U.S. President Barack Obama (L) chats with Chinese President Xi Jinping as they walk from the West Wing of the White House to a private dinner across the street at Blair House, in Washington, September 24, 2015. Xi arrived in Washington on Thursday for a state visit and talks with President Barack Obama expected to be clouded by differences over alleged Chinese cyber spying, Beijing’s economic policies and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. (REUTERS/Mike Theiler)
On Thursday evening, President Obama had dinner with one of the most powerful, mysterious men in the world: Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Xi, who took power in 2013, is known for being an incredibly private man of few words. What little we do know about him and how he grew up, though, is terrifying stuff.
The New York Times painted a harrowing picture of those days in a profile of Xi’s teen years.
Xi’s father was a high-ranking Communist Party propaganda minister back in the days of Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China. At the beginning of his life this afforded Xi a bunch of luxuries — a fancy school, for example.
But everything changed during China’s Cultural Revolution, when Mao decided to do away with party elites. Xi’s father was accused of supporting a book Mao hated in 1962 and sent to work at a factory.
Five years later, Xi’s father was accused of staring at the Berlin Wall with a pair of binoculars during a visit to East Germany years before, according to The New Yorker, and things got worse.
It was around this time that the world turned on Xi Jinping as well. He was considered the child of a “black gang” because his father had been purged. The fancy school he attended became a target for those who believed in the Cultural Revolution.
Xi Jinping, Shanghai’s Communist Party Secretary, attends the opening ceremony of the Ninth Shanghai Congress of the Communist Party May 24, 2007. Xi said on Thursday the city’s pension fund scandal had tarnished the image of the party and taught it a lesson. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA)
A classmate said he and Xi were the “blackest” in the class, and the bullying and torment was terrible. Xi’s older sister was eventually “persecuted to death.” According to The Times, experts think that means she committed suicide.
The Revolutionary Guards chased Xi, threatened to shoot him, and publicly shamed him.
From The Times:
At one point, militants paraded Mr. Xi and five adults on a stage before a rally, according to an associate of Mr. Xi’s father, Yang Ping, citing conversations with the father and family. Mr. Xi had to use both hands to hold up the cone-shaped metal hat he was made to wear.
“The mother had no choice but to go to the struggle session and sat below the stage,” Mr. Yang wrote. “When they yelled, ‘Down with Xi Jinping!’ on the stage, his mother was forced to raise her arm and shout the slogan along with everyone.”
When father and son were finally reunited in 1972, Xi’s father had been tortured so badly he didn’t even recognize his son. They found that they had something in common though — cigarettes.
More from The Times:
The father, battered and disoriented after years of isolation and interrogation, “looked at his two grown boys, and totally failed to recognize them,” according to his father’s biography, citing an interview with Mr. Xi. The older man wept, and Mr. Xi offered him a cigarette.
“He asked me, ‘How come you also smoke?'” Mr. Xi said. “I said: ‘I’m depressed. We’ve also made it through tough times over these years.’
“He went quiet for a moment and said, ‘I grant you approval to smoke.'”
All of that is why, when Xi was interviewed by the Chinese Times in 2000, he said he had a firm understanding of politics.
“People who have little experience with power, those who have been far away from it, tend to regard these things as mysterious and novel,” Xi said.
“But I look past the superficial things: the power and the flowers and the glory and the applause. I see the detention houses, the fickleness of human relationships. I understand politics on a deeper level.”