Inside China's heartland of 'red tourism'

Kangping village gives glimpses into ties that bind China's two most powerful men

The cave home in remote Kangping village in which Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan formed their lifelong bond (Photo by William Mellor)

Each day, bullet trains speed across the desolate loess landscape of northwestern China to deliver thousands of pilgrims to the self-styled "holy site" of Chinese Communism -- the former revolutionary stronghold of Yan'an.

Once there, these so-called "Red Tourists," some even dressed in military uniforms of the era, swarm toward the yellow cliffs surrounding the otherwise unremarkable city to inspect caves where Mao Zedong and his comrades holed up for 12 years before their triumphant 1949 advance into Beijing. If that is not enough to satisfy the visitor's patriotic zeal, government web sites identify some 100 other sites sacred to Mao's revolution.

But what Yan'an's booming Red Tourism industry inexplicably does not promote is a place just outside the city that this year is far more relevant to the current power plays taking place in China -- specifically the machinations under way in Beijing as the country's two most powerful men seek to retain an iron grip on the world's most populous nation and second biggest economy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his closest ally, anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan, first bonded in 1969 in a cave in the dirt-poor village of Kangping, about an hour's drive from Yan'an. The children of elite families, they had been exiled to the godforsaken outpost in Shaanxi province, 1,000km west of Beijing, to labor with peasants during the madness of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

An elderly resident greets a rare visitor to Kangping village (Photo by William Mellor)

Like Mao and the Red Army a generation earlier, Xi and Wang found shelter in the dank caves that pockmark the barren, windswept hills around Yan'an. Wang, five years older, became the teenage Xi's de facto elder brother, according to a Cultural Revolution contemporary, Ren Zhiqiang. Although Xi's cave in the village of Liangjiahe was 50 km from Wang's in Kangping, Xi would regularly visit Wang and spend the night there. They would exchange books -- precious items during the Cultural Revolution -- and, one bitterly cold night, they huddled for warmth under the same quilt, Xi would recall in a later interview.

Today, this duo runs China from the comfort of the vermillion-walled Zhongnanhai leadership compound adjoining Beijing's Forbidden City. Or at least they do for the time being. While the official spotlight shines for the coming days on the annual meeting of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the powerbrokers are preparing for a far more important gathering: The 19th Communist Party National Congress, to be later this year, during which China's new leadership team for the next five years will be unveiled.

One factor that threatens the status quo is the informal rule that China's leaders retire if they have reached the age of 68 when the congress takes place. Although Xi will only be 64 this year and can continue as leader for a second five-year term until 2022, five of the six other members, including Wang, of the party's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, will be 69 or older.

Troubleshooter

Respected and feared in equal measure, Wang has such a reputation as a troubleshooter that he's nicknamed "Jiuhuo Duizhang," or Captain of the Fire Brigade. Appointed by Xi as head of the Orwellian-sounding Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, he set in train the biggest anti-corruption purge in the history of the People's Republic.

The interior of the cave, preserved but locked. This photo was shot through a gap between the two locked front doors (Photo by William Mellor)

Wang's swoops not only netted the highest and lowest officials -- the so-called "tigers" and "flies" -- they also strengthened Xi's position by targeting leaders of rival factions loyal to former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Although officially ranking sixth in seniority in the Standing Committee, few doubt he is in practice Xi's number two, ahead of Prime Minister Li Keqiang. Should Xi's political rivals insist on Wang's retirement, Xi will have lost his most trusted and effective lieutenant.

Conversely, if the president has the clout to get the age limit waived, the Xi-Wang duo could continue to run China for another five years, if not longer. Should he succeed in extending Wang's position on the Standing Committee, there is speculation that Xi may even seek to extend his own hold on power beyond the 10 years that leaders have been restricted to in recent years. A third term would enable Xi to remain in power until at least 2027, confirming what some already believe -- that Xi is determined to go down in history as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. There is even talk that Xi will formalize Wang's position as number two by naming him prime minister in place of Li.

It is hard to overestimate Wang's importance to Xi's ambitions or the ties that bind them from Yan'an days. Although Liangjiahe, the village where Xi spent seven years, has become part of the Red Tourism trail, Kangping village remains a desolate place, untouched by tourism crowds as it serves as a testament to how tough times were for both men. When I visited Yan'an 18 months ago, the guides I met did not even know of Kangping's existence.

I finally found the cave dwelling where Wang and Xi met. But access was blocked by a locked gate. To reach it, I had to climb over a pig sty wall. The cave was marked by a simple red plaque near a monument to 20,000 young people such as Wang and Xi who endured extreme hardship while exiled there. Survivors of this band of brothers and sisters, now in their 60s, still regularly reunite in Beijing. "The experience made me understand what the word 'hungry' means," Wang would recount. Xi would describe his seven years in Yan'an as a life-changing period, saying he would always remain "a son of the yellow earth."

Xi and Wang would later follow very different career paths. While Xi took a more conventional route through the domestic political ranks, Wang achieved a high international profile as a distinguished banker, financial reformer and vice-premier who worked with the U.S. to combat the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. In the process, Wang became a close friend of then U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, whose 2014 book, "Dealing with China," pays a glowing tribute to Wang and the success of their relationship. In 2009, at the close of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, then U.S. President Barack Obama presented Wang with an autographed basketball.

A family of Red Tourists dressed for the part visit the cave where Mao Zedong lived during the 12 years the Red Army holed up in Yan’an (Photo by William Mellor)

Meanwhile, the bonds forged in Kangping cave proved unbreakable. When Xi succeeded Hu Jintao as China's leader in 2012, Wang was the man he entrusted with his flagship anti-corruption drive. "Xi Jinping believes that curbing corruption is essential for the survival of the Communist Party, so it shouldn't be surprising to anyone that he has gone to Wang Qishan to drive this," Henry Paulson told me in an interview in 2015. "Wang is a first-rate politician in addition to being a reformer who knows how to get things done."

Whether Xi gets the chance to appoint Wang as prime minister or not, such ties to the U.S. -- albeit with earlier administrations -- could prove invaluable as Beijing wrestles with how to deal with the mercurial U.S. President Donald Trump. And Wang's long experience in financial reform will continue to be in demand as Xi attempts to deliver on his promises to remake China's economy and markets.

Meanwhile, back in Shaanxi province, another five years of the Xi-Wang partnership might finally come to the notice of the Red Tourists who swamp Yan'an -- and tempt them to head for the overlooked village where, 48 years ago, the two leaders struck up their crucial partnership.

William Mellor is a Hong Kong-based writer and a former correspondent in Beijing.

Link to Nikkei Asian Review: http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/Policy-Politics/Inside-China-s-heartland-of-red-tourism?page=1