President Xi Jinping, considered to be the most powerful leader of China since Mao Zedong, is not averse to pushing the envelope to size up a potential rival. The level of rivalry between Xi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a matter of debate, and the Chinese president has certainly chanced his arm in creating ways to rankle India in the past three years.
The Chumar episode in Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control in September 2014, when 200 PLA soldiers ‘intruded’ into India, sparking off prolonged scuffles with Indian soldiers on the very eve of Xi’s visit to India for his first substantive talks with Modi, perhaps exemplified these tactics best.
Unbelievably, that standoff continued during the entire period of Xi’s visit—it indicates how Xi could discuss other state matters even as his soldiers were engaged in a standoff with a rival on disputed territory.
Xi is the sixth leader to rule the People’s Republic of China; at 64, he is the only one to be born after Communist China came into existence. He is not only the leader of a party with a membership of over 87 million cadres, Xi also leads the world’s second largest economy with a growing mass of aspirational and nationalist people.
Since Deng Xiaoping began liberalising the economy, most leaders had followed his sage advice to “hide your strength and bide your time”. But such days of caution are truly past—under Xi, a team of new leaders is eager to announce China’s arrival at the high table of international affairs. “Make China’s voice heard, and inject more Chinese elements into international rules”, Xi exhorted CPC politburo members. China’s rejection of an international tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea dispute and its decision to set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank (with its BRICS partners) are both assertions of its desire to play a leading role on the global stage.
As president of the PRC, Xi is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China and chairman of the Chinese Military Commission. As such, he controls all the important levers of power.
Both luck and pluck played their part in Xi’s career; his vaulting ambition and sheer doggedness ensured the rest. His application was rejected seven times, before a sympathetic leader saw that he was admitted in the CPC’s Youth League. Once in, Xi’s rise was irresistible—years of hard work and commitment to the party’s ideology saw him ultimately become its general secretary.
Yet, Xi has been considered a ‘princeling’, for his father, Xi Zhongxun, a close comrade of Mao Zedong, was among the founding fathers of the PRC. The senior Xi was vice-premier; as a boy Xi often visited his father at Zhongnanhai, the secluded residence compound reserved for senior party leaders. As part of the ruling elite, Xi Jinping had the privilege of being enrolled in the elite August 1 School, named after the Communist victory over the Nationalists at Nanchang. But after his father was ousted in 1962 during a pre-cultural revolution purge by Mao, his family fell from grace and had to go through a phase of humiliation at the hands of the Red Guards.
Despite the stigma of being the son of a disgraced leader, Xi managed to claw his way into the party apparatus. In his early teens, he was sent to work in the remote village of Liangjiahe for seven years, an experience that helped him immensely in his career. Later, he went to Tsinghua University—alma mater of his predecessor Hu Jintao too—in Beijing to study chemical engineering.
“Xi Jinping’s pedigree had exposed him to brutal politics—purges, retribution, rehabilitation—and he drew blunt lessons from it,” says American writer Evan Osnos. He recalls former Australian PM Kevin Rudd as having told him once, “The bottomline in any understanding of who Xi is must begin with the dedication to the party as an institution—despite the fact that through his life, he has experienced the best and worst of the party.”
Soon after taking over in 2012, Xi asked party cadres to study the causes that led to collapse of the Soviet Union, while ruefully commenting to some leaders, “Nobody was man enough to stand up and resist” the attack against the party and its dismantling.
When he was 33, Xi was introduced to 24-year-old Peng Liyuan, a famous folk and opera singer. The couple married soon after. After they had a daughter, Peng decided to give up her career, though she continued to have a huge fan following. Till he became a top CPC leader, Xi was often known as “Peng Liyuan’s husband”.
Xi’s initial reluctance to hog the limelight has vanished with an increase in stature. After Mao, China tried to give the impression of a “collective leadership”, where all members of the politburo’s standing committee, as well as regional heads, were considered equally important. With President Xi stamping his authority, there is no doubt that number one looms much larger than the rest, including Premier Li Keqiang, who have all been relegated to the second rung. Xi is fondly called ‘Dada’ (loving Uncle) and his wife Peng ‘Mama’, and party organs exhort people to follow their example. Xi’s friendly, gentle demeanour disguises a man unshakeable in his beliefs and commitment. An observer has described him in a telling metaphor—as someone who is round from the outside but square on the inside. Many western leaders observe that he rarely departs from his notes. “Xi is reading what I am sure Xi also believes,” an American official was quoted as saying.
In October, the 19th party congress of the CPC in Beijing will mark the halfway of Xi’s rule. Before that, however, he plays host to the BRICS summit in September, where PM Modi is a key participant.
In its second month, the Doklam standoff between Chinese and Indian soldiers shows no signs of resolution. In addition, there are new incidents—on August 15, Chinese soldiers allegedly tried to cross into India along the banks of Pangong lake in Ladakh, before being forcibly pushed back. A Xi-Modi meeting at the BRICS summit, thus, is of vital importance, as this could well be the level at which the Doklam issue can be resolved, short of a bloody conflict.
For that, a lot would depend on how Xi would like to see Sino-Indian ties. Would Xi bend a bit forward from the rigid stand he has taken? More importantly, it’s a question of the legacy that he wants to leave behind. The kind of man he is, that should matter to him.