Officially, Xi Jinping does not smoke. He supposedly gave it up in the late 1980s, at his second wife’s urging. But in secret, according to Taiwanese intelligence, which monitors Xi’s health closely, he sneaks outside to light up, away from spouse and cameras. It’s a habit he picked up in the worst period of his life—and which, like the other trappings of his brutalized childhood, he still clings to.
He certainly has not lost faith in the Chinese Communist Party, even now, when the country’s state-run economy is imperiled. Later this month, the party’s Central Committee, the small group of the country’s highest leaders, will once again gather for Xi Jinping to tell them what they’re doing wrong.
Xi owes his position to his father, Xi Zhongxun, a major Communist Party leader. His first nine years were spent in luxury, by Maoist China’s standards, in a family villa in Beijing. But in 1962, his father fell, forced into internal exile for “leading an anti-Party group.” The family became political pariahs, especially when the Cultural Revolution began, in 1966.
Xi was denounced, mocked, humiliated, and eventually sent—like many “educated youth” in the cities—into rural misery. His place of exile, at 15, was a tiny village in the northwest province of Shaanxi. In his own writings, Xi says the hardship of peasant life made a man out of him.
“Northern Shaanxi shaped me,” he wrote in a 2002 essay. “I had never seen fleas before, but that summer in Liangjiahe, I slept among them, bitten and scratching, till my whole body was swollen.... As the saying goes, a knife is sharpened on a stone.” Maoism venerated suffering; it was transformative for the young, redemptive for those who had gone politically astray. Among the most popular books for teenagers was the Stalinist potboiler How the Steel Was Tempered, whose hero sacrifices his body for the revolution; it ran into a hundred different translations from the Russian.
Unsurprisingly in those hungry years, food was a recurring fixation. “In the past, all I ate was fine rice and noodles, but now I ate coarse grains. But soon I could swallow it, and it tasted delicious.” Today, he says, he still hankers after plain Shaanxi food.
Xi was denounced, mocked, humiliated, and eventually sent—like many “educated youth” in the cities—into rural misery.
Take all of this with a grain of salt. Xi was writing for the sake of his own image, not as a spoiled princeling but as a “son of the yellow earth,” a true scion of China. The founding generation earned their credibility through military service, leading partisans from the mountains: Liangjiahe’s hardship is the best Xi has as a substitute. His father’s return to power gave him a smooth entry into the halls of power in the 1980s, though his propaganda cult, amplified to heights not seen since Mao, heavily emphasizes his time in the countryside. But his suffering, and his family’s, was real—and it sets the tone for rule over 1.4 billion people today.
Xi has no affection for the Cultural Revolution itself. In May 1989, with student protesters filling Tiananmen Square, he spoke of the years of chaos: “Can these days be repeated? Without stability and unity, nothing is possible!” Yet at some level he views his Cultural Revolution youth the way English aristocrats who dispatched their sons to be bullied and buggered in the freezing school dormitories of their own childhood did: trusting it would make men out of them. In his mind, young Chinese are soft, weak, disrespectful, and “hedonists.”
In 2013, the first year Xi Jinping ruled China, three summer blockbusters flopped hard. Young Lei Feng, Lei Feng’s Smile, and Lei Feng 1959 played to empty theaters, even when tickets were given out for free. Lei was the boy hero of Maoism, an unassuming 21-year-old soldier who died when he crashed his truck into a telegraph pole in 1962. His diary, full of encomiums to Chairman Mao, was discovered—and embellished—and his cheery features plastered on posters all over the country. To Xi’s generation, Lei was a childhood icon; for younger Chinese, he was a joke. Even state media openly made fun of the movies’ failure.
For party leaders, including Xi, that mockery was another dangerous sign that, even as the country got rich, they were losing the cultural war. Document No. 9, issued that year, promised new weapons for the “ideological battlefield” against civil society and foreign influences. By the end of Xi’s first term, challenging tales of Maoist icons risked a prison sentence under the Heroes and Martyrs Law, while film censorship tightened every year. Imagine a 70-year-old man at a Florida school-board meeting, furious at a textbook that mentions Thomas Jefferson’s slaves—then give him a country to run.
One of Xi’s recurrent obsessions has been food waste. A first version of the Clean Plate Campaign was launched in 2013, aimed at officials’ banquets—a trope of corruption going back literally 3,000 years. A second began in 2020, telling ordinary people to finish every scrap. There are starving children in Shaanxi, you know.
Another concern has been young men. They’re not manly enough, slackers who would rather “lie flat” than work hard. They were listening to K-pop idols, “soft boys,” until Korean music was banned, or “sissy men,” until once popular camp comedians were forced off TV. The young women are just as bad, obstinately refusing to have kids, or putting their own careers above their husbands, even when the government generously let them have more children. New summer programs have been put in place to send soft urban kids for hardening in the countryside.
Imagine a 70-year-old man at a Florida school-board meeting, furious at a textbook that mentions Thomas Jefferson’s slaves—then give him a country to run.
And in true aging-boomer fashion, Xi hates welfare. There was no food without work in his childhood. Xi boasts that when he arrived in Liangjiahe, he earned only 6 work points a day, the internal currency of Maoist communes, “not even as high as a woman,” but two years later he was a “strong farmer” who earned 10 points.
But it’s “historical nihilism,” the attacks on the revolutionary soldier martyrs and boy heroes, the idols of a child of the 1950s, that seem to draw the most anger from Xi. If his father’s party isn’t in charge of China, what was it all for? Why was he taken away from his family? Why did his beloved mother—still alive today in Beijing, at 96—denounce him to the authorities when he tried to come home? Why was his father mocked and exiled and starved? Why did his half-sister Xi Heping kill herself after weeks of persecution?
Xi’s colleagues are not spared. Xi père was betrayed by his comrades multiple times—as a young revolutionary in 1935, when he was almost executed before Mao personally intervened, and again in 1962, nominally for taking the wrong side in the 1930s. The lesson for his son was to purge them before they purge you; plenty of former highfliers, from near-contemporary Bo Xilai in 2012 to potential successor Sun Zhengcai in 2017, have met the chop. Others have been blamed for moral failings—as is rumored to be the case with vanished foreign minister Qin Gang (affair, baby in America) and Defense Minister Li Shangfu (corruption).
And yet, none of this love of austerity and hard work has prevented Xi Jinping’s family from getting absolutely stinking rich—his sister and brother-in-law alone selling hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of assets between 2012 and 2013. Xi’s daughter didn’t go down to the countryside but to Harvard.
For a long time the Chinese public could tell themselves that even if the country’s politics were getting worse, it was still getting richer. That’s no longer the case, as real estate crumbles and jobs disappear. The government stopped publishing the youth-unemployment figures after they hit 26 percent. As a new generation of Chinese stare at a meaner, poorer, narrower country, they might start wondering just how much suffering they’re supposed to bear.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy and writes its weekly newsletter, China Brief