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Xi nonetheless has a reputation for probity, and his close relatives are not known to be multimillionaires. He was raised, according to biographer Jia, on frugal values: The elder Xi, after taking a bath, made his son bathe in the same water. In an interview with Chinese television, Xi Jinping recalled having to wear flowery hand-me-down clothes from his sisters. As a teenager, after his father’s fall, he was banished to a poor village in Shaanxi.|
He “takes after his father’s excellent qualities,” the official biographer said.
A big question, though, is whether those include his father’s political outlook, or whether his father’s troubles left Xi convinced that unwavering toughness and extreme caution offer the best hope for survival. Although respected by crusty conservatives and neo-Maoist firebrands, Xi senior is particularly popular with many liberals, who remember him as unusually open-minded and tolerant — and hope that his son, under a carapace of political rectitude, is perhaps similar.
There is no sign that China is about to get its own Mikhail Gorbachev, a seemingly conventional apparatchik who rose to the summit of the Soviet party and then destroyed it. Xi does not have to deal with a calamity that drove dramatic change in Moscow: China’s economy is not dying.
All the same, many still “hope that after he takes power, Xi Jinping will be as enlightened as his father,” said Gao Wenqian, a U.S.-based scholar who spent years combing through secret party documents in Beijing for a biography — banned in China — of former premier Zhou Enlai. “There are two Xi Jinpings,” Gao said. “One . . . has the enlightened genes of Xi Zhongxun in his blood. The other is heir to the red nation of the Communist Party. The latter is dominant, but you can’t exclude the influence of the former.”
Frank Dikotter, a Dutch scholar who is working on a book on the party’s early years in power, urged caution in viewing Xi’s father as a “great moderate.” Archive material records him demanding an “active attack” against Christian churches. He never questioned one-party rule. But, said Dikotter, he does seem to have been broader-minded than the norm and “doesn’t come across as a big mister nasty” who saw violence as a solution.
Renewed interest in the past
While in charge of a vast swath of northwestern China in the early 1950s, the elder Xi resisted pressure from some colleagues to crush an early uprising by Tibetans and insisted on negotiating. When Deng Xiaoping ordered tanks into Tiananmen Square to clear protesters in 1989, Xi said nothing publicly but is widely thought to have been appalled. (His official biographer declined to comment on that).
The rise of his son has led to a burst of interest in past events that could provide a few clues for the future. These notably include the vicious internal struggles that led to the elder Xi’s arrest by a rival faction in 1935, the purge of his close comrade-in-arms Gao Gang in 1953 (Gao killed himself and is still in the party’s bad books), his ouster by Mao in 1962, and the toppling of another ally, the relatively liberal party secretary Hu Yaobang, in 1987.
The most direct probing of the elder Xi’s travails has come in books published in Hong Kong, which is free of censorship. Among the titles: “Xi Zhongxun’s Grudges With Other Senior Communists.”
Discussion on the mainland has been more elliptical, led by Yanhuang Chunqiu, a journal read by reform-minded party veterans and intellectuals. Over the past year, it has published three articles dissecting a 1962 dispute over a historical novel that led to the denunciation of Xi — who appears in the book under a pseudonym — as leader of an “anti-party clique.” Xi was finally rehabilitated in 1978, and a ban on the novel, “Liu Zhidan,” was lifted. (The book has since been banned again.)
Under pressure to curb its quarrying into sensitive history and its bold editorials calling for political reform, Yanhuang Chunqiu hosted a reception in Beijing last week and summoned the memory of Xi Zhongxun to fortify its defenses. It displayed a calligraphic inscription penned by the elder Xi shortly before his death: “Yanhuang Chunqiu is pretty good!”
With his massive official biography stuck in limbo, party historian Jia said he is “taking it easy” while he tries to find a publisher for a shorter, unofficial chronicle of Xi Zhongxun. He has not had much luck. “China’s censorship system is a big problem, especially when it comes to important political figures,” he said. “Everyone has their own opinion.”
Researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.