When Joe Biden met Xi Jinping in 2011, China’s leader in waiting hit the U.S. vice president with a volley of questions about U.S. politics. How did the system work? What was the relationship between the White House and Congress? How should Beijing interpret the political signals coming out of Washington? For Biden and his advisers, these were welcome questions after nearly a decade of frustration in dealing with Xi’s predecessor, the colorless, impenetrable Hu Jintao.
But over meetings and meals in Beijing and Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, the American visitors were struck by Xi’s animation on another topic. Chinese leaders are generally cautious about straying too deeply into their own biographies. Recounting their personal stories in front of Chinese officials, let alone foreigners, involves traversing recent Chinese political history, a minefield of purges, betrayals, and ideological about-faces.
Xi, however, talked unprompted about his father, Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary from the early days of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and about Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China, who had turned the country upside down to keep his rivals at bay. Xi’s father, once seen as a loyal party member, had risen to be vice premier in the late 1950s but was purged from the leadership by Mao in 1962, after he backed leadership rivals. Soon thereafter, he was jailed and left to suffer public humiliation at the hands of the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution. Radicals harassed his son and banished him to the countryside. The father was not rehabilitated until the late 1970s, after Mao had died. But as Xi made clear to his visitors, he would not repudiate Mao. He revered him.
Biden and his advisers left China with the impression that Xi would be tougher to deal with than Hu, more ambitious on behalf of his country and more assertive about prosecuting its interests. They were right, but even so, they probably underestimated him. In the years since he took
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