In the wake of China’s 20th Communist Party Congress, Xi Jinping rules over the most powerful totalitarian regime the world has ever seen. What hidden forces warped him into this staggeringly ambitious, deeply insecure, genocidal dictator?
While most of Xi’s life story remains obscured behind a veil of official secrecy, what we do know about his lived experience and personal worldview are troubling. If any of his biographies are to be believed, he is a man who almost certainly bears many deep and ugly scars. Only no one can see them, not even his spouse or his doctor. No one can see them because they are on the inside, tears across his mind and his soul.
Here are some of the reported incidents of abuse and psychological trauma he has suffered.
Xi Jinping: Boyhood Humiliation
Born on June 15, 1953, Xi was raised by two former child soldiers. Both his parents joined the CCP as underground militants and likely saw brutal violence up close as early as age 15. By the time Xi Jinping was born, his father, Xi Zhongxun, was a war hero and senior official in the fledgling PRC. But the elder Xi was subsequently disgraced by Mao’s psychotic intelligence czar, Kang Sheng, and forced to take on the role of house husband – woman’s work in a man’s world. Xi was still a child when his dad was cast out of high office. In a way, Xi Jinping was emasculated too. Growing up, he had to wear the used clothes and shoes from two of his older sisters, Qi Qiaoqiao and Qi An’an, hand-me-downs from girls – girls who carried his mother’s surname and not his own.
Xi’s mother, Qi Xin, was a loyal CCP member with a full-time job at the Marxism-Leninism Institute. She was gone a lot during Xi’s early years. Her job helped secure young Xi a life of privilege, which included a spot at the elite Beihai Kindergarten in central Beijing and then the Ba-yi (August 1) Elementary School, named after the day the People’s Liberation Army was founded. His classmates were from the most powerful families in China, including that of the state chairman, Liu Shaoqi.
Xi’s cloistered surroundings turned out to be more curse than blessing. His politically stigmatized family made him a weak and vulnerable student, an eyesore inside an institution built to groom small boys into Communist China’s future leaders. We cannot say for sure just how much abuse he suffered in school, but at least one of his gym teachers bullied him. It seems likely the other boys in class followed their sports instructor’s lead.
When Xi was twelve, another round of political purges came, and more charges were brought against his father. The elder Xi was expelled from Beijing in the dead of winter, disappearing out of his son’s life and into labor camps and years of solitary confinement, where he would undertake “thought reform” the hard way. A shadow was cast over Xi’s family. Along with his mother, sisters, and little brother, Xi Jinping was unceremoniously tossed out of the posh leadership compound where he had grown up.
Xi lost his primary caregiver and role model. He also lost all vestiges of the pampered life his parents’ special status had once provided: the nannies, the Soviet-made car with driver, the cook, and, most important of all, an earmarked supply of foodstuffs – something that had been an immense luxury during his childhood when tens of millions were starving to death across China. What happened next, however, would wrench apart young Xi’s life completely.
Terrified, Hungry, and Covered in Insects
During the chaos and terror of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” fanatical militants broke into the house Xi was living in and ransacked it. In the process, his elder half-sister Xi Heping (born though his father’s mysterious first marriage) was “persecuted to death” – Party jargon that might mean she was raped and murdered by the thugs, or that she committed suicide to escape such a cruel fate. It is unclear where Xi Jinping was when this all happened, and whether he tried to save his sister and failed.
Xi’s mother reportedly took him and his surviving siblings to her institute at the Central Party School, and they found shelter on campus. Soon, however, Qi Xin would turn her back on her firstborn son to save her own skin. Family ties were one of the cardinal sins of humanity according to Mao’s communist ideology, and they had to be expunged.
At a nightmarish rally, Xi Jinping was paraded across a stage so that a rabid crowd – which included his mother – could excoriate him. He watched from the stage as his mom publicly disowned him, her fist raised as she chanted along with his persecutors, “Down with Xi Jinping!” He was fifteen.
Not long after, Xi Jinping was reduced to begging for food, and his mom reportedly was one of those who refused him a hot meal. Then Xi was removed from the capital and sent to a live a life of abject poverty and brutal labor in the arid hills of rural Yan’an, outside the town where the CCP had built its revolutionary base in the 1930s and 1940s.
Made to shovel and carry feces uphill in the blistering sun, Xi slept in a fetid “yellow earth” cave with six other young men. A bucket served as his toilet. At night he would toss and turn violently in the dirt, his skin crawling with fleas and other biting insects.
Xi’s official biography sums up his formative years in the following words: “During the Cultural Revolution he suffered public humiliation and hunger, experienced homelessness and was even held in custody on one occasion.”
Transformed but Rejected
As the years dragged by, Xi had something of a political-religious transformation. He read and re-read the writings of Mao Zedong and doggedly sought Communist Party membership. His application was rejected by the authorities multiple times. Xi reportedly suffered more than ten rejections.
Finally, Xi plied the local Party boss with a fried egg and steamed bun, rare delicacies at a time when meals typically consisted of millet porridge and raw grain. His food bribe worked. In spite of Xi’s bad family name, the official allowed him to join the CCP, something that subsequently put Xi on the fast track for a reprieve from exile. After seven years, he could return to Beijing and attend Tsinghua University even though he never went to high school. Yet his suffering was far from over.
After graduating with a degree in chemical engineering, a field chosen for him by the Communist Party, Xi joined the army as an officer. Things began looking up. Mao was dead, and Xi’s dad had been fully pardoned by the new supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, and was back in the upper reaches of power. Soon, Xi Jinping’s family connections helped secure him a well-to-do wife, a spacious apartment, and a plum position in the PLA headquarters.
His first boss was a big name: General Geng Biao, then minister of defense. But after serving as Geng’s personal secretary for three years, disaster struck. Xi was told to quit the uniform and get out of Beijing. The old general had evidently gotten on the wrong side of Deng Xiaoping, and further association with him could be dangerous. Exile awaited Xi, again.
Xi’s Runaway Bride
Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, Xi’s marriage fell apart. In 1982, his elegant bride, Ke Lingling, abandoned him, a massive ego-punch in any country, but especially in China. Miss Ke was on her way to the glamor of London, where her dad was ambassador at the PRC embassy. Awaiting her was an ambitious and coveted life in the developed world. If she loved Xi, it wasn’t that all-consuming kind of emotion that steered many young women off the pragmatic path. Xi was just a lowly official from a turbulent family. It seemed inevitable that he would toil his career away collecting unpopular taxes and enforcing the “One-Child Policy” (CCP jargon for the largest campaign of forced abortion, sterilization, and infanticide in human history). The unseemly divorce piled more shame on his already heavy load.
Xi’s second boss, Gao Yang, then the Communist Party boss of Hebei Province, disliked him and roadblocked his every move. Xi ended up working in harsh conditions in a cold, penniless village hundreds of miles south of Beijing, sleeping in his office and eating at a communal kitchen. From there his career wound its way into China’s deep south, to the backwater of Fujian Province, with its super typhoons, corruptions scandals, and gangsters. It was undoubtedly another wrenching culture shock for a sophisticated northerner like Xi.
Looking Downright Pitiful
Five years after his first marriage ended in disaster, his luck with romance took a remarkable turn. Xi tied the knot again, this time to Peng Liyuan, a modelesque PLA soldier turned singer, a bright star with an amazing voice. Yet even this lucky break had its downsides. For the next two decades, Xi would live in the shadow cast by his second wife’s immense fame. She was a national sensation, a television superstar whose songs were on everyone’s lips. He was an unknown bureaucrat with uncertain prospects. Compared to her, Xi looked downright pitiful.
Xi was left alone in the backward south for long stretches of time while his wife was on tour. His official biography says he would make long-distance phone calls to her, checking up on her at bedtime, “no matter how late it was.”
Night after night he would call: after she had performed shows in Beijing aired on China Central Television, after she had sung for troops fresh from the Tiananmen Square massacre, after she appeared at glittering art festivals abroad as a cultural ambassador for China. For twenty years they lived apart, separated at times by forty-eight-hour-long train rides between his posts in the south and her apartment in Beijing. We can only guess how he felt and whether he worried about their future together. His biography refrains from any details that personal. It does, however, mention that he likes to stay up late watching sports and sometimes enjoys drinking. Perhaps that’s how he coped.
In 1997, Xi stood for CCP Central Committee membership, but lost. It was years before he got another shot at the big time. Finally, in 2009, he was expected to be appointed Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission. But then, mysteriously, he wasn’t. It was yet another rejection in a long series of rejections.
Finally, in 2012, after being painstakingly groomed as Hu Jintao’s successor, an eleventh-hour power struggle before the 18th National CCP Congress nearly cost him the mantle of national leadership. A vicious inner-Party battle ensued. Prominent Chinese politicians, top-ranking PLA generals, and even China’s intelligence czar opposed Xi, seeking to install one of their own in his place.
Months of intrigue followed, which ended only after Xi asserted himself in a ruthless fashion. A tidal wave of arrests washed across the country, and political killings began the likes of which no one had seen in living memory. Concentration camps were built, and an Orwellian massive surveillance regime began taking shape.
Xi had finally come out on top, but he still didn’t feel safe. One of those he imprisoned was an official in charge of the Central Security Bureau, the shadowy bodyguard unit responsible for the security of the CCP’s top leadership, including Xi and his family. Xi replaced the suspected traitor and all those linked to him, sparking rumors that Xi feared one of his rivals would put poison in his tea. If Xi was paranoid, he had good reason to be.
Xi’s long years have given him a harsh schooling in what it means to be powerless in Communist China, what it means to be under another man’s jackboot, how it feels to have his face stomped on. He has learned better than anyone why obtaining power matters. Having clawed his way to the zenith of power over the bodies of others, it seems almost certain he will fight to stay there for as long as he lives.
A Decade of Darkness
Chairman Xi has been China’s paramount leader for ten years, and it is remarkable how much we still don’t know about Xi Jinping the man, or for that matter the private and public lives of his family, friends, advisors, and political enemies. Now that he exercises unchecked power over China, we cannot help but confront the question: Just how emotionally stable and rational is he? How sane could anyone be who went through what he did?
Given his traumatic life story and horrifying track record in office, there are many reasons for concern that the next decade of his rule will be even darker than the last – and far more dangerous. Xi’s finger is on China’s nuclear button, which means his mental health now matters for us all.
Ian Easton is a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Final Struggle: Inside China’s Global Strategy. This article draws in part from the author’s book.