INTERNATIONAL

Cultural revolution shaped China’s Xi into survivor

President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, First Lady Michelle Obama and Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan wave from the Truman Balcony of the White House on Friday.— Photo: AP

President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, First Lady Michelle Obama and Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan wave from the Truman Balcony of the White House on Friday.— Photo: AP  

When the pandemonium of the Cultural Revolution erupted, he was a slight, softly spoken 13-year-old who loved classical Chinese poetry. Two years later, adrift in a city torn apart by warring Red Guards, Xi Jinping had hardened into a combative street survivor.

His father, a senior Communist Party official who had been purged a few years earlier, was seized and repeatedly beaten. Student militants ransacked his family’s home, forcing the family to flee, and one of his sisters died in the mayhem.

Paraded before a crowd as an enemy of the revolution and denounced by his own mother, the future President of China was on the edge of being thrown into a prison for delinquent children of the party elite.

Visiting the U.S. this week, Mr. Xi, 62, has presented himself as a polished statesman, at ease hobnobbing with U.S. capitalists in Seattle and attending a state dinner at the White House in his honour on Friday.

Yet his first immersion in politics came on the streets of the Chinese capital during the most tumultuous era of Communist rule, when Mao Zedong exhorted students “to bombard the headquarters” of order.

“I always had a stubborn streak and wouldn’t put up with being bullied,” Mr. Xi recalled in an interview in 2000, one of the few times he has spoken about his experience as a teenager in Beijing.

“I riled the radicals, and they blamed me for everything that went wrong.”

Mr. Xi has often discussed the seven years he spent exiled to a rural village during the latter part of the Cultural Revolution, casting that chapter of his life as an uplifting story of a city boy who discovers the suffering of ordinary Chinese in the countryside and resolves to make a difference.

But Mr. Xi has rarely spoken in public about his experiences from 1966 to 1968 at the tumultuous start of the Cultural Revolution. An examination of memoirs written by his close contemporaries and by members of his family, though, offers an unusually vivid look at how a shy, bookish youth was tested and changed by the chaos created by the Cultural Revolution.

Mr. Xi started his transformation in the equivalent of the seventh grade in the August 1 School, a cloistered boarding school largely reserved for children with parents in the senior ranks of the party and the military.

When Cultural Revolution militants shut it down, he ended up at the No. 25 School, which was a hotbed of discontent with the party elite, said Qian Peizhen, chairwoman of the school’s alumni association.

But as order broke down, Mr. Xi, like many youths, spent little time in class.

Mr. Xi and a friend “would hang out all day,” Ms. Qian said. After fleeing their home, he, his mother and his siblings took refuge at the Central Party School, an academy for officials.

“We grew up in a highly abnormal environment,” Li Xiaobing, a classmate at the August 1 School, recalled on a school alumni website.

— New York Times News Service

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