What Xi Thinks9 min read

Tanner Greer reviews Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping by François Bougon

General Secretary Xi Jinping is a Chinese renaissance man. Self-assured, self-possessed and utterly unflappable, Xi appears equally at home on the hearths of struggling farmers and in the greeting halls of foreign capitals. State media likes to juxtapose the years he spent in the caves of Shanxi with the months he spent governing Shanghai’s glittering towers. Here is a man as men should be: a leader who can grasp both the plow and the bond market.

Though Xi majored in chemical engineering, he presents himself as a litterateur. When in Russia, he peppers his speeches with the words of Dostoevsky and Golgol; when in France, of Molière and Maupassant. To better understand the meaning of The Old Man and the Sea, Xi traveled to Hemingway’s favorite bar in Havana. Xi has a hankering for historical sites like these, especially those associated with famous scenes from the stories of Chinese antiquity. He cultivates a reputation for taking history seriously; his speeches are filled with allusions to obscure sages and statesmen from China’s past.

Renaissance man Xi is also eager to present himself as a man of the future. He tours laboratories and centers of scientific innovation. He dabbles in complex science, and has tried to integrate its findings into Party policies. He is a chameleon Chairman: to financiers he adopts the argot of debts and derivatives; to Davos men he drifts easily into the trendy buzzwords of the global business class; to soldiers he speaks in military idiom (on many occasions happily attired in army greens); and to Party members, the jargon of Marxist theory. For the common people of China, he consciously models an ideal of patriotic service and loving family life. In the person of Xi Jinping there is something for everyone. Which is just, one suspects, how Xi wants it.

But what of the person behind the persona? Unearthing the real Xi is the goal of François Bougon’s book Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping. A French journalist and editor who covered China throughout the Hu and Xi eras, Bougan aims to untangle the web of literary, historical and biographical influences that have shaped the ideology of Xi Jinping. Bougan’s conclusions may surprise: his portrait of Xi is not far removed from the Chinese propaganda caricature.

Though the Chairman undoubtedly has a cohort of speech writers ready to supply him with learned literary allusions, Xi’s public image is grounded in fact. Xi is comfortable in the presence of both princelings and the poor. He genuinely treasures literature, and holds a sincere love for China’s historical heritage. That is all real. But it is a reality used for larger purpose. Xi’s constant allusions to traditional Chinese thought, for example, are not mere flashy displays of personal erudition. Behind “this wide-ranging borrowing,” Bougan perceptively observes, is “a sign that [Xi] finds the Marxist-Leninist base solid enough to graft onto it the long history of ‘wonderful Chinese civilization.’” Xi’s allusions signal to Party members that one can be a proud Marxist and proud of China’s traditional culture at the same time. Xi Jinping Thought promises to weave the strands of China’s history and heritage into one grand whole.

Xi generally divides this heritage into four historical acts. The first is China’s imperial and pre-imperial past, the so-called “5000 years of history” that culminate in the splendor of Qing at its height during the 18th and early 19th centuries. This, in Chinese terms, is their country’s “ancient history” (gudai lishi 古代历史). The remaining two centuries are divided into three parts: “the century of humiliation” (bainianguochi 百年国耻) in which China was ravished by imperial powers from the mid 19th century Opium Wars to the Japanese occupation; the “New China era” (xin zhongguo 新中国), Xi’s favored term for China under Mao; and “Reform and Opening Up” (gaige kaifang 改革开放), which began under the guiding hand of Deng Xiaoping and continues on to the present, including its new incarnation of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想), as enshrined into the Chinese constitution in 2017.

Xi’s allusions signal to Party members that one can be a proud Marxist and proud of China’s traditional culture at the same time”

Xi quite consciously draws inspiration from each of these eras when framing his policies. Most references to China’s pre-modern past are superficial, more important for their aesthetic effect than ideological heft. Yet far more serious is Xi’s quest to reclaim the legacy of New China. Harmonizing the institutions of 21st century China with the party’s Maoist ideological heritage is central to Xi’s political project, and personal sense of purpose.

The driving need to rehabilitate Mao is partly born out of practical necessity. For Xi Jinping, venerating the old helmsman is the difference between life and death for the Party. “If at the time of reform Comrade Mao had been completely repudiated, would our Party still be standing? Would our country’s system of socialism still be standing?” he asked the CPC Central Committee several days after being elevated to the position of General Secretary of the Party. Answering his own rhetorical question, he quoted Deng Xiaoping: “These things cannot be cut away from the entire history of our Party and our country. To grasp this is to grasp everything. This is not just an intellectual issue – it is a political issue.”

This political calculation, however, is only half of the story. Added to it is Xi’s sincere emotional attachment for Mao and his era. This nostalgia for Maoism at first seems an incredible delusion. How to understand Xi’s yearning for an era that saw his father maligned, his mother tortured, his sister killed, and himself banished? In 1962 his father, Xi Zhongxun, who once served as deputy prime minister of China and was a comrade-in-arms of Mao, was purged from the Party. Yet Xi associates New China not with the terrors his family experienced in Beijing, but with the seven years he spent as a “sent-down youth” in the remote Shaanxi rural community of Liangjiahe from 1969, when he was 15 years old. There he farmed with the same peasants that his father had governed twenty years earlier as a young revolutionary in the nearby town of Yan’an, the seat of the Communists during the civil war.

More than a decade before Xi was elevated to leadership, he described this time farming the yellow loess of rural Shaanxi as “seven years of rural life [that] gave me something mysterious and sacred.” Xi came to Liangjiahe as a bitter teenager unafraid to flout Party rules (he ran away during his first year there, and spent some time doing forced labor because of it). Yet he would leave a man so deeply committed to serving the Party that he applied for Party membership ten times before being admitted. Bougan traces how these “sacred” experiences with the peasants formed the bedrock of later political positions: a withering distaste for conspicuous consumption, the belief that corruption among Party cadres brings disaster, an idolization for the revolutionary heroes of his fathers’ generation, and the deep conviction that the Party must present the Chinese people with larger ideals worth sacrificing for. “Even now,” said Xi in a 2000 speech, “many of the fundamental ideas and basic features that I have formed were formed in Yan’an.” Four years later he reaffirmed the message: “Wherever I go, I will always be a son of that yellow earth.”

Xi Jinping is deeply troubled that the same spirit of self-denial and sacrifice which was instilled in him back then is missing from the later generation of Party members. This is one of the reasons why Xi resurrected what Bougan labels the “national imaginary” of Communist China. Xi delights in the legendary heroes that Maoist propagandists manufactured in Xi’s childhood: the selfless youth Lei Feng; the incorruptible cadres Jiao Yulu and Gu Wenchang; the martyred soldiers of Mount Langya. He invokes their names in speech after speech. That their deeds are exaggerations, or outright fabrications, does not concern him. Absent a personal history of sacrifice for the sake of revolutionary ideals, a spirit of consecration must be cultivated through myth. Xi Jinping is the personnel caretaker of the national mythos, which in his view Chinese society needs to thrive in an era of intense international competition.

Harmonizing the institutions of 21st century China with the party’s Maoist ideological heritage is central to Xi’s political project”

This self-conception helps to explains Xi Jinping’s other great obsession: defeating the “hostile forces” inside and outside of China that would weaken the people’s faith in the Party and its ideology. The view that China is locked in an ideological struggle for survival predates the Xi era: Bougon traces it to the latter years of Hu Jintao’s administration, although scholars John Carver and Matthew Johnson have traced the origin further back to the late 1980s. Yet this worldview is essential to understanding Xi’s policies. Bougon highlights a speech given by Xi in Mexico City in 2009 as an especially important statement of Xi’s core beliefs: “There are certain well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point their finger. Yet firstly, China is not the one exporting revolution!”

In numerous speeches, Xi has identified the Soviet Union as the most prominent victim of revolutionary export. America and allied “hostile forces,” he maintains, successfully destroyed the USSR through a strategy of cultural subversion. Xi is determined not to let the same fate befall the Communist Party of China. In Bougan’s words, Xi has becomes a “culture warrior.” This ‘war’ is more deserving of the title than the political debates given that name in Western countries: in China it has led to the jailing of historians, Internet commenters, human rights activists, feminists and labor organizers, not to mention censorship in journals, newspapers and social media, an assault on Christianity, and the labyrinth of re-education centers in Xinjiang. This cultural campaign is also, although Bougon does not mention it, the impulse behind the coercion and surveillance outside of China’s borders of activists, students, dissidents, former officials and Chinese language media outlets. Culture spills across national borders; to fight the culture war, so too must the iron hand of the Communist state.

Bougon conveys of all of this with a wry touch, yet most readers will find his portrait of the Xi era dispiriting. That naturally raises fundamental questions about the aims of American policy towards China. How does the US deal with a regime whose leaders believe that Western ideals and culture pose an existential threat to their rule? What enduring compromise is possible with a leader who treats cultural change the way others treat insurrection or terrorism? How do we accommodate a super-power directed by men like Xi Jinping? Bougon does not offer answers to these questions. One can only hope that his book inspires us to. ∎

François Bougon, Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping, trans. Actes Sud (Hurst, November 2018).
A version of this review first appeared on Foreign Policy on November 21. Header: Xi Jinping on a state visit to Russia (