November 10, 2016 12:00 pm JST

When it comes to Xi, history makes the man

SHANGHAI Xi Jinping conducts politics and diplomacy like a man convinced this is a dog-eat-dog world. The bloody story of China's second president -- and Xi's own experience during the Cultural Revolution -- may offer insights as to why.

A 33-year-old Russian woman grabbed the spotlight in late September at a conference of Chinese and Russian business people in Harbin, in China's Heilongjiang Province. Margarita Fedotova was introduced as a member of China's "third red generation," causing a stir.

The offspring of the Chinese Communist Party leaders who founded the People's Republic in 1949 are known as the "second red generation." Later descendants are grouped into the third generation. Fedotova -- her Chinese name is Liu Lida -- is the great-granddaughter of Liu Shaoqi, who took over from revolutionary icon Mao Zedong as president in 1959.

SECRETS AND TIES Liu Shaoqi is not just any early leader. He was a high-profile victim of the Cultural Revolution that Mao launched in 1966 as part of a power struggle with his political foes. This painful legacy looms over Fedotova and her family to this day.

Fedotova is the granddaughter of one of Liu Shaoqi's sons and his Russian wife. It was not until she was 11 that she learned of her family's past from her father.

Margarita Fedotova, the great-granddaughter of China's second president, Liu Shaoqi (Photo by Wataru Kodaka)

Liu Shaoqi was Mao's archrival. Thus, he was vilified, purged and imprisoned, where he died from illness in 1969.

Fedotova's grandfather was accused of being a spy for the Soviet Union. He killed himself by lying on train tracks.

How does all this connect with Xi?

The president has close relations with the Liu family. Retired Gen. Liu Yuan, one of Liu Shaoqi's sons, is a Xi ally and until recently played a leading role in the crackdown on corruption in the military.

Shared experience binds the families together. Both were losers in Mao's power struggle. Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, was also purged.

When the Cultural Revolution erupted half a century ago, Xi endured bullying at junior high school. At age 15, he was one of the "intellectual youths" shuffled out of cities to do hard labor in the countryside. He spent seven years living in a cave in Shaanxi Province.

A cave dwelling in a remote Shaanxi Province village, where Xi spent years of his youth (Photo by Wataru Kodaka)

Those harsh years made an impression. "If you are weak, you will be bashed," Xi said soon after he became the Communist Party's top leader in autumn 2012.

In addition to bitter memories of his youth, Xi seems to have been influenced by foreign powers' conduct in China since the First Opium War in the mid-19th century, in which the country suffered a humiliating defeat. This history forms the background of his calls for realizing the "Chinese dream" and the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

"TAKING ON THE U.S." Xi's quest for strength is playing out in dramatic fashion at home, as he works to consolidate his power before starting his second five-year term as party leader next fall. The same impulse clearly informs his approach to diplomacy.

Despite international condemnation, China continues to play hardball in the South China Sea. As one Chinese military source put it, this is about "taking on the U.S."

Washington and Tokyo are now puzzling over Beijing's next move. In particular, security officials wonder whether China will reclaim land at Scarborough Shoal and build military infrastructure, as it has done elsewhere.

The shoal is a strategic point claimed by China and the Philippines. If China were to build, say, an airstrip and a radar facility on the disputed reef, it could severely limit the U.S. military's movements.

The Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou in early September offered Xi an opportunity to assert himself as the leader of a great power -- and to bolster that image with a domestic audience. There was a certain symbolism in his five-minute walk to the venue with his American and Russian counterparts, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin.

On the second day of the summit, Xi flexed his muscle in a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted him as telling Abe: Japan should "exercise caution in its words and deeds" on the South China Sea issue.

(Nikkei)

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