Ten Fascinating Facts About China's President Xi Jinping
A friend recently dropped off a hot-off-the-press copy of Xi Jinping: The Goverance of China. It is a compilation of speeches, main points of speeches, pictures, interviews, and a biographical sketch of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Several different parts of the Chinese government bureaucracy participated in producing the book, which runs more than 500 pages. While I can’t do justice to all the material presented, here are some things I learned from reading through Xi’s musings and the musings of others about him.
Xi loves the classics:
Although many of Xi’s speeches suffer from the same tedious socialist rhetoric that characterized those of his predecessors, Xi often enlivens his remarks with sayings from Chinese philosophers. When discussing the development of Chinese youth, for example, he reflects, “Learning is the bow, while competence is the arrow” and “Virtue uplifts, while vice debases” (55-57). Indeed, in a speech before professors and students at Peking University, Xi relates at least forty different quotations from ancient Chinese thinkers (185-199). No one says it better than an ancient Chinese philosopher.
Xi is a true believer—but only in the Communist Party:
Indeed, the Chinese president has no kind words for officials who “worship Buddha”; seek “god’s advice for solving their problems”; “perform their duties in a muddle-headed manner”; “yearn for Western social systems and values”; “lose their confidence in the future of socialism”; or “adopt an equivocal attitude towards political provocations against the leadership of the CPC” (463-464). He may have a revelation later in life, but for now there is no room at the Inn.
Xi never lets you see him sweat:
Xi does not whine. Although he states that he spends all his private time on his work, he doesn’t complain. Instead he simply says: “Since the people have put me in the position of head of state, I must put them above everything else, bear in mind my responsibilities that are as weighty as Mount Tai, always worry about the people’s security and well-being, and work conscientiously day and night; share the same feelings with the people, share both good and bad times with them, and work in concerted efforts with them” (114). Xi’s life in pictures similarly suggests someone who is calm, in control, and generally enjoying serving as president. Either he is constitutionally better suited to being president of a large power than most recent U.S. presidents or he just has a better public relations team.
Xi plays to win:
Xi has the soul of a competitor. In discussing his desire for China to become an innovation nation, Xi clearly is unhappy with China’s second-tier status, stating: “We cannot always decorate our tomorrow with others’ yesterdays. We cannot always rely on others’ scientific and technological achievements for our own progress.” The answer for him rests overwhelmingly in indigenous innovation: “Most importantly, we should unswervingly follow an independent innovation path featuring Chinese characteristics…. Only by holding key technology in our own hands can we really take the initiative in competition and development, and ensure our economic security, national security, and security in other areas.” He concludes: “Scientific and technological competition is like short-track speed skating. When we speed up, so will others. Those who can skate faster and maintain a high speed longer will win the title” (135-136).
How did I get here anyway?:
While Xi may enjoy being president of China, he may not quite understand how he got there, claiming “Since the people have put me in the position of head of state…” (114).
What you see is what you get:
While it is possible that there is an alternative Xi Jinping lurking beyond these 500 pages, there is remarkable consistency in the ideas and values that he espouses through his speeches and his actions. Morality, virtue, and responsibility to the people, for example, emerge as consistent themes in his discussions of the necessary qualities for Chinese officials. His efforts to streamline the bureaucracy, understand the needs of the people, and ensure proper oversight of Party officials are also hallmarks of Xi’s long tenure as a Communist Party official.
Almost there but not quite…:
Xi’s musings on soft power suggest some remaining confusion about how it all works. While he calls for bringing back to life “relics sleeping in closed palaces, legacies of the vast land of China and records in ancient books”—all of which would serve Chinese soft power desires—he nonetheless holds fast to the CCP’s traditional—if misguided—approach to soft power: “To strengthen our cultural soft power, we should intensify our international right of speech, enhance our capability of international communication, and spare no efforts in establishing a system for international speech to tell, in the right way, the true story of our country…. we should also enhance education in patriotism, collectivism and socialism through school, film, and television to help our people build up and persist in a correct concept of history, national viewpoint, state outlook and cultural perspective, so as to fortify the will of the Chinese people, who should be prouder of being Chinese” (180).
Lei Feng lives:
No biographical sketch of a senior Chinese official can ignore the opportunity to honor the (possibly apocryphal) model communist citizen Lei Feng by embracing his superhuman work ethic and devotion to the ideals of the Communist Party. Xi Jinping is no exception. When as a teenager Xi was sent down to a small village in Shaanxi Province during the Cultural Revolution, for example, he was “able to walk for 5 km on a mountainous path with two dangling baskets filled with almost one hundred kg of wheat on a shoulder-pole.” He also exchanged a motorized tricycle he won after being named a model educated youth for a “walking tractor, a flour milling machine, a wheat winnowing machine, and a water pump to benefit the villagers” (480).
A man of letters:
Xi talks about reading as one of his favorite pastimes—in fact the only one for which he still has time—and he is apparently a fan of Russian literature. Impressively, he can reel off more than ten different favorite Russian authors, including Gogol—whose writings must resonate with him as he tries to clean up corruption in the Chinese bureaucracy. Of course, he expressed his affection for Russian literature in an interview with a Russian television, so he may have been simply playing to the home crowd (114). Still in the village to which he was sent during the Cultural Revolution (note: the Cultural Revolution is not actually identified as such in the book), the local people remember him as “reading books as thick as bricks while herding sheep on mountain slopes or under a kerosene lamp at night” (480).
I have a dream:
Xi Jinping’s China dream looks set to become one of the defining elements of his tenure as Chinese president. It represents patriotism, innovation, and unity. “One can do well only when one’s country and nation do well.” For Xi, Chinese everywhere should contribute to realizing the China dream: “For Chinese people both at home and abroad, a united Chinese nation is our shared root, the profound Chinese culture is our shared soul, and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is our shared dream” (p. 69). And Taiwan should get ready as well. As Xi says, “Sooner or later we will have to resolve the political disputes that have long existed in cross-Straits relations rather than leave them to later generations” (254).
This piece first appeared in CFR’s Asia Unbound blog here.