comment on that).
The rise of his son has led to a burst of interest in past events that could provide a few clues for the future. These notably include the vicious internal struggles that led to the elder Xi’s arrest by a rival faction in 1935, the purge of his close comrade-in-arms Gao Gang in 1953 (Gao killed himself and is still in the party’s bad books), his ouster by Mao in 1962, and the toppling of another ally, the relatively liberal party secretary Hu Yaobang, in 1987.
The most direct probing of the elder Xi’s travails has come in books published in Hong Kong, which is free of censorship. Among the titles: “Xi Zhongxun’s Grudges With Other Senior Communists.”
Discussion on the mainland has been more elliptical, led by Yanhuang Chunqiu, a journal read by reform-minded party veterans and intellectuals. Over the past year, it has published three articles dissecting a 1962 dispute over a historical novel that led to the denunciation of Xi — who appears in the book under a pseudonym — as leader of an “anti-party clique.” Xi was finally rehabilitated in 1978, and a ban on the novel, “Liu Zhidan,” was lifted. (The book has since been banned again.)
Under pressure to curb its quarrying into sensitive history and its bold editorials calling for political reform, Yanhuang Chunqiu hosted a reception in Beijing last week and summoned the memory of Xi Zhongxun to fortify its defenses. It displayed a calligraphic inscription penned by the elder Xi shortly before his death: “Yanhuang Chunqiu is pretty good!”
With his massive official biography stuck in limbo, party historian Jia said he is “taking it easy” while he tries to find a publisher for a shorter, unofficial chronicle of Xi Zhongxun. He has not had much luck. “China’s censorship system is a big problem, especially when it comes to important political figures,” he said. “Everyone has their own opinion.”
Researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.