Thirty years ago, a young government official with a plum job in Beijing made an odd request: reassignment to a poor rural area.
At the time, millions of young people were still clawing their way back to China's urban centers after being exiled to the countryside in the Mao era. But 30-year-old Xi Jinping bucked the trend, giving up a secure post as adviser to a top military leader to navigate the tumultuous village politics of Zhengdiing, in Hebei Province.Johnson suggests that this move early in his career reveals the "political savvy" of Mr. Xi, who thereby gained "a measure of credibility to speak for rural Chinese compared with many other well-connected children of the elite." But several insiders suggest that his powerful family knew the rural stint would be a short one, an "exercise in resume building" that helped achieve its desired purpose.
Johnson reports on how Xi took chances in Zhengding, where he "pushed through market-oriented reforms when they were still considered cutting edge." Nothing like experimenting in a rural area -- especially one not too far from Beijing. The story's dateline is Zhengding County, in Hebei province.
What Johnson's story suggests is that rural places still matter somewhat--at least in relation to a politician's image. I guess the same is true in the U.S., though this seems to be an area in which Obama is not succeeding, despite his grandparents' roots in rural Kansas. On the other hand, Clinton succeeded in spades in this regard, and George W. Bush did, too, though I don't consider his links any more authentic than Mr. Xi's. A short stint working in a rural area is barely better preparation to understand rural issues than is owning a gazillion dollar ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Read more about Mr. Xi's links to rural America here. Read more about the rural-urban divide in China, also in relation to Mr. Xi here. So, if rural people and places still matter in Chinese politics, I wonder how long that will continue to be the case.