Xi Jinping: The world’s most powerful man

There’s a video doing the rounds of a meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and his advisers, and Xi Jinping, says the Financial Times. China’s president waits alone for his own team. “With an approving Godfather-esque chuckle”, Putin clenches his fist, and says “odin boyets” – “lone warrior”. Putin probably didn’t realise just how right he was.

Now that the Chinese Communist Party has granted Xi a stature eclipsed only by Mao Zedong’s, he “stands alone at the apex of the party”. US president Donald Trump calls him “the king of China”; The Economist has pronounced him “the world’s most powerful man”. And within China, his personality cult continues to build.

Following the enshrinement of his theories on “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” in the Communist Party’s constitution, at least 20 Chinese universities and colleges are launching research institutes dedicated to “Xi Jinping thought”. And in the latest sign of ideological tightening under Chairman Xi, detailed instructions have been sent out to schools on how to instil “affection” and “love” for the Communist Party in younger children.

This week Xi and his six politburo mini-strongmen paid a symbolic visit (by private jet) to the birthplace of the Communist Party in Shanghai, says the South China Morning Post. And the pattern of Xi’s own life has closely mirrored China’s political history.

Born in Beijing in 1953, his “illustrious roots”, as the son of the revolutionary veteran and former vice premier Xi Zhongxun, gave him “princeling” status in his early years, notes a BBC profile. But the family fortunes “took a dramatic turn” when his father was purged in 1962 prior to the Cultural Revolution and imprisoned.

At 15, Xi was sent to the remote village of Liangjiahe for seven years of “re-education” and hard labour – an experience that would later loom large in his official story. Conditions were so tough, he told a Chinese magazine in 2000, that he lived in a “cave” – but he dutifully buckled down.

Far from turn against the Party, Xi embraced it, and from 1974, enjoyed “a near perfect trajectory”, says The Daily Telegraph. After a stint as a party official in the Hebei province, he became Party chief of Shanghai before entering the politburo.

Critics reckon that Xi’s ruthless “tigers and flies” campaign against corruption is a cover for weeding out rivals. Yet he has always honed his incorruptible, man-of-the-people image. “If you go into politics, it must not be for money,” he said in 2000. “Even if an official does not achieve great things in his career, at least he should be able to say he has not put money up his sleeve.”

Xi’s own record here is opaque: it’s not known how much he is worth. But some of his closest relatives are pretty rich, says The New York Times. Soon after Xi took power, his older sister and brother-in-law finalised the sale of a 50% stake in a Beijing investment company, apparently to reduce Xi’s “political vulnerability”. The assets were reported to be worth “hundreds of millions of dollars”.

No stakes have been tied directly to Xi or his wife and daughter, but Xi paid for the latter to go to Harvard, despite banning the promotion of “Western values” in Chinese educational institutions.

Xi has “had a good year” says the FT. But is he “the historical equal” of Mao or China’s great economic reformer Deng Xiaoping? On current evidence, not yet. China’s lone warrior may be the most powerful man in the world, but “when the principal competition is Trump and Putin”, there’s “a long way to go”.