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Foreign Policy: The Creation Myth of Xi Jinping

Author: Josh Garnaut
October 19, 2012


What do we really know about China's new leader?

LIANGJIAHE, China — If every modern president needs a creation myth, then Xi Jinping's begins on the dusty loess plateau of northwest China. It was here that Xi spent seven formative years, working among the peasants and living in a lice-infested cave dug into the silty clay that extends around the Yellow River. Gradually, the selfless peasants and the unforgiving "Yellow Earth" -- a term for China's land that symbolizes relentless toil and noble sacrifice -- transformed this pale, skinny, and nervous-looking teenager into the man who in November will take control of the world's second-most powerful country.

"When I arrived at the Yellow Earth, at 15, I was anxious and confused," wrote Xi in 1998, by which time he was working his way to the top of the Communist Party hierarchy in the prosperous coastal province of Fujian. "When I left the Yellow Earth, at 22, my life goals were firm and I was filled with confidence."

When Xi describes himself as "always a son of the Yellow Earth," as he did in that rare biographical essay published in a book titled Old Pictures of Educated Youth, he was not only setting up his personal narrative as a leader who has toiled with the masses, in contrast with an increasingly corrupt governing elite. He was also alluding to the idealistic creation story of the Chinese Communist Party, in which his own father, former Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun, played a starring role in setting up the wartime bastion of Yanan, just down the road. Yanan, as the local museum puts it, "is the holy land of the Chinese revolution" and "birthplace of New China."

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