“47 years ago Xi Jinping, then fifteen years of age, joined the Liangjiahe brigade and started his life in the rural community, a period that was hard but also full of lessons that have been useful to him until this day,” wrote the Legal Evening News (法制晚报) in a piece about President Xi’s youth.
The article went on describing Xi’s hard life in Liangjiahe, a small impoverished village that in the 1960’s had just around 50 households. Xi lived in a yaodong (窯洞), a type of house cave made of earth common in the Loess Plateau of northern China. Xi “slept on a heated brick bed (土炕), had to endure the bites of fleas, lived and ate together with the villagers, built dams, carried manure on shoulder poles, repaired roads and constructed marsh gas facilities.” Xi arrived in Liangjiahe at the beginning of 1969 and spent there 7 years.
Even before he took over the presidency from his predecessor Hu Jintao, Xi cultivated the myth of his youth in rural China. This has now become an indispensable part of his official hagiography. His years in Liangjiahe represent a romanticized retelling of China’s past which expunges the sufferings of millions of Chinese under Mao’s rule.
In many respects Xi Jinping is a victim of Mao’s madness. As The New York Times reported, Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, helped build the Communist base in his native Shaanxi Province, rose up in the Party ranks and became Vice-Premier. Yet during the Cultural Revolution he fell out of favour and was purged.
Xi Jinping was sent alongside 14 other boys from Beijing to the remote village of Liangjiahe in Shaanxi Province, just 70 miles from Mao’s former ‘Red capital’ of Yan’an. A dramatic change from Xi’s comfortable and privileged childhood in the Zhongnanhai government compound.
If Xi Jinping was a victim, however, he seems to have fully embraced the ideology of the Party who had persecuted him and his family. Before assuming the presidency, much information available online about him was deleted. Xi chose his years in rural China as a part of his biography which he not only doesn’t want to disappear from public record, but around which he is constructing a myth about himself as a leader.
Chinese media are portraying Xi as a tough, hard-working revolutionary leader who has gone through sufferings, can endure hardships, is close to the people and serves the people.
On May 1 Chinese state newspaper People’s Daily released a propaganda video to celebrate Youth Day entitled “Xi Jinping, role model for the youth” (青年榜样习近平).
The video states:
What is the meaning of youth? From Liangjiahe to Zhongnanhai, Xi Jinping has given his own answer to this question and has set an example for young people.
He can bear lots of hardships. In the rural village in Shanbei where he was sent, regardless of whether rain fell and wind blew, he mowed grass and in the evening tended animals … Yet despite being engaged in hard labour, he never gave up studying. His exertions put his life in danger. When he was young he wanted to do good things, he often did not sleep at night, and he got sick almost every month …
After taking up the office of secretary general, he still retains the vigour of his youth and always works for the people.
Chinese propaganda organs are constructing a personality cult which reveals how Xi Jinping wants to be perceived by the public.
First, Xi’s hagiography stresses China’s Maoist past as a defining moment in the country’s history. Maoist policies, far from being denounced, have created the life experiences out of which a new morality and strength have been born. Xi Jinping thus appears as the realization of the Communist “new man” the Party wanted to form through revolution.
Second, the ethos of China’s “core leader” does not come from the big cities, from consumerism, Western ways of life or the post-Deng industrial society, but from the purest ideal of Maoist Communism: the simple, poor rural community. Thus Xi seems to be downplaying what post-Mao China stood for: the individualist pursuit of wealth and happiness, material comfort and the integration with the rest of the world. Xi apparently doesn’t want the Chinese youth to be increasingly similar to their counterparts in other countries. He wants them to worship China’s Communist revolutionary past. It is also noteworthy that Liangjiahe’s proximity to Yan’an symbolizes the continuity between Mao and Xi.
Third, the Cultural Revolution appears in this context as an ‘educational’ movement. Xi’s biography doesn’t mention the sufferings of those unjustly persecuted either by the regime or by the Red Guards during this period. The fact that his being sent to the countryside was a punishment is also conveniently concealed.
Fourth, Xi is depicted as a leader close to the people, someone who understands the people because he lived with them and shared their hardships. He is a true revolutionary leader imbued with the spirit of Communist activism.
Xi’s rise to the leadership of the Communist Party is therefore a sharp break from the pragmatic, mildly liberal post-Maoist governance promoted by Deng Xiaoping and his two successors. If he succeeds in completing his power grab and retaining the country’s leadership beyond his second term, Xi’s Maoist restoration will change the face of China for years to come and risks to undo what Deng’s pragmatism has achieved.
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The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962―1976 by Frank Dikötter
Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang
CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping by Kerry Brown