China’s new leader spent much of his youth living in a dug-out cave.
Xi Jinping’s seven years in the remote northern community of Liangjiahe meant toiling alongside villagers by day and sleeping on bricks by night, in stark contrast to his pampered early years in Beijing. He was born into the communist elite, but after his father fell out of favour with Mao Zedong — and before his later rehabilitation — the Xi was sent to a rural hinterland at age 15 to learn peasant virtues.
“Knives are sharpened on the stone. People are refined through hardship,” Xi said in a rare 2001 interview. “Whenever I later encountered trouble, I’d just think of how hard it had been to get things done back then and nothing would then seem difficult.”
The Liangjiahe years are among the scant details known about Xi’s life and personality partly because he himself chronicled them as a formative experience. They are part of the vague picture of a man who has drawn little attention during much of his political career.
What is clear is that Xi has excelled at quietly rising through the ranks by making the most of two facets: He has an elite, educated background with links to communist China’s founding fathers that are a crucial advantage in the country’s politics, and at the same time he has successfully cultivated a common-man mystique that helps him appeal to a broad constituency. He even gave up a promising Beijing post in his late 20s to return to the countryside.
He did not at first come willingly, however, to Liangjiahe, a tiny community of cave dwellings dug into arid hills and fronted by dried mud walls with wooden lattice entryways. He tried to escape and was detained. Villagers remember a tall bookworm who eventually earned their respect.
It is in the nature of China’s politics that relatively little is known about Xi’s policy leanings. He is not associated with any bold reforms. Aspiring officials get promoted by encouraging economic growth, tamping down social unrest and toeing the line set by Beijing, not through charismatic displays of initiative.
Xi’s resume in provincial posts suggest he is open to private industry and some administrative reforms as long as they don’t jeopardise the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Though he likes Hollywood flicks on World War II and has a daughter at Harvard University— under an assumed name — he has signalled he may be