How Xi Jinping became China’s most powerful modern leader

The Communist Party chief is to arrive in the UAE this week to boost ties with Abu Dhabi

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening session of the 8th Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing, Tuesday, July 10, 2018. China's President Xi Jinping has pledged more than $23 billion in lines of credit, loans and humanitarian assistance to Arab countries in a major push for influence in the region. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
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Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in the UAE on Thursday for the first time on what will be a landmark state visit to build trade, as well as diplomatic and cultural relations between Beijing and Abu Dhabi.

But who is the man that leads the world’s second-largest economy and how did he get here?

The 65-year-old leader, who stands at six feet tall, is an imposing figure who has consolidated power to become one of the most important leaders in modern Chinese political history. He is now in his second five-year term, but observers believe he may stay on past 2022 when that ends.

His populist agenda has focused on an anti-corruption crackdown and he now oversees every major centre of power, from the presidency to the military. A Xinhua profile in November 2017 described him as an “unrivalled helmsman” and a “servant of the public”. Other publications have referred to him with the same all-powerful language once reserved for Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.

His future appeared mapped out for him from a young age. He was born in 1949, just four years after Mao founded the People's Republic of China. His father was a revolutionary who became a Chinese vice premier. That made Mr Xi one of Beijing's "princelings", an apparent heir to a senior position within the Chinese elite. He grew up in the elite's high-walled Beijing compound of Zhongnanhai, known as the White House of China.

Before Mr Xi joined the Communist Party in 1974, his time was spent working with the people, a key part of his story to this day. His father fell foul of the Chinese leadership at the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, and Mr Xi was sent away to work. He faced several knock-backs from the party because of who his father was.

For six years, he plied his trade as an agricultural worker in Liangjiahe, located in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, the start of the Silk Road. He was part of a group of millions of Chinese youths who were sent to labour and learn. Now, a monument sits in the village as a homage to his work and his development into a man built for leadership.

After studying chemical engineering at Tsinghua University, an elite institution, his rise took him from personal secretary to then-Minister of Defence Geng Biao in 1979 to the US state of Iowa on a delegation to learn about American agriculture.

He became the Communist Party secretary of the eastern province of Zhejiang in 2002, where he built a base of devoted allies he has readily promoted in power.

By 2007, he became party secretary of Shanghai, China's second city, before securing a seat on China's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee. He surpassed Li Keqiang, the favourite to replace Hu Jintao, as the heir apparent to the premiership.

Just five years later, he rose to the party position of general secretary and, within months, the president of the country in March 2013.

His anti-graft purge since 2012 resulted in charges against hundreds of thousands of Chinese officials.

In other areas, he has sought to combat slow growth with economic reforms, and vowed to strengthen the country through military power, a key tenet of his China Dream vision.

His public profile is one that presents him as the sole leader of the country.


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At the same time as the anti-corruption purge, state media lauded Mr Xi as his popularity continued to spread across China. In October 2016, he attained the status of the Community Party’s “core”, a title that elevates him above that of an equal of the people.

His second wife, Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan, retains a more diminished public role, as is typical in presidential couples, but the pair have been presented in Chinese media as China’s First Couple. Their only daughter, Xi Mingze, studied at Harvard University but also keeps a low profile.

Chinese President Xi Jinping with his wife Peng Liyuan at Moscow's Vnukovo II airport in May. AFP
Chinese President Xi Jinping with his wife Peng Liyuan at Moscow's Vnukovo II airport in May. AFP

Looking to the future, Mr Xi hailed a “new era” for China on the world stage at last year’s party congress, held every five years. He has pledged to turn China into a developed nation, a country fit for the modern era, while preserving traditional Chinese institutions and the Communist Party’s way of governance.

Mr Xi's historic trip to the Emirates, and more assertive posture on trade (UAE represents 23 per cent of Arab business with China), is just one part of that new strategy for Beijing and its emboldened leader.