There’s a number of problems with a slogan like “the most powerful man in the world,” the subtitle of this biography Xi Jinping German journalists Stefan Ost and Adrian Geyges, whose publication was well timed to coincide with the forthcoming approval of a candidate for a third term of office, which is expected at the party congress next month. First, he asks more questions than he answers; he evokes comparisons that can be misleading and takes the show of power at face value. The reader would be wise to approach such statements with a certain amount of caution.
Xi Jinping does offer useful information about the biography and rise to power of the President of China, General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Military Commission: that he is the son of a prominent Party official and therefore a Red Prince, that he was promoted to the position of Mayor of Shanghai after the incumbent. best known for his list of 11 mistresses, was arrested for corruption; that he was head of the organizing committee for the 2008 Olympics, spending three times the budget of the Athens Games, formerly the most expensive in history.
Four years after the Olympics, Xi was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of China after a highly dramatic series of events only briefly described here: The most visible and extraordinary manifestation of the power struggle within the Party was the defection to the US consulate in Chengdu, Wang Lijun, head of security for Bo Xilai , then party secretary of the western metropolis of Chongqing.
The ensuing scandal – the arrest of Bo and his wife, the trial of her for the murder of a British businessmanrumors of a coup attempt and the subsequent purges were the foundational events of Xi’s latest moves to power. Since then, Xi has carried out repeated purges under the guise of the longest-running anti-corruption campaign in history, consolidating power in his own hands through the creation of a series of “leading small groups” that he leads, and writing his “thoughts” in the constitution of the party and country, in at the same time destroying Deng Xiaoping’s constitutional guarantees against the repetition of the cult of personality and the dictatorship of Mao Zedong. As the authors note, Xi says little about Mao, but diligently imitates him.
Under Xi, China has closed in and Stalinism has returned with a vengeance: grievance-fueled nationalism, the promise of a return to greatness, and the need for internal and external enemies are defining features: repression in Xinjiang puts policy responsibility on Xi. He created an ideological apparatus that criminalizes dissent regarding history and seeks to unite the idea of party, country, state, and the Xi person into one undeniable monolith.
On the face of it, this makes the claim that Xi is the most powerful person in the world quite convincing. But in order to understand the acquisition, exercise and retention of power in the People’s Republic of China, the historian Frank Dikötter has few competitors. His latest volume China after Mao: the rise of a superpower is a clear and detailed account of the period between Mao’s death in 1976 and 2012, the year Xi took office.
These were the years shaped by Deng’s policy of opening up China to global capitalism, which led to four decades of impressive economic growth, years lazily described as China’s “miracle”. Those years also gave rise to the misconception that past successes will necessarily determine the future: that China will inevitably overtake the US as the world’s largest economy, and this will fulfill China’s destiny of becoming the world’s next superpower.
This idea is not dead yet, but it seems less reliable than it was: the economy is performing poorly and facing serious long-term problems, including demographics, debt, and a deflationary real estate sector. continuation zero covid policywith its costly lockdowns and mass trials, its dire economic consequences and growing popular discontent, it’s beginning to look like a classic authoritarian blunder – both self-defeating and hard to reverse.
What does Dikotter’s story tell us about power in China and how to use it? As a serious historian, he begins by pointing out how little we know, citing an essay by China analyst James Palmer published in 2018. Foreign policywith the catchy title: No one knows anything about China, including the Chinese government.. He cites the dilemma of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who called China’s domestic production data “artificial and therefore unreliable” and was forced to match the numbers with electricity consumption measurements to try to get a more accurate estimate.
“Every piece of information,” writes Dikötter, “is unreliable, incomplete, or distorted. As for China,” he concludes, “we don’t even know what we don’t know.”
Nevertheless, there are degrees of ignorance, and Dikötter is one of today’s great historians of China: he studied Chinese primary sources for decades – party reports, provincial budgets, and, when available, official documents. For this volume, he draws on 600 documents from municipal and provincial archives, as well as traditional sources such as Chinese media.
We learn that while power and ideology are constantly challenged, the Chinese Communist Party, even in its most liberal stages of existence, remained committed to the Stalinist model that Xi’s China increasingly resembles. We also learn, no surprise to anyone, that absolute truths are highly variable: in 1940, Mao promised protection of private property, democratic freedoms, and a multi-party system, but when the party came to power in 1949, it suppressed rival organizations, burned books, and expropriated property. . Since Mao in 1937 also reaffirmed the Party’s long-standing policy that Taiwan should become independent after liberation from Japanese imperialism, it is not surprising that today’s leaders are forced to control their historians so tightly.
This period of Chinese history was also the latest manifestation of the centuries-old battle between liberal ideas and authoritarianism in China, spanning the explosion of ideas that followed Mao’s death, manifested in the Democracy Wall (1978), the political reforms of the 1980s, and democratic movement and its violent suppression in 1989.
While many Western supporters of China believed that rising prosperity would cause increased demands for political freedom and participation, Xi believes that the separation of powers, judicial autonomy and freedom of speech pose a mortal threat to the party and that once the people of China become materially better if not , then they will agree with the Party’s claim of the superiority of Chinese socialism over Western capitalism. How early reformer Zhao Ziyang — later disgraced for his opposition to the Tiananmen Square massacre — declared: “We are creating special economic zones, not political zones. We must support socialism and resist capitalism.”
Dikötter’s case is that China’s period of openness and reform has been structurally limited, and that these restrictions undermine the benefits that the model could bring: he points out that after 40 years of openness, China has one million foreigners, a smaller proportion of the population. than North Korea by 0.07%. He argues that in China, the state is rich and the people are poor, the banks are squandering money and creating huge debt mountains, and, as scholar Xiang Songzuo of Renmin University of China put it in 2019: “China’s economy is completely built on speculation and everything is overburdened.”
The claim that Xi is the most powerful man in the world is partly based on the belief that China’s economy will continue to outperform its competitors and that the US is in an inevitable recession. Today, as Diketter concludes, the party faces an insurmountable task of resolving a number of long-standing structural problems of its own making without giving up its monopoly of power and control over the means of production. If we add a misguided war against a volatile virus to this list, Xi’s claim to world sovereignty may be less certain than it seems.
Isabelle Hilton is a writer, broadcaster, and visiting professor at the Lau Institute. King’s College London