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Xi Jinping: American Idol

Updated on July 26, 2016

After Mao Zedong and Teng Xiaoping, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ran through a series of somewhat anonymous leaders. Of course they had names and faces, and traveled the world for state visits and summit meetings. At the same time, none of them have made the history books in the United States, which is probably fine with them. The Taoist thinker Lao Tzu famously stated:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

Whether Chinese leaders of recent vintage were hewing to that rule of thumb or not we do not know. We do know, however, that the current man in charge eschews this advice for a higher profile.

Xi Jinping is called a “princeling,” referring to the fact that he is the son of a leader of the communist revolution in 1949 and early subordinate of Mao. In other words, family connections got him where he is. While it is almost certain his birthright gave him a leg up, Xi’s command of the Communist Party is a testament to his political instincts, eloquence and opportunism. Born in 1953, Mr. Xi was sent to work in a remote and rural village at age 15. He manually baled hay, reaped wheat and fed livestock. Why? The ideologues of the Cultural Revolution had just booted his father from the position of Vice Premier and sought to recondition “intellectual youth” who might question their righteousness. What the revolutionaries meant for evil turned out to be a pivotal career move for Xi Jinping.

The local officials who survived the purges of that period thought well of him, one remembering that “everybody liked him very much.” They sent him to study chemical engineering at an exclusive university in Beijing but were—for a long time—unable to help him gain admission to the Communist Party. Those making the decisions at the time still held grudges against Xi Zhongxun, his father. As the Cultural Revolution ebbed and anger cooled, Xi finally gained entry, and served as a local official in three different provinces.

Perhaps as a career boost, or simply out of true love, Xi brought star power to bear when he married folk singer and TV personality Peng Liyuan in 1987. For many years, her fame far eclipsed his. In 2007, however, he assumed party leadership in the teeming city of Shanghai (I think the most populous city in the world) in the wake of a corruption scandal. From there, things accelerated. The very next year, he gained a seat on the national Party’s standing committee and was named Vice President. He earned a reputation as being pro-business, once telling a reporter that “government should be a limited government.”

As he rose in the ranks, Xi’s demeanor was quiet, modest and studious. Investment banker and China expert Dr. Robert Kuhn wrote when Xi was Vice President:

My own experience of Xi Jinping is that he is friendly, courteous, open-minded and engaging. A large man with a strong physical presence, he carries himself with the ease of someone comfortable with authority and empathetic with guests, and has none of the airs of an official impressed with his own status. (from How China’s Leaders Think: The Inside Story of China’s Reform and What This Means for the Future. p. 436. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte, Ltd. 2010)

For all of the self-effacement, Xi’s ambition belies his poise.


President Xi Jinping
President Xi Jinping

The Party Ascending

The PRC is basically a subsidiary of the CCP, i.e. the Chinese Communist Party. The Party, the only legal political party under the PRC constitution, has the final say on who holds government office and who runs government corporations. Technically a private entity, the Party runs the country; the government is accountable to the Party. To what degree and how often the CCP asserts its authority has always depended on who ruled the Party.

Since assuming the position of General Secretary, the very top Party post, in 2012, Xi has asserted CCP control at an unprecedented level. Case in point: a recent article in the Financial Times reporting that the Party’s economic advisory body—one of several “leading groups”—is openly competing with the official policy wonks in the State Council for China’s economic levers. This is believed to be at the express directive of President Xi.

[Mr. Xi holds the posts of CCP General Secretary, President of the People’s Republic of China and Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission. Different leaders have held various titles. The General Secretary-ship, however, is always the primary source of their power.]

Not that the PRC government has ever known a system of checks and balances, but the naked interference of a leading group represents a sea change of sorts. The Financial Times observes:

Mr Xi had already shocked the establishment by unleashing the party’s anti-corruption watchdog to target not just the senior echelons of the party and government, but also the military. Now he is using another party entity to deliver a similar jolt to those running the economy.

Americans Love the Power Lusty

The question is, has President Xi begun to nullify any and all opposition within the government? Is he willing to be a leader who is barely known, in Taoist fashion? In truth, his convictions brook no disagreement and his expansive plans belie his modest style. Writing in The Diplomat, Professor Kerry Brown of King’s College in London believes Xi seeks to “Make China Great Again:”

The people that really complain about him are the intellectuals or sophisticated officials, who regard him as brutal, ill educated, and rough. Such criticisms won’t be heard much in the wider society, where people on the whole like the look of a president who strides around the world, denounces foreign interference in China’s maritime backyard, and generally reassures everyone that he is in charge and knows what he is doing.

The oblique reference to Donald Trump is not confined to those who support him. American progressives love the fact that President Barack Obama end-runs Congress on immigration, health care and international agreements. They absolutely love it and hope Hillary Clinton will do likewise. Trump Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping for equal or greater unrestrained swagger in the opposite direction. Neither camp embraces the Constitution. They just want to get things done by any means necessary. And the vast majority of voters approve of either of them.

So we must vote this year, we are told, for either Hitler or Stalin. Both killed millions—one through genocide; the other through politicide. My feeling is that as long as we are electing horrible people, we could do worse than write in Mr. Xi. He is exactly what we’re looking for now that we have chucked our founding principles. He gets things done.

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