Xi Jinping: My Road Into Politics – In Praise of China
Interview with Now-President Xi Jinping, Summer, 2000
(Xi Jinping at the time was 47 years old and governor in the Fujian province and Yang Xiaohuai was the editor of Zhonghua Ernü).
Xi Jinping: Welcome here. I have previously said no thank you to personal interviews innumerable times. We all have different tasks. If you do not mention everybody, then you are only emphasizing yourself. You can also put it differently: When we are all doing our duty within our respective area of responsibility, then it is the community that creates the results. Therefore it makes no sense mentioning the individual. That is the reason why I have refused giving personal interviews. There are also people who write autobiographies. I do not do that either.
Yang Xiaohuai: I thought so. That kind of thing can easily lead to misunderstandings.
Xi: Particularly if you look at the popular media. You write about a person’s background. Who are his parents? Who is he married to? He is such and such a person. What’s the use of that? That kind of information is not news. It is something everybody knows already. You make a little soup of it. It is immaterial.
Yang: Obviously that kind of publicity is immaterial and superfluous. But as a high-level official you are in the focus of the formation of public opinion. The press and the media can help people better understand your work. That kind of public mention I think is important.
Xi: Of course you can write about leading officials. To a certain extent. But you must preserve the sense of proportions. There is a tendency to write that a leading official is so and so perfect and so and so excellent, but in reality nobody is perfect and consummate. Take a person and describe him as excellent. Nobody will believe it. An individual’s ability to get results on his own is limited. Without the community and without cooperation you will achieve nothing. Therefore I believe that it is better to focus on the community and cooperation.
Yang: You recently took the post as governor of the Fujian province. What new political initiatives did you consider, and what parts of the politics in progress did you wish to continue?
Xi: When I became governor in August last year, the members of the provincial government emphasized two points: Firstly that I was to continue working on the foundations laid by the previous governor. It was my task seeing to it that the plans laid down at the beginning of the year were carried through. In addition I could come with my own plans. When you have just taken over a new job you will also want to set your own agenda in the first year. But it must be on the foundations of your predecessor. It is like a relay race. You have to receive the baton properly and then yourself run it in goal.
The second point: Of course a provincial governor has an important position. But he is just one person. A provincial government consists of a governor, several deputy governors and many colleagues in the various departments. If you are to achieve results, everybody must pull in the same direction. Furthermore it is important that you make sure you have the cooperation and back-up of the whole province.
Yang: When you were sent to Ningde county as a leader, I have heard that you did not tear along ostentatiously, as many other leaders do when they come to a new place. You did not come sweeping with new brooms to make room for your own special projects. You did not use big words but proceeded slowly and patiently.
Xi: When I was sent to Ningde, I had been vice mayor in Xiamen for three years. For a brief period I was also acting leader of the city. I had worked to develop Xiamen’s economic reform policy and to build the city’s large industrial zone. The provincial leadership was happy about my efforts and my experiences getting things going, so they decided to appoint me leader of Ningde county. At the time Jia Qinglin was deputy secretary of the party committee of the Fujian province. He called me for a meeting and said: “We want you to go to Ningde county to get things going and change the profile of the county. The level is low and development has been far too slow. We have had many meetings, bur Ningde is still the poorest county of the province. There is no spirit there, just empty words. You must do something extraordinary, so that the situation in the county will be changed.” Both the party leader of the province Chen Guangyi and governor Wang Zhaoguo supported me with much advice.
The first thing I did in Ningde was familiarizing myself thoroughly with things. I was filled with admiration for its people. They had for several years worked hard and laboriously and had made a great effort. In Ningde they had built the first medium-sized hydroelectric power station of the province. From here electricity was led on to the whole province and to the urban centres. You could see that people in Ningde had diligently given their contribution to the economic development of the province. It wasn’t that people did not work, but the natural conditions of the county had its limitations. Of course there were also things that could be done better. Many things were still in the old grove, and original thinking was lacking.
But just as I had come to Ningde inflation rose, the economy became overheated, and the central government implemented a strict economic policy. The economic situation allowed no extraordinary economic initiatives. Everybody wanted a change and hoped that I could contribute to it. But I had no smart theoretical solution and did not come with a miracle. Therefore the only thing I could say was that the economic crisis was an occasion and a motivation for everybody to join hands. My greatest worry was that we should plunge into unsafe projects. The time was not for that. It would have been easy to make a rousing and enthusiastic speech, arouse their enthusiasm and utilize everybody’s motivation to pitch into work. But that might easily have resulted in grave disappointment. So that wasn’t what I did.
My procedure was to light a small fire to warm up the water, keep the fire burning and now and again pour some more cold water in, so that the kettle did not boil over. People told me that they wanted to get three great projects going: Building a harbour at Sandu´ao, establishing a railway-line to Ningde and putting greater emphasis on developing the cities in the county. I answered that that kind of project needed developing slowly, as our economic foundation was still weak, and that we should not aim too high. At first we had to analyse the facts and create a robust economic foundation. Even if it takes a long time even ‘a drop can hollow out a stone’.
The last thing I have heard is that my plans for the development of the county did not miss the mark. After 12 years of thorough preparations the State Council has now approved prioritizing developing the cities. A railway line has been projected, while building a harbour is still being made researches into. Praxis has shown that with Ningde’s conditions no miracle will happen overnight.
There were several challenges, and it was a steady pull. But as in the race between the tortoise and the hare you may finally reach the goal and win. Carrying out the plans took a long time, and I myself did not count on leaving Ningde at once.
I set four goals for myself: To encourage thinking along new lines, building a solid group of leaders, taking initiatives to fight poverty and exploiting Ningde’s special economic possibilities as a mountainous area near the coast.
I left Ningde after two years because the provincial government wanted me back here in Fuzhou. Even if my time in Ningde was brief, I came to love the place very much. Now many years later, Ningde is still one of the places that I am greatly attached to.
Yang: These years several people talk about many officials coming with ‘new brooms’ to a new job, get a couple of new projects going to leave again after a short period. You yourself have talked about how important it is having patience. I have visited a good many places but have only met very few officials thinking like you. Many people believe that officials first and foremost aim at a success to get promoted and to create results to further their own career. Do you have any comments on that?
Xi: Promotion is only something external. If a promotion is well founded, it is only one of several signs that the individual has achieved results in his work. A promotion can be seen as an expression of recognition from management and colleagues. But you must remember that promotion in itself is not the full and true assessment of an official as a person. Promotion alone does not tell the whole story about an official. Our system of assessment is still not perfect and makes evaluating an official very difficult. Both subjective and objective factors come in, and in the final analysis that means that the assessment is imperfect.
When I have left a post, I have always thought back on my colleagues, I have summed up my impressions and found that I also sometimes have posted my colleagues wrongly. Some were posted wrongly because I thought they were better than they actually were, others because I thought they were poorer than they actually were. That was because I did not compare their efforts and immediate progress with their personal motivation. Therefore one may easily happen to promote the wrong colleagues if one does not view their efforts in a larger perspective. As an organization and as management we do not have a final set of criteria when it comes to assessing a colleague and deciding if the person in question is to be promoted.
Yang: Of course I do not know your entire background, but you have had a career as an official for over 20 years. Is it not true that – unlike some officials who have promotion as their ultimate goal – you have a fundamental wish to do something good for society?
Xi: That is true. It is a highly relevant question. It is about a decisive choice in life, which I myself – already before I went into politics – thought a lot about. First and foremost over such questions as: Which way do you want to go? What do you want to do with your life? What goals do you want to achieve? Personally I set several goals. One of them was doing something important for society. When that is the goal of your life, you must at the same time be aware that you can’t have your cake and eat it. If you go into politics, it mustn’t be for money. Sun Yatsen said the same thing, namely that one has to make up one’s mind to accomplish something and not go for a high position as an official. If you wish to make money, there are many legal ways of becoming rich. Becoming rich in a legal way is worth all honour and respect. Later the taxation authorities will also respect you because you are contributing to the economic development of the country. But you should not go into politics if you wish to become wealthy. In that case you will inevitably become a corrupt and filthy official. A corrupt official with a bad reputation who will always be afraid of being arrested, and who must envisage having a bad posthumous reputation.
If you go into politics to make a career, you must give up any thought of personal advantages. That is out of the question. An official may not through a long career have achieved very great things, but at least he has not put something up his sleeve. He is upright. In a political career you can never go for personal advantages or promotion. It is just like that. It can’t be done. These are the rules.
You do not promote a person just because he has good qualifications and experience. Of course qualifications are important, as are a great sense of responsibility and a great knowledge. But it must be seen in a larger context. When you are to choose a person who is to get an important position, and who can make a difference, you must also see it in connection with the time, place, other colleagues and the situation in general. So there is no definite formula which you can use to figure out who is to get promoted.
If throughout your career you have unsuccessfully tried to achieve success, it may be a great personal disappointment that you fail to get promoted. But as the old Master Guan said: Do not try to do the impossible, do not strive for the unobtainable, do not rest on the transient, do not do what cannot be repeated.
You should not be afraid of difficulties and challenges when you have prepared yourself thoroughly. Politics is both unsafe and risky, and wilfulness is no passable road. Many who have experienced failures are hit by self-reproaches thinking: “I have helped so many people, I have done so much, and all I get is ingratitude. There are so many people who do not understand me. Why must it be like that?” Some of my colleagues who started at the same time as I have given up their jobs for that reason. If you have a position somewhere, the thing is to stick to it and continue one’s work. Then, in the final analysis, it will give results. The germ of success is to fasten on and continue one’s work. Once you have gone into politics, it is like crossing a river. No matter how many obstacles you meet, there is only one way, and that is further on. I myself have also come across many difficulties and obstacles. That is simply inevitable.
Yang: I have been told that you originally worked in The Central Military Commission in Beijing. For many people this would be an ideal job. But nevertheless, after a brief employment, you chose to leave your job to work at grass-roots level. Why?
Xi: There were many who did not understand me at the time. Before I went to the county of Zhending in the province of Hebei, I worked as a secretary for defence minister Geng Biao, who was also a member of the Politbureau. He said that if I wanted to work at a grass roots level, I might follow the army on its exercises. I did not have to work for a local government.
Before leaving Beijing I was around saying goodbye to friends and acquaintances. Many of them had been sent to the countryside during the “Cultural Revolution” – to all kind of places – and were now at length back into town again. Some of them thought that they had had a very hard time. There were also those who thought that now their time had come. Now it was their time to live a good life. It disappointed me to hear that. They would not move outside a radius of 50 kilometres from Beijing, for then they would lose their official register address in Beijing. But I said that we should go out with the same commitment and enthusiasm as generations of officials before us had done.
During the “Cultural Revolution” we were sent out into the countryside. We had no choice; it was something we were forced to. It is a part of our history from which we have learned a lot. Today we have good times and have put that kind of ‘leftist’ policy behind us. But we still need to go to the countryside, be diligent and do a good job.
The old poet and calligrapher Zheng Banqiao wrote in his first poem “when your roots are deeply anchored in the mountains, no storms from any corner of the world can blow you down or make you surrender.” I would like to change some of the words based on my own experiences from my stay in the countryside saying: “when you are close to the grass roots and close to the people, no storms from any corner of the world can blow you down or make you surrender.” My seven years in the countryside have meant a lot to me. I have gained a deep knowledge of people, and that has been a decisive precondition for my later work. If I again am to work at grass roots level, I will not hesitate for a moment and do it with great confidence. Even if much always will be unpredictable, every day will be rich in experiences and challenges. I would certainly again like to work at grass roots level if I am asked to and my health is all right. In the final analysis anyone can assess my work and my successors will be able to evaluate my achievements. I need not think of that.
Yang: I have understood that through more than 20 years – whether it was at a village level, in counties, in regions or in cities like Fuzhou – you have always had a very good cooperation. How did you manage to achieve that cooperation?
Xi: Cooperation was something I learned at home as a child. My father often talked about it, telling us children already when we were quite small that we should be good at cooperating. “Do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you.” “Behave decently to others and then you yourself are a decent human being.” These were the phrases he would use to emphasise that you should not just think about your own view of things but also about what others believed. When you live with other people and only follow your own opinion, things will go badly. What my father said has meant a lot to me. No matter whether it was at school or when Í worked in the countryside, I have had a strong feeling that if everybody cooperates, then you will achieve good results. If cooperation is bad, it is bad for everybody.
But I have also made mistakes that I have learned from. When I was sent to the countryside, I was very young. It was something I was forced to. At the time I did not think very far and did not at all think of the importance of cooperating. While others in the village every day went up the mountain slopes and worked, I did as I chose, and people got a very bad impression of me. Some months later I was sent back to Beijing and placed in a “study group”. When six months later I was let out, I thought a lot about whether I should return to the village. At last I called upon my uncle, who before 1949 had worked in a base area in the Taihang Mountains. At the time he, my aunt and my mother were active in revolutionary work. All of them are people who have meant a lot to me. My uncle told me about his work then, and about how decisive it is to cooperate with the people among whom you are.
That settled it. I went back to the village, got down to work and cooperated. In a matter of a year I did the same work as people in the village, lived in the same way as they and worked hard. People saw that I had changed. They accepted me and began passing by the cave in which I lived, which soon became a rendezvous. It must have been around 1970. Every night people of all ages would turn up. I would tell them what I knew of China’s history and the history of the world. They would like to hear someone from the city tell them about something they did not know about. At last the leader of the village came and listened. He said that young people knew much more than he himself. Slowly the village gained confidence in me. Even if I was not more than 16 or 17 years old, several of the old people began asking for my advice. Today writers write about how miserable lives the young students led in the countryside then. It wasn’t like that for me. In the beginning it was hard, but I got used to life in the village, and as people got confidence in me, I had a good life.
Yang: I have been told that while you were in the village you joined the production brigade, then you became a member of the party’s youth league, then a member of the party, and finally promoted to the position as secretary of the production brigade’s party branch. With your family background this was unusual at that time. Could you tell me more about how you experienced this period?
Xi: It was around 1973. The entrance examinations to the party were taken place, but those who had a family background like mine – as you just mentioned – were not accepted. At last I was permitted to go to the Zhaojia He production brigade in the Fengjia Ping people’s commune to study. It was very exciting. At the time I had become a member of the youth league but not yet a member of the party. I had already written ten applications for membership of the party, but because of my family history my application was not approved. The people’s commune then sent my application on to the county’s party committee to hear their opinion. The secretary of the party committee said that my family background as reported by the village indeed was complicated and it was no wonder that the local people had found it difficult to reach a decision. On the other hand he also thought that the village needed me to lead the work, so he ended deciding that my father’s situation should be of no importance for my admission into the party. He approved my application and then sent me back as party secretary of the production brigade of the village.
Before that I had also had great difficulties becoming a member of the party’s youth league. I only succeeded after having applied eight times. When I had written the first application, I invited the secretary of the production brigade’s party branch home and offered him omelette and steamed wheat balls. After we had eaten I asked:
“Have you sent my application on?”
“How sent on? From above everybody say that you should teach children.”
“What do you mean by saying that I should teach children?”
“From above they say that you have not distanced yourself clearly from your family.”
“So what is the decision? It is about a human being. There must be a decision. What is the decision about my father? What documents have you had from the central authorities?”
“No, the application has not been sent on, but now it will be.”
When he came back from the people’s commune he told me that the party secretary of the people’s commune had scolded him saying that he had not understood a thing, and had asked if he really wanted to send the application on from such a person? I asked:
“Such a person? What does that mean? Have I written something reactionary or shouted reactionary slogans? I am just a young man who wishes to move forward. Tell me what is wrong with that?”
I was not knocked out and wrote my second application in the next days, gave it to the secretary of the party branch asking him to send it on. I continued like that until I had written eight applications. I did not lose heart and had no feelings of inferiority. I just thought that there were more good than bad people in the party and the youth league. I really wanted to join the youth league and told the party secretary that I needed his support. When I had written eight applications I was finally approved as a member. But it only happened after I had had the support of the secretary of the people’s commune’s youth league. He came to the village and talked to me for five days. We came close and became really good friends. When shortly afterwards he took over the job as the leader of the out-of-school education of the people’s commune, he was also the one who took the “black material’’ about me and simply burned it. It happened in the way that he took me up into the mountains to a small ravine. We sat down, and he said:
“I have all the “black material” about you right here.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“I’ll burn it.”
“You must be out of your mind.”
“May be, but I can see that it was sent from your school in Beijing.”
That was true. For I had been expelled from the high school for children of high ranking party members and then caught by Kang Sheng’s wife Cao Yi’ou’s red guard group, who accused me of all manner of bad things. I was called a gang leader because I was stubborn, and because I said that I had done nothing wrong. I did not want to be kicked around and did not give in to the red guards. I was only 14. The red guards asked:
“How serious do you yourself think your crimes are?”
“You can estimate it yourselves. Is it enough to execute me?”
“We can execute you a hundred times.”
To my mind there was no difference between being executed a hundred times or once, so why be afraid of a hundred times? The red guards wanted to scare me saying that now I was to feel the democratic dictatorship of the people, and that I only had five minutes left. Afterwards they said that I was to read quotations from Chairman Mao every single day until late at night. Then they decided to send me to a youth prison. But it turned out that the youth prison did not have a study program for “black gangs”, and moreover, that there were no vacancies until a month later. At the same time – it was in December 1968 – Chairman Mao issued a new instruction: Young students should be sent into the countryside to learn from the peasants. I immediately went to the school to be sent into the countryside so that I could follow Chairman Mao’s instruction. They considered that at the school eventually deciding that I was to go to Yan’an. It was like being sent into exile.
After many difficulties one way or another – problems because of the “Cultural Revolution” and problems with the decision to send students to the countryside – it turned out that the village actually needed me and would not do without me. So I felt at ease in the village. If at the time I had been in the cities, as a worker or anything else, I would have been criticized every single day, as the “Cultural Revolution” was a lot more violent in the cities.
In the village in northern Shaanxi we also participated in meetings criticizing Liu Shaoqi’s and Deng Xiaoping’s representatives in north-western China “Peng, Gao and Xi”, Liu Lantao, Zhao Shouyi and others. “Peng, Gao and Xi” were Peng Dehuai, Gao Gang and Xi Zhongxun. During these daily meetings of criticism the praxis was that those who could read were asked to read aloud from the newspapers. I was asked to do that as well. That was all. The villagers were very understanding. It was my father’s old base area. Before 1949 he had – 19 years old – been president of the “Shaanxi-Gansu Soviet.” Therefore many people would care for me and help me. I myself was also very motivated. That was what it was like.
Yang: You have told about your seven years’ experiences in the countryside. Can you tell me about the most important experience you have had?
Xi: I grew up in the seven years I was in Shaanxi. I learned two important things. First I had the opportunity to understand what real life looks like, what is right and wrong, and who ordinary people are. These were experiences for life.
Right as I had arrived at the village, many beggars would often appear. As soon as they turned up, the dogs would be set on them. At the time we students had the opinion that all beggars were “bad elements” and tramps. We did not know the saying “in January there is still enough food, in February you will starve, and March and April you are half alive half dead”. For six months all families would only live on bark and herbs. Women and children were sent out to beg, so that the food could go to those who were working in the fields with the spring ploughing. You had to live in a village to understand it. When you think of the difference there was at that time between what the central government in Beijing knew and what actually happened in the countryside, you must shake your head.
Second, I had my self confidence built up. As they say: the knife is sharpened on a stone, people are strengthened in adversity. Seven years of hard life in the countryside developed me a lot. When later in life I have encountered challenges, I have thought about the village, and that then I could do something in spite of hardships. When later I have come across problems, I have never experienced them as big as then. Every man is to find his own strength. When you meet hardships you mustn’t panic, no matter how big the challenge is.
Yang: How did you manage to get admitted into university while you were in the village?
Xi: At the time I was one of the leaders in the village, but all the time I thought that I would study further. Although I read far too few books, I had not given up my greatest wish – to go to university. At the time the Tsinghua University had given two places to the Yan’an prefecture. One of them went to Yanchuan country where I lived. There were three of us who applied. I said that If you choose me, I will go, if not, never mind. Yanchuan county reported my application to Yan’an prefecture and the leadership of the education committee of Yanchuan county supported my application. But the people from Tsinghua University who had come to Yan’an, and who were responsible for the procedure of admission, dared not make a final decision and asked for instruction from the management of the university. At the same time – it was from July 1975 and three months on – a political campaign had started against what was called “the attempts of the right wing to change the foundations of the Cultural Revolution”. While Chi Qun and Xie Jingyi were absent from the university because of the campaign, Liu Bingwas in charge. Liu said there was no problem for me to enrol. At the time my father worked in a factory in Luoyang. The factory submitted a document stating that the political question of Xi Zhongxun was a contradiction within the people and should have no influence on his children’s careers. The document meant that I was admitted into the university. When I left the village, some of the other students were envious of me. They were all of them top students, but they did not have a case that needed re-opening, and all of them were admitted later. Read more…
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