The Chinese economy has always fascinated me, the Chinese political and judicial systems less so. The economy is so rich and hopeful and life-giving because it is run by an irrepressibly entrepreneurial populace who can find their way, like water, around any obstacle. Marginal gains, in the past, were enough. People weren’t so much out to make a killing (“the nail that sticks up is beaten down”) as to feast well occasionally. Food was important. Not many of those simple goals remain; severe imbalances have appeared since market reforms were introduced in 1978. Xi Jinping took over in 2012 and is currently General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People's Republic of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.
This look at Xi Jinping could be a college course with plenty of room for more side research on aspects of Xi’s background, political comrades, and challenges. This work culminates finally in a truly interesting and too-short discussion of democracy, the judicial system, taxation, corruption, cyberspace, population movements, and the leadership of the Party. Reference to these issues are quickly sketched, addressing complexities it has not space to detail. It is understandable for an interested beginner, and may raise important questions that experienced China-watchers would like to debate or pursue.
The first part of the book details the background of Xi Jinping, not adding terribly more than the information found in Evan Osnos’ 2015 article “Born Red” in The New Yorker. Biographical information about Xi is available because the government allows it to be found. Outside of his personal life, however, there are plenty of things about his governance that can be discovered and discussed, including how he has structured leadership of the government, the Party, the judiciary, the military, and how closely he follows (or not) exhortations of Mao, Deng, and other revolutionaries.
There are parallels one could make between the way Xi interacts with “the masses” of China and America’s new President Trump. This book was written and published before Trump was elected, but makes observations about Xi using the internet for direct access to people without interference from the propaganda department, which sometimes could be difficult to control precisely.
”For Xi, having this ability to go through social media to speak directly to as wide a public as possible is also a golden opportunity. This weakens the meddlesome interference of propaganda intermediaries who can often get things badly wrong…Xi is probably the first leader of the country who has had to have a clear, serious digital strategy…The Party must keep close to the people, Xi has said many times.”Xi does not try to diminish Mao’s legacy but uses Mao’s appeal to emotion, to loyalty, to ideology. “Ideology…underpins and underlines the fundamental claims of the Party.” The Party is central to how everything is organized in China. “Xi…has had one great intuitive insight that has given him the edge over his peers…Moral, symbolic, and idealistic appeals really control allegiance. This is the main territory that he has sought to secure. So while he is not Maoist in his ideology, he is very Maoist in his understanding of the need to locate durable power and gain traction on it.”
Chinese leaders studied the reasons for the failure of the USSR and believe that Western political interference was key. The dysfunction of the western democratic model, the fractiousness, the corruptibility of the system by massive cash infusions, the time it takes, the possibility of poor candidates winning—all these are reasons why the Chinese government is not anxious to go that direction. But because the loosening of controls over economic growth has created relatively massive gains in the wealth held by individuals, it may be necessary to rebalance by means of taxation. Taxation without representation is anathema in China as anywhere, thus pushing on the door of democratic change. The pressure for such changes grows annually.
Another discussion I have not seen elsewhere references China’s relations with North Korea: “‘The country Kim Jong-Il hates most is China,’” North Korean defector Jan Jin-sung wrote in his memoirs. The most important barrier, Jan wrote, was the 'ideological demarcation line' between China and the DPRK, not the 38th parallel between South and North Korea. China’s leaders have long treated North Korea as unstable, parasitical, even contemptible. Xi visited South Korea while showing no interest in going further north to visit Kim Jong-Un. That Kim Jong-Un’s half brother was murdered while under the protection of the Chinese gives an observer the sense the feelings are reciprocal.
Brown’s scholarship is clear and comprehensive, one long argument surmising Xi Jinping's role, decisions, direction. At the very end is a section looking to the future. The whole is interesting and useful, definitely worth a look.
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