Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping
On Valentine’s Day 2012, Vice President Joe Biden toasted Xi Jinping at a lunch in the ornate dining room of the US State Department. A galaxy of luminaries was on hand: former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, incumbent secretary of state Hillary Clinton and World Bank president Robert Zoellick. The mood was buoyant. Everyone expected Xi, the tubby vice president with the enigmatic smile, to be the new leader of China by the end of the year. Although not a lot was known about him, he was considered a liberal who understood that China’s economy needed to open up more to the West. There would be difficult issues to negotiate ahead, such as China’s theft of intellectual property rights and its restrictive trade policies, but the Obama administration was confident they could be handled.
Some of the thinking about Mr Xi was rooted in his background. His father, Xi Zhongxun, one of Mao’s generals during the civil war, was a moderate. He was purged during the Cultural Revolution, and when he made a comeback under Deng Xiaoping, he was at the forefront of the moves in 1979 to set up special economic zones in Shenzhen. Even as I was getting briefed for my posting to Beijing, one of the most revered American experts on China, a man who has served in Beijing several times, insisted that Xi would be good for the United States. After all, his father had been instrumental in releasing capitalist forces in China, and because the elder Xi had been a victim of the Cultural Revolution, there was no way the son would revisit such a calamity.
Most of us now know that those assessments were naive. Xi has turned out to be almost the polar opposite of the rosy predictions. (They may have been borne of a genuine lack of knowledge. Or perhaps they were bred by the comfort zone in which the Obama administration had deposited China: yes, maybe a future threat, but not in the short to medium term). Instead of witnessing an opening up of China, we are seeing the making of an authoritarian state – perhaps a totalitarian state – glued together by new technologies that lead to the suppression of any freedom of speech or action. In case you are wondering, facial recognition cameras and fingerprint machines provided by the state security apparatus are now installed in all the main hotels in China, with real-time feedback to the local police station.
In Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping, François Bougon, a former China correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP), peels back the friendly façade the Americans wanted to believe back in 2012. And the Americans were not the only ones to get Xi wrong. He shows how, also in 2012, as Xi was about to take charge, some liberal Chinese journalists dubbed Xi the “Chinese Gorbachev”, the man who would finally introduce political reforms to the Communist Party. In fact, Xi despised Gorbachev. Soon after taking office, he denounced the former leader for bringing about the downfall of the Soviet Union. Under Gorbachev’s rule, “the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was nevertheless a great party, was dissolved like a flock of sparrows. The Soviet Union, which had been a great socialist country, collapsed. This is the lesson we retain from the errors of the past.” The message: Xi would not be another Gorby.
Bougon takes a light, conversational approach that dispenses with de rigueur details of Xi’s rise to power. Instead, he uses some of the individual episodes of his rule, particularly concerning the crackdown on freedom of expression, to make his points.
The case of Bi Fujian, a famous Chinese television presenter, is telling. A guest at a private dinner party, Bi sang a parody of a revolutionary opera popular during the Cultural Revolution. He took some broad liberties – calling Mao “a son of a bitch”. A video of the performance went viral on the internet. The netizens loved it. Xi, who has reinstated Mao as a figure to be revered, was not amused. Bi had to issue an apology. Not long afterwards, he was dismissed.
In the most systematic way, Xi is ensuring the internet remains loyal to the Communist Party. The titans of China’s big tech companies – Ren Zhengfei, the head of Huawei; Lei Jun, the founder of Xiaomi; and Robin Li, the creator of Baidu, the Google of China – support the government in this endeavour. These big Chinese companies are developing technologies that the government is using to establish a “social credit” system that rates businesses and citizens to reward the “good” and punish the “bad”. People are being evaluated on such varied behaviours as what they do on public transport and how often they visit their parents. Bougon drives home the point of government-organised conformity by quoting Xi’s views on the role of the internet. They are expressed in saccharine language, no doubt concocted by his army of speechwriters: “Cyberspace is a common spiritual garden for hundreds of millions of people. Having a clear sky and crisp air, having a good ecology in cyberspace conforms to the people’s interests,” Xi said. “Creating a good online public opinion environment does not only mean that there can be one voice or one tune, but it means that we cannot fiddle with right and wrong … we cannot exceed the boundaries of the Constitution and the laws.”
As Bougon nicely summaries: “In other words, Internet in Noddy land.”
At the end of his book, Bougon poses the question on many minds inside and outside China: is Xi-led China stable? Most inside China would say yes. Much of the population is better off than ever before. The new middle class is enjoying a consumer revolution – Mercedes, Gucci and Apple are common in the big cities. The millennial generation seems content without access to Twitter, Google or Facebook. They are preoccupied with the Chinese versions: the social media service WeChat and the short-video platform TikTok, where nationalism and consumerism are rampant.
Bougon is not so sure Xi can buy off the population with a 21st-century dictatorship held together by advanced technological tools, some of which are still being invented. “I am not the only who sees it: Xi, wishing to turn his country into a leading industrial power by 2049, is unleashing forces that may turn on him,” he writes. “For a creative and innovating China may not be satisfied with this existing framework and may support the calls for political reform. But of how great a magnitude? It is on the answer to that question the fate of the ‘new emperor’, in part, depends.”
Perhaps like the Americans in 2012, Bougon is imposing his Western values on China, desiring an outcome that embodies his hopes and dreams. Seen from Beijing, Xi controls the vital levers of power: the military, the party and the propaganda machine. The economy is wobbling a bit, but not enough to spark the crash some Americans hope for. Still smiling, Xi is leader for life, and confident he will outlast the embattled occupant of the White House in the most consequential contest for power in the current era.