When Xi Jinping arrived in Liangjiahe, a small village of a few dozen households hidden among the Loess mountains of central China, he was “anxious and confused,” he recalled in an essay he wrote in 1998. But when he left the “Yellow earth” of Shaanxi province seven years later, he reflected, “my life goals were firm and I was filled with confidence.”

Liangjiahe today, its residents say, is not much different from the village that Xi Jinping lived in for seven years, from 1969 to 1975. The village sits at the end of a sandy road that turns off National Highway 211, an expressway that runs from Yan’an, a bustling centre of the oil industry and “Red tourism” — Yan’an served as the revolutionary base for the Communists from 1936 until 1948. Liangjiahe is located in a narrow valley sandwiched by sandstone-coloured mountains. Its residents, as they did four decades ago, live in cave homes that have been carved out of the Loess hills. They make a living tending corn fields. The only major difference, 40 years later, is that there are no young hands in sight — farmers in their sixties and seventies watch over the fields, while their children are away working in the booming urban centres of Xian and Yan’an.

At Liangjiahe

When Xi arrived here, one of millions of young Chinese sent “down to the countryside” by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the villagers knew he was no ordinary youth. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of Shaanxi province’s most famous sons — a Communist Party revolutionary who rose to the position of Vice Premier after the People’s Republic of China was founded. The older Xi was sidelined in 1965, and during the Cultural Revolution was made to suffer public humiliation at the hands of Mao Zedong’s Red Guards. He was purged in 1969 and sent to prison.

That same year, his son was sent to Liangjiahe. “He was no different from the others,” recalled one farmer who knew Xi. “At that time, even he did not have corn to eat here, and survived eating the skin of wheat!” “He was like any one of us,” added one woman in her eighties. “He could eat bitterness,” she said, using a Chinese phrase, “che ku,” that is used to describe one’s tolerance of hardship. The seven years he spent in Liangjiahe, Xi later reflected, profoundly shaped his political outlook. “During my seven or eight years in Shaanxi,” he said in a 2003 interview with State broadcaster CCTV, “I got to know what pragmatism was, what seeking truth from facts was, and what the general public was. It is something that will benefit me throughout my life.”

Pragmatism is perhaps the word that best defines the rise of Xi Jinping. Xi, who joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) during his last year in Liangjiahe, has risen through its ranks by crafting an image of a middle-of-the-road leader, unwedded to any particular ideology, who forged ties across the CPC’s many interest groups, from reform-minded liberals to the People’s Liberation Army.

Sweeping transition on Thursday

On November 8, when the CPC’s 18th National Congress opens in Beijing, the party will embark on a sweeping leadership transition to the fifth generation of its leadership. When the congress concludes on November 15, Xi Jinping, as the party’s next General Secretary, will lead out on stage at the Great Hall of the People the members of the next Politburo Standing Committee — the body that effectively runs China.

Xi will come to power at a time of unprecedented challenges facing the party. In the months leading up to the transition, the CPC has been dealing with the biggest political crisis it has faced in decades, surrounding the fall of Politburo member Bo Xilai. Bo was expelled from the party in September, and will stand trial facing corruption charges and allegations that he helped cover up the murder of a British business associate of the Bo family, who was poisoned by Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai. The scandal has underscored the difficulty the CPC faces in taming rampant corruption, even at the highest levels of the party.

The Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao decade has seen breakneck economic growth, but it has also left behind many challenges that Xi will have to grapple with. During the past 10 years, per capita incomes have risen five-fold. The Hu government emphasised sustainable growth, boosting investments in rural areas in China’s hinterland. Under Hu, China managed effectively the financial crisis of 2008, unveiling a stimulus programme that funded a massive infrastructure boom whose legacy includes the world’s biggest high-speed rail network.

Rebalancing the economy

But a decade on, China’s export-led growth model is seen to be nearing the end of its shelf-life, increasing the urgency for rebalancing the economy. The Hu decade has also left behind widening income inequalities between rural and urban China — a gap that is 68 per cent higher than in 1985. Rising unrest at the grassroots has reignited calls for taking forward stalled intraparty political reforms, while moves to reform State-dominated sectors are mired in debates between various interest groups.

Zhang Chunhou, a political scientist at Yan’an University, hoped that Xi’s time in the provinces would have impressed upon him the urgency of addressing the pressing issue of inequality and unrest at the grassroots. Moves to expand democracy at the village-level, he said, have stalled in recent years. While the central government continues to enjoy legitimacy following three decades of rapid development, there is widespread resentment at local-level corruption which sparks tens of thousands of “mass incidents” every year. Corruption, Zhang said, was the biggest threat to the party’s legitimacy. Reinforcing its commitment to serve the people, he added, must be Xi’s priority; doing so would address perceptions of a party elite increasingly out of touch with the people.

Return to Beijing

The seven years Xi spent in Liangjiahe are a central part of the official narrative of his rise that the party has constructed, to portray him as a leader who, despite his privileged status as a member of the party elite, was in touch with the grassroots. On returning to Beijing in 1975, Xi joined the elite Tsinghua University. He then spent three years working in the General Office of the Central Military Commission, the PLA’s top ruling body, forging connections in the military. In 1982, when he could have chosen a high-profile posting in Beijing, Xi instead returned to the countryside, working in a poor Hebei county called Zhengding and further burnishing his credentials as a leader in touch with the grassroots. Xi then served in the booming coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, establishing a reputation as a business-friendly leader open to economic reforms.

Even in Liangjiahe and surrounding villages, the challenges awaiting Xi as he takes office are evident. Farmers said in interviews that they hadn’t seen the local party chief in years. He lived in Yan’an, villagers said, more preoccupied with his business interests than the affairs of the village. One farmer, who lives down the road from the cave home where young Xi lived, complained of corrupt local and county officials. “We are living in hardship,” the farmer said, holding back tears.

When Xi was staying in Liangjiahe, his lasting contribution to the village, according to his official biography, was a biogas plant that he had installed. Shi Chunyang, the party secretary at the time, said an enterprising young Xi who read a report of biogas being used elsewhere in China travelled to Sichuan and returned with a proposal to set up biogas facilities in the village. Several facilities were subsequently installed. When Xi returned to visit a few years ago, when he was Vice-President, he spoke proudly of having the technology upgraded in 2007 “so as to continue to serve the people.”

Today, residents said in interviews, the facility was no longer functioning. “It is not working anymore,” said one farmer. Just as he was speaking, a car carrying four men, who claimed to be from the county government, drove up the village road.

“You are not allowed to visit Liangjiahe without permission,” one of them said, telling the farmer to leave and warning he would call the police. “This is a special village.”

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