There are few world leaders of our time who have had such a profound impact on international affairs while themselves remaining an enigma to much of the world as Xi Jinping. It is not that Xi Jinping’s biographical details are sketchy – plenty is known about his life – but how he rose to become arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong is somewhat hazy.
Professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College London Kerry Brown attempts to fill in the blanks on Xi’s rise to General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party just five years after appearing for the first time on the nine-man politburo standing committee. If Brown doesn’t quite succeed in casting large swathes of light on the matter in this, his third book on Xi, he can hardly be faulted, given the scant information emanating from inside the party’s top ranks. While Brown’s highly readable and concise account is not a biography per se, it offers a nuanced and thorough explanation of Xi’s China and why the Communist Party, for all its flaws, has long life in it.
Xi’s rise from reliable if unshowy provincial secretary to the top job was largely facilitated by the fall from grace of more obvious contenders due to corruption charges, such as Chen Liangyu, whom Xi briefly succeeded as Shanghai party secretary in 2007, and the leftist Bo Xilai, whose wife was convicted of the murder of a British businessman just months before Xi’s accession to power.
Anti-corruption drives were the watchword of Xi’s early years in office, playing to his carefully cultivated man-of-the-people image, while also conveniently sidelining many of the bigwigs who might one day potentially lead a heave against him. Brown, a self-styled China pragmatist, wryly notes that “to be corrupt in China is still statistically a relatively risk-free activity” though it can clearly be fatal when one is perilously positioned close to power.
Xi is described by Brown as a “man of faith” and that faith is the Communist Party, which frequently appears to have its own survival as its paramount concern and his tacking left in recent years has sought to redress its standing. Not that the party doesn’t have a considerable degree of legitimacy among the 1.4 billion people it rules — were it to deign to hold elections tomorrow, the Communist Party would likely win in a landslide.
Even many cynics and critics of the government accept that economic prosperity is what matters for most Chinese. China’s economic rise is by no means miraculous — it industrialised just as all rich countries had done before it, with the added advantage of a massive pool of migrant labour from within its borders —but neither, given the country’s history, was it inevitable.
And the one thing that stands to bring the Communist Party down, if ever, is the economy. Human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, the crushing of Hong Kong democracy and jailing of dissidents will all be ignored by most people in mainland China, but when the country’s demographic headaches — some self-inflicted by the folly of the One Child Policy — converge with economic decline, the population might start to mutter.
China’s future global pre-eminence looks a lot less assured today than it did just five years ago and the country even risks falling into the dreaded middle-income trap. Xi’s plans for economic expansion, such as a doubling of the Chinese economy by 2035, were already fanciful before the current damage caused by Beijing’s cleaving to zero Covid.
And while China’s increasingly boorish foreign policy, which has emerged under Xi, plays well domestically, it risks leaving the country without many allies in the developed world. Xi hitching his wagon to Russia’s tanking juggernaut at an inopportune time is also not going to help. And it is also looking like the ultimate prize of “unification” with Taiwan would be far too much of a gamble for the party, even if it were to win the initial battle.
Brown is optimistic about China’s future, concluding that he thinks it will “surmount the formidable challenges facing it” and create its “own version of modernity”. But he also leaves open the possibility that it might happen under whoever eventually replaces Xi. While China’s paramount leader looks unassailable now, no one man is bigger than the 90-million-strong party, and even if China does not ask its people their opinion in elections, the party pays keen attention to public sentiment, often in the form of online surveillance. There could well come a time when that becomes an ill wind for the current president.