Chinese president winning hearts and minds

Crackdown on corruption popular with the people

Xi Jinping samples an Irish coffee while visiting a   farm in Sixmilebridge, Co Clare, during a visit to Ireland in  2012. China’s president has never lacked the common touch. Photograph: Maxwell’s/Reuters

Xi Jinping samples an Irish coffee while visiting a farm in Sixmilebridge, Co Clare, during a visit to Ireland in 2012. China’s president has never lacked the common touch. Photograph: Maxwell’s/Reuters


China’s president, Communist Party boss and army chief Xi Jinping bolstered his credentials as a world leader during the recent gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders at the Apec summit in Beijing.

But among the general populace, his tough international image, a wide-ranging crackdown on corruption and a series of carefully managed events, have transformed him into “Xi Dada”, or “Xi Bigbig”, winning him hearts and minds in the world’s most populous nation.

Whether he is kicking a football in Croke Park, as he did during his groundbreaking visit to Ireland in 2012, or asking Beijing taxi drivers what problems they face, or mingling with the masses on a popular shopping precinct on a heavily polluted day, Xi has never lacked the common touch.

A visit to the Qingfeng restaurant in Beijing for pork and scallion baozi (buns) and a bowl of stewed pig liver was another demonstration of this.

The son of veteran revolutionary Xi Zhongxun, who was deputy prime minister from 1959 to 1962, Xi is one of the princelings of the Communist Party’s political dynasties.

“Different from previous leaders, Xi Jinping has more competence and is more daring when it comes to confronting the tough with toughness, especially his crackdown on corruption which has made him win the people’s hearts or at least, address the people’s wishes,” says Wang Zhanyang, director of the political department at the Central Institute of Socialism, often called the Party School.

Common touch

“A member of the first generation who has inherited power and position from their forebears who won control of China in 1949, Xi and his cohort are different from his predecessors like Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin who rose from the ranks supporting the forebears of the Xi generation,” says Steve Tsang, at the China Policy Research Institute at the University of Nottingham.

“Xi and his cohort are in power not just because of their ability but also because of their political lineage. Xi is therefore more confident and assertive. He is willing to take risks in asserting himself and asserting China.”

Xi has fended off numerous challenges to his authority and established himself as the most powerful leader in China since Chairman Mao Zedong. He is generally known in Chinese as “Chairman Xi”, even though the more modern “President Xi” is now preferred in English.

Mao’s legacy

Xi’s father was purged during the Cultural Revolution. Xi hunkered down in the countryside until the Mao Zedong-orchestrated decade of ideological frenzy abated.

While he is said to appreciate Western culture – one of his favourite films is Saving Private Ryan – his models are primarily the Chinese classics. Among international leaders, his role models include Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

He is not afraid to stand up to the United States, and his government has been authoritarian in tone. He has taken a hard line on burning domestic political issues such as separatist attacks in Xinjiang.

At the start of every new Chinese administration – and two years is early in Xi’s rule, which is to last 10 years – there are attempts to find clues of political reform among the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric.

Increasingly, these searches for signposts to a democratic future in China look like wishful thinking, and the Communist Party is scornful of “American exceptionalism” and efforts to steer China in this pluralist direction.

As Xi told an audience in Mexico before he became leader: “There are some foreigners out there with full bellies, with nothing better to do than to point their fingers at us. Firstly, China does not export revolution. Secondly, it does not export famine and poverty. Thirdly, it doesn’t cause you any trouble. What more do you want?”