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Rana Mitter on Xi Jinping's Place in Chinese History and Politics Today

NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Rana Mitter, professor of the modern China's history and politics at the University of Oxford, about President Xi.


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.

Read entire article at NPR