The man, the myth: How Xi Jinping's rise from village life explains China's ambitions

Chinese President Xi Jinping's path from a small village to the centre of power echoes China's struggle to overcome poverty and humiliation to become a global force.

'To believe in the Chinese flag is to believe in President Xi,' says one Communist Party member

The face of Chinese President Xi Jinping can be seen all around Beijing, as his image and ideas continue to shape the country’s policies. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

This story is part of a CBC News series exploring China's expanding influence around the world and how Canada and other countries are contending with China's power.

They come by the busloads to the rugged hills of Shaanxi Province, more than 2,000 political pilgrims a day, to trace the steps of Chinese President Xi Jinping through the dusty yellow soil where the seeds of his cult of personality now grow.

In tiny Liangjiahe village, 850 km southwest of Beijing, Communist Party officials obediently line up to hear legends of how Xi once waded barefoot into freezing water here to help locals clear ice dams ("It was a good sign that he could bear hardships!"). They come to see the cave where he slept, following the centuries-old living traditions in this part of China.

And they read the slogans representing life lessons the military tour guides say Xi learned, such as "struggle hard and be self-reliant" — the same imperatives the party now preaches to 1.4 billion Chinese.

Xi arrived in Liangjiahe half a century ago from Beijing as a bewildered 15-year-old. Like other young city dwellers, he had been sent "down to the countryside" — as Chinese leader Mao Zedong ordered at the time — in order to toughen his comfortable urban roots.

A visitor to Liangjiahe in the cave where Xi slept in his teen years. He arrived in the village as a 15-year-old as part of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, which saw millions of young people from the cities sent to the countryside for re-education. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Xi's father, once a party propaganda chief and then vice-premier, had been purged during Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. He was in prison when Xi was shipped off alone to Liangjiahe. Xi spent five years in the countryside before starting university back in Beijing and then beginning his climb up the party ladder.

These days, political lectures are held throughout Liangjiahe for party members, including committees that exist in most Chinese companies. What is said during these talks, we were told on the tour, must remain secret, as we were followed closely by police and warned not to interview anyone.

Such is the sensitivity surrounding Xi's image, policies and even his persona that today's China has adopted.

"To believe in this [Chinese] flag," said Liu Ming Fu, "is to believe in President Xi."

Liu is a former instructor of political thought at China's military college and one of 90 million members of the Communist Party. He lives in Beijing, and has carefully arranged tributes to Xi — mementoes and books of his thoughts — on a table in his apartment.

"As soon as he came to power, he promoted the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of our nation," Liu said. "He seized the hearts of all of us."

Communist Party members on a pilgrimage to Liangjiahe listen to a lecture on Xi's thoughts and principles. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Xi assumed the role of "Paramount Leader" in 2012, which involved first becoming chairman of the Communist Party, then the Central Military Commission, and finally a president who did away with term limits so he could rule as long as he wants. And he made national pride his rallying cry.

As the official story goes, Xi's path from the village to the centre of power echoes China's struggle to overcome poverty and humiliation to become a global force.

Overcoming 'miserable fate'

While tanks and nuclear missiles rolled through the streets of Beijing last month in a parade marking the 70th anniversary of the Communist Revolution, Xi stood in front of the Forbidden City to declare, "No force can ever shake the status of China, or stop the Chinese people and nation."

China's "miserable fate of being poor and weak and being bullied and humiliated in over 100 years" is over, he said, referring to occupations and military losses to Japan, Britain and others.

Performers travel past Tiananmen Square in Beijing with a float showing Xi during the parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Indeed, the lines of soldiers who stood in front of him – with their high-tech weaponry – were a force no one had ever seen before in China.

It's one Beijing has been determined to use, for example, to reclaim the entire South China Sea on the basis of "historical precedent," ignoring protests and counter-claims from China's neighbours. The government has also ignored the ruling of an international tribunal in The Hague calling Beijing's actions "unlawful," prompting accusations that it is "bullying" smaller nations.

Xi's aim is to reintegrate lost territories like Hong Kong, despite any local resistance, and to retake the self-ruled, democratic island of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a wayward Chinese province — possibly by force.

WATCH: Saša Petricic tours the village that shaped Xi Jinping:

Who is China's President Xi Jinping?

3 years ago
Duration 3:27
A look at China's President Xi Jinping, his beginnings and his rise to power. With China's economy slowing and its military largely untested, the nation faces increasing international resistance.

He also wants to make China the world's undisputed economic power. After years of incredible growth, World Bank figures show the country is on the cusp of overtaking the U.S. economically. China's nominal gross domestic product (GDP) is $13.41 trillion US while the United States sits at $20.49 trillion. But if you measure GDP using purchasing power parity, China's economy has already hit $25.27 trillion, surpassing the U.S.

This remains a challenge because China's growth rate – about six per cent annually – is half of what it was in the early 2000s.

Xi's ambitious project to build a half-trillion-dollar global network of roads, railways and sea links throughout Asia to Africa and Europe would allow Chinese exports to flow to even more places, more efficiently.

This so-called Belt and Road Initiative would also spread Chinese influence — and potentially control —around the world. In short, China aspires to equal or better the U.S. in every way.

Uncle Xi

Xi's personal rise took him through the party apparatus, step by step through different regions and posts, as he positioned himself for the top job. Once there, he consolidated power, initially cultivating a friendly "Uncle Xi" image (or "Xi dada" in Mandarin), but turning progressively tough and dictatorial.

China’s Communist Party members are told to 'struggle hard and be self-reliant' in Liangjiahe, where Xi spent his teen years learning the same lessons. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

He has moved harshly to rein in any possible dissent from Muslim Uighurs by jailing more than a million in so-called work camps. He has shut down churches and locked up human rights activists.

That has made him enemies within his own party, "factions that may be ready to challenge him," said historian Zhang Lifan, a former member of China's prestigious Academy of Social Sciences and a rare voice in the country willing to criticize Xi publicly.

"China's one-party dictatorship is very difficult to sustain," Zhang said. "While people all over the world are working toward freedom and democracy, he's calling for dictatorship and despotism. This has no future."

While Xi has purged opposing voices inside and outside the Communist Party, there are some who still challenge his vision.

"Xi is full of fantasies," Zhang said. "He lives in the illusion of building a great world empire and replacing the U.S. This is the so-called Chinese dream, but it's too huge and unrealistic. It's just a dream."

The Chinese dream

Not so, China's leaders have insisted. They point to their country's rise, which has been as dramatic as Xi's own from his days in the village.

And yet, the permanence of all this prosperity is not guaranteed. China's economy is slowing and its military is largely untested.

The ambitious climb to great power status also faces growing international resistance – a trade war with the U.S., charges of espionage and technology theft, diplomatic disputes with countries (including Canada) that have led to accusations of "hostage diplomacy" as China arrests foreigners in retaliation for perceived unfairness.

Xi shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, in September 2016. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

But Xi has convinced his people that, like his sacrifices in the village, all of this is necessary for China to take the place it deserves on the world stage, to fulfill the Chinese dream.

"China may not be the United States," said Communist Party member Liu, "but we are competing hard and catching up."

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Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.