Local Communist Party officials and police in Liangjiahe followed reporters on a visit and asked them to leave, showing how the party wants to control information about Xi’s past. But they did allow brief interviews, including with Shi, described by villagers as Xi’s former ‘‘iron buddy.’’
Shi stood across from the now-abandoned, one-room home where Xi lived with a local family, and recalled the day Xi departed at age 22. ‘‘No one wanted to see him go,’’ Shi said.
Rejected for Communist Party membership nine times due to his father’s political problems, Xi finally gained entry in 1974 and then attended the elite Tsinghua University.
He would later return to Liangjiahe only once, in 1992, when he gave an alarm clock to each household, Shi said.
Xi went on to earn a chemistry degree, by which time Mao had died and his father had been restored to office. Xi next secured a plum position as secretary to Defense Minister Geng Biao, one of his father’s old comrades.
But Xi took the unusual step three years later of jumping to a lowly post in rural Hebei province, because he wanted to ‘‘struggle, work hard, and really take on something big,’’ Xi told Elite Youth magazine’s now-deceased editor Yang Xiaohuai.
Xi landed in the rural town of Zhengding, where people traveled by horse cart.
While there, he made the most of state broadcaster China Central Television’s plans to film an adaptation of the classical Chinese novel ‘‘Dream of Red Mansions.’’ Hoping to create a tourist attraction, Xi built a full-scale reproduction of the sprawling estate at the heart of the tale.
‘‘You could tell Xi was thinking ahead. By doing this, he created lots of jobs and lots of revenue for Zhengding back when there was very little here,’’ said Liang Qiang, a senior caretaker at the film set, which still draws tourists.
Xi biked around town dressed like an army cook and insisted he be introduced only as county party secretary without reference to his family links, former colleague Wang Youhui recalled.
‘‘He always paid for his food. He didn’t want any special treatment,’’ state media quoted Wang as saying years later.
Xi’s elite background plugged him into to a web of personal connections that were especially important early in his career, ensuring support from Beijing for local projects. As party leader, Xi should easily command the respect of officials and the military, in part because of deference to his father’s status.
At the same time, Xi’s years in the provinces protect him from accusations of pure nepotism and lend him credibility as someone who understands the struggles of working Chinese and private businessmen who are creating the bulk of new jobs.
With help from his father, Xi jumped in 1985 to a vice mayorship in the port of Xiamen, then at the forefront of economic reforms. Over the next 17 years, he built a reputation for attracting investment and eschewing the banqueting expected of Chinese officials. He hung a banner saying ‘‘Get it done’’ in a provincial office lobby.
He later took the top position in neighboring Zhejiang province, a hotbed of private industry, a lively civil society, non-communist candidates for local assemblies and a thriving underground church movement. Xi was seen as allowing minor local administrative reforms, while not initiating any of them.
‘‘He’s not going to do anything to weaken party control, but at the least you can say he’s concerned with the lives of farmers and ordinary people,’’ said Li Baiguang, a human rights lawyer in Zhejiang at the time.
Xi tried to dramatically reverse the government’s poor reputation for accountability by clearing a backlog of citizen complaints in a one-day blitz in the city of Quzhou. He set up 15 temporary offices to address complaints over land seizures, job benefits and other issues, drawing 300 petitioners and resolving 70 cases.
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson once called him a ‘‘guy who really knows how to get over the goal line.’’
After a brief spell in charge of Shanghai, Xi was brought to Beijing and handed the high-profile task of overseeing the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has also managed relations with the former British colony of Hong Kong.
Some evidence of a strong nationalist streak emerged recently when he lectured U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on China’s claim to East China Sea islands held by Japan.
‘‘China’s neighbors, including the U.S., should be prepared to see a Chinese government under Xi being more assertive than that under Hu,’’ said Steve Tsang, director of the China Police Research Institute at Britain’s University of Nottingham.Continued...