On Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping increased his control over China by breaking with tradition and having himself named as head of the Communist Party for a record third term. The move consolidates Xi’s status as “ruler for life” and makes him the most powerful Chinese leader in modern history.
Here are nine things you should know about the authoritarian leader of the world’s most populous nation.
1. He’s the first Chinese president born after the nation became communist.
Xi Jinping, age 69, was born in Beijing in 1953, making him the first Chinese president born after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of the Communist Party’s founding fathers and a vice-premier. When Xi was 10 years old, his father was accused of supporting a novel that Mao opposed and was sent to work in a factory, while his mother, Qi Xin, was assigned to hard labor on a farm.
2. Xi once worked in a forced labor camp.
Xi was one of the millions of Chinese youths forced by Mao Zedong to go to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. After a few months, Xi was unable to stand the fleas, poor food, and farm work, so he ran away to Beijing. He was arrested during a crackdown on deserters from the countryside and sent to a work camp to dig ditches. For nearly seven years, Xi Jinping lived in a cave near the camp. “A thin quilt spread on bricks was his bed, a bucket was his toilet,” write Barbara Demick and David Pierson. “Dinners were a porridge of millet and raw grain.”
3. Xi talked his way into the political party that persecuted him.
Despite the brutal way he and his family were treated by the Communist Party, Xi became an ardent party member. He applied to join the party’s youth league and was rejected eight times. It was only after Xi invited the local party secretary for a fried egg and steamed bread in the cave and pleaded his case that he finally became a party member in 1974.
4. Xi received the key to Muscatine, Iowa.
While Xi was attending Tsinghua University in Beijing (with the party’s blessing) and majoring in chemical engineering (which was chosen by the party), his father was “politically rehabilitated” and appointed as party secretary for Guangdong province. Xi’s father used his new connections to get his son a job assisting an influential leader at the powerful Central Military Commission. Xi quickly rose up through the ranks of the party and served in four provinces from 1982 to 2007. In 1985, he traveled to Muscatine, Iowa, to learn about crop and livestock practices in the small farming community. During his stay he was given a key to the city, an honor he’d receive again when he returned for a visit in 2012.
5. Xi is the ‘Chairman of Everything.’
Xi was elected as the president of the People’s Republic of China in 2013. He also serves as the chairman of the Central Military Commission (which makes him the commander-in-chief of China’s military forces) and as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China. In addition to his role as president and party leader, Xi currently serves as head of a number of smaller decision-making bodies, including:
- general secretary of the party’s Central Committee,
- head of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission,
- head of the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs,
- head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission,
- chairman of the Central National Security Commission, and
- head of the Central Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Commission.
Xi holds so many positions he’s been called “Chairman of Everything.”
6. Xi’s name is synonymous with Chinese communist thought.
In 2017, the Communist Party voted unanimously to incorporate “Xi Jinping Thought” into the Chinese constitution, an honor previously reserved for Mao Zedong and his successor, Deng Xiaoping. As the BBC notes, by enshrining the principles under his name in the party constitution, rivals cannot now challenge China’s strongman without threatening Communist Party rule.
7. Xi changed China’s term limits—and then banned the letter N.
Xi was due to step down in 2023, but in 2018 the party made a change to allow him to stay in power indefinitely. That year the Chinese state news agency announced, “The Communist Party of China Central Committee proposed to remove the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China ‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms’ from the country’s Constitution.” After the announcement, the Chinese government added to its already wide-ranging online censorship with several new restrictions. The ban included a prohibition on George Orwell’s antitotalitarian novels Animal Farm and 1984 and the phrase “Xi Zedong” (a combination of Xi and Mao Zedong’s names). Also, for reasons unknown, the letter N was also temporarily banned from being used online.
8. Xi despises Christianity and loves Marxism.
Xi has condemned Chinese officials who seek “god’s advice for solving their problems.” He prefers they adopt “the party’s basic policy for religious work” which is “formulated by our party adhering to the Marxist view of religion” (i.e., atheism). Xi fears that religion—especially Christianity—is an attempt by foreign influences to subvert his nation. “We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means,” Xi said in a 2016 speech. Religious groups, he added, must adhere to the leadership of the Communist Party and support the socialist system and socialism with Chinese characteristics. Human rights activist William Nee says, “Instead of expansion through vibrant evangelization, competitor faiths like Christianity are being forced to be co-opted and slowly replaced by the [Chinese Communist Party]’s official faith, with Xi Jinping as the ultimate arbiter of its specific values, morals, ethics, and societal goals.”
9. Xi has tried to change the world’s conception of human rights.
International human rights have their roots in modern Christianity. It’s no surprise then that Xi has attempted to persuade the world to adopt his nationalistic view of human rights. As Tanner Larkin explains, China “accepts the universality of human rights—which typically means that people across all societies are entitled to the same rights—while in the same breath adding the oxymoronic qualifier that states are entitled to choose their human rights practices on the basis of their own political, economic and cultural conditions. Finally, rather than individual rights, the [People’s Republic of China] stresses collective rights vested in the state and obligations that individuals owe to society.” China prioritizes the “rights” of economic prosperity and national security. As Shannon Tiezzi says, for Xi’s China those are “worth whatever cost it may carry in the Western sense of human rights—for example, freedom of speech, religion, and association.”