Xi Jinping, who now enjoys a position in the Communist party pantheonbelow only Mao Zedong, spent his adolescence as far from power as can be imagined. For seven years he toiled in a poor, remote village in China’s Shaanxi province, unblocking sewage pipes, carrying heavy loads across the hills and sleeping in a flea-infested cave dwelling. He was lonely, bored, hungry, exhausted and anxious about his future. The experience shaped him for life, but not as one might expect.
Xi Zhongxun, the Chinese president’s father, was a Communist party veteran celebrated in later life as one of the “immortals”. But when Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution in 1966, he was brutally persecuted. Xi Jinping’s elder half-sister died in the turmoil and the teenage Xi, along with 17 million peers, was sent to labour in the countryside. Those years have become Xi’s creation myth.