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What to know about Xi Jinping, the man at the center of China's politics

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to turn our attention to the central figure in Chinese politics, President Xi Jinping. As we just heard, he is almost certain to secure a third term as president and leader of China's powerful Communist Party. The significance of that cannot be overstated. China has the world's largest population, the world's second biggest economy and a powerful military. And that means China - and, by extension and through his own efforts, President Xi himself - is a huge player in global politics. So that means his choices matter when it comes to addressing climate change, promoting trade and managing global conflicts. To get a better sense of President Xi and his ambitions, we reached out to Rana Mitter. He is a professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University. When we spoke earlier today, I asked how Xi Jinping was able to rise to the top of China's massive Communist Party.

RANA MITTER: Well, I'd say that he basically pushed on a whole variety of levers very successfully. No. 1 is that he himself comes from a family that is very closely connected to the party over a long period of time. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of the prominent figures of Chairman Mao's - Mao Zedong's period of rule, back in the 1950s and '60s. And so Xi Jinping himself actually was born as part of what you might call that sort of privileged red aristocracy - in other words, the sons and daughters of party leaders. It's worth noting that although that connection to the party probably meant that he had a bit of a head start in terms of working his way up the system, he was also considered, through much of the 1980s, '90s, 2000s, to be a diligent but not very prominent figure in the Chinese Communist Party. And it wasn't really until he was named as the potential successor - the likely successor - back in the early 21st century that he came to attention.

So what changed? Why was he able to gather so much power under himself as he has been in the last 10 years? Well, I think two factors. The first one is that, essentially, the global atmosphere changed because of the global financial crisis in which U.S. power - Western power - seemed diminished, and China felt more confident about itself. And he was able, I think, essentially, to put forward an idea of himself as someone who was going to embody that sense of what he calls national rejuvenation. In other words, confident, unapologetic, someone who is going to tell it like it is and, in some ways, not take, you know, any kind of backchat from the rest of the world.

But the other factor is that, once he got himself into the key seats of power - the presidency, the general secretaryship (ph) of the party and the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission - he basically used these very, very powerful seats to essentially put power under himself. Previous rulers had tried to sort of spread the power a bit, you know, let different factions have their way - not for Xi Jinping. All of the last 10 years has been about making sure, as you might put it, that it's Xi Jinping's China. It's Xi Jinping's party, everyone else is just living in it.

MARTIN: Why do his peers tolerate this, though? I mean, is there no mechanism to create sort of alternate power centers as sort of a check and balance? Because, I mean, this isn't like North Korea, where you've got this hereditary dictatorship that people are taught from a very early age to revere, almost as if these - the leaders there are not just, you know, political leaders, they're gods. That's not the case in China. So why do his peers put up with it?

MITTER: He has been very successful at cracking down, arresting or removing from power people who have pushed back against him. Let's take Zhou Yongkang, who is a former Cabinet-level member, you might say, of the Chinese Communist Party - the top seven Politburo Standing Committee. He was arrested on corruption charges very, very shortly after Xi Jinping came to power, way back in 2012. And I don't think any other top leader would have dared to do something of that sort. But even in the last few months, you know, 10 years later, another major leader, Fu Zhenghua, was also arrested and charged with corruption and I think is handed a suspended death sentence. So basically, Xi's control of the security and power apparatus means that even if you're a top leader, you could find yourself in real trouble - not just being fired, but actually being arrested - and no one wants to risk that.

MARTIN: What do you think shapes his worldview? I mean, it's been reported that he looked at the dissolution of the Soviet Union as his - the object lesson of what not to do. Does he have some sort of governing philosophy that we could point to?

MITTER: He absolutely does have a governing philosophy, Michel, and it's made up of a couple of very notable strands. I mean, first of all, as you've just said, he was one of that generation shaken by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union back in 1991. He was not someone who has ever regarded Mikhail Gorbachev, the late last Soviet leader, as being a hero. And Xi Jinping is even reported to have said that the problem with the Soviet Union was that, quote, "there wasn't a real man who stepped forward to actually save the party." So that memory is certainly in his mind. But there are a couple of other things, too.

The first is a fierce and unapologetic belief that China's time has come to rise in the world again. The last 200 years or so have been a time when China was first invaded by the countries in the 19th and 20th centuries and then had to spend time building its economy, particularly under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping back in the late 20th century, to get to where it is. And now it's time for China to have a much bigger global role and also to essentially accept no criticism, no pushback from the outside world, about how the system will be.

His second conviction is - well, he calls himself a 21st-century Marxist. Now, he's very upfront that when he says he runs a Communist Party, he means it. And by combining the ideas of Marx and Lenin, he basically makes no apology for the fact that China is an authoritarian state, which has heavily narrowed even the limited freedoms of media, free speech and so forth that existed even 10 to 15 years ago. They were always very restricted, but some areas, like social media, were relatively open. Now they've been much more heavily censored and closed down because Xi Jinping openly said everything has to be about the party.

MARTIN: So what does this foretell for the next five years? I mean, it's no secret that - and as you just told us again and reminded us that President Xi has embraced, you know, profoundly authoritarian tactics, silencing dissent, going after what media exists, and, frankly, turning a blind eye to the abuse of women. I mean, for all the sort of the talk about the egalitarianism under Marxism, I mean, one of the - some of the most disturbing stories that have reached people in the West are the stories about women who have been, you know, violently abused by party leaders or influential people, and this is not taken seriously at all - that women who have complained about this have been abused or silenced or disappeared. And so what does this suggest of the next five years? Is there an object lesson here? Is there an end goal in mind that you could point us to for the next five years?

MITTER: I think we can expect to see more control of the internet in China, which is already very heavily censored, but also beyond that, a push in international organizations such as the United Nations and the organizations that are going to decide things such as norms on artificial intelligence, which have to do with gathering big data, surveillance and how that data is used, in terms of the next generation of information technology. All of those areas where China wants to have much more control, not just in China itself, but also to spread global norms that countries, including authoritarian states, should be able to exercise those sovereign rights, even outside their own borders. You might call it a sort of cyber sovereignty. And that sort of thing I think we'll see more of.

MARTIN: That's Rana Mitter. He's a professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University. His latest book is "China's Good War: How World War II Is Shaping A New Nationalism." Professor Mitter, thanks so much for joining us. I do hope we'll talk again.

MITTER: Thanks very much, Michel. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.