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President Xi Jinping is China's most powerful leader in 20 years, analysts say

Despite a bold foreign policy, experts question his ability to push through domestic reform

CNN  — 

After less than five years as China’s leader, Xi Jinping has become one of the most powerful people in the nation’s modern history, outshining his immediate predecessors.

“He is a powerful figure, he is the most powerful leader since (paramount leader) Deng Xiaoping, but again his power has limitations,” Cheng Li, director at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center, told CNN. “China is not in the mood for a dictator-like figure.”

A relative enigma when he came into power, in this first term Xi has revealed himself as not only an economic and political conservative but also a skilled populist.

His wide-reaching anti-corruption campaign, which has been criticized as a way to consolidate power, has been widely popular among ordinary Chinese.

President Xi Jinping (center) attends the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) on March 15 in Beijing, China.

Now, after being declared the country’s “core leader” in late 2016, Xi may be preparing to break two decades of tradition and stay on after his second term as head of the ruling Communist Party ends in 2022, some analysts say.

Still, as China steps up to the global stage in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s election, experts are divided on whether Xi can steer his country through the difficult times ahead.

Xi Jinping: Fast facts

Son of a revolutionary

Xi was born in June 1953, just four years after the People’s Republic of China was established by Chairman Mao Zedong.

He is one of China’s “princelings,” the sons and daughters of former revolutionary leaders who have risen into high positions within the party.

His father was Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary fighter and former Chinese vice premier, who also pioneered China’s early experiments with capitalism, helping to establish Shenzhen’s Special Economic Zone.

As with many Chinese leaders, little is known about Xi’s early years until his father and family fell out of favor during the chaotic upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

Xi (R) meets with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) in Beijing on March 19.

From 1969 to 1975, Xi worked as an agricultural laborer in Liangjiahe, Shaanxi province, one of 30 million urban youths who were sent to the countryside to teach them a lesson.

Xi’s time in Liangjiahe has become a powerful part of his personal narrative. Chinese tourists can even go to the city and see a small museum built to commemorate his time working among the people.

Eventually Xi’s father was rehabilitated after Mao’s death, and his son officially joined first the Communist Party in 1974, then became an official in the Chinese government.

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Rise to power

Xi’s first official job in the Chinese government was personal secretary to the then-Minister of Defense Geng Biao.

A trip as part of a Chinese delegation to inspect US farming technology in Iowa in 1985 left a strong impression on the young leader, and he would return to the area as China’s vice president about 27 years later.

Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who met Xi on his 1985 trip, was named as Trump’s pick for ambassador to China in December.

The young princeling rose quickly through the ranks, and in 2002 he was named the party secretary of Zhejiang province, on China’s eastern coast.

Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies, said Xi turned his five years in Zhejiang province into a major advantage, building a power base that sustains him to this day.

“He has promoted large numbers of his former colleagues, associates, from Zhejiang province … this so-called Zhejiang faction is a major component of the Xi Jinping faction,” Lam said.

“The Xi Jinping faction, this is a testimony to his success in self-aggrandizement. It is now the largest faction in the party.”