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The rise of Xi Jinping, explained

How Xi Jinping became China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Coleman Lowndes is a lead producer who has covered history, culture, and photography since joining the Vox video team in 2017.

Xi Jinping, president of China and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party since 2012, is one of the most powerful political figures in the world. By initiating an unprecedented third term as China’s leader in October 2022, Xi has signaled that he may plan to remain in power for life — making him the first Chinese leader since Mao Zedong to hold unchecked power over the People’s Republic of China.

But Xi’s connection to Mao goes deeper than a shared outlook that emphasizes unifying the party around a single leader. When Xi was just a young boy, his family — who had held elite party status thanks to his father’s pivotal role in Mao’s “Long March” in 1935 — was denounced during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a chaotic decade of purges and persecution that saw even Mao’s closest allies removed from power. During this time, a teenaged Xi was forced to work at hard labor in the countryside outside of Beijing, and his father was imprisoned.

Xi’s subsequent rise after Mao died in 1976 was a methodical process in using his restored elite status as leverage to gain prominent party positions in rural provinces around China, culminating in his promotion to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007.

After that, Xi pulled from Mao’s playbook: purging his political rivals and promoting those with whom he shared close personal ties. This process undid the work of Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, to prevent the consolidation of power around a single leader in China.

By the time his third term began in October 2022, Xi had reshaped the party and Chinese military leadership to be fully packed with Xi loyalists. And even in the face of social upheaval surrounding his failed “zero Covid” policy, Xi has shown no sign of giving up any of the power he has consolidated since taking over as leader of the country.

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