By Jonathan Power*
Xi Jinping, president of China, remains an enigma. You watched him on television reviewing the dancing in Pyongyang in the company of Kim Jong-un and his face is near to expressionless when in repose. He doesn’t stand like an arrogant man and we recall that time when he went out to eat in a noodle cafe he joined the back of the queue. His face doesn’t look hard, as did Hitler’s or Stalin’s or Donald Trump’s and Boris Johnson’s do today.
(They say that once a man gets over 50 his character is stamped on his face.) A man’s wife tells a lot too. Xi’s wife, a former singer, looks like an unpretentious woman who still enjoys the company of her husband after 25 years of marriage. This is not another Mao-Jiang Qing marriage, full of insensitivity and even intrigue.
But this identikit picture takes us only so far. Judge a man by how he acts not by what he says (or how he looks), the saying goes. The truth is we know next to nothing about how he acted before he became one of China’s leaders.
A new book, The Third Revolution, by Elizabeth Economy, is being hailed as the best book so far on Xi. Yet its author is unable to do more than skim the surface of his character. We know that he’s the son of one of the original leaders of the revolution.
We know that in the Cultural Revolution his father was jailed and he was sent at age 15 to work in the countryside, living in primitive conditions. Later, he applied multiple times before he was accepted as a member of the Communist Party. But she is unable to give us a detailed portrait of his personality.
We don’t know why his colleagues have thought him special enough to be given the top job and even more so why they have abolished the traditional ten-year term limits of the presidency. He may be more conservative and in some ways more old school that his three predecessors but he hasn’t chopped off any heads to get to this position. His accession to the top has not been characterized by intimidation, bribery or torture.
We have no choice but to draw our conclusions from how he acts today. During the latest crisis in Hong Kong when over a million demonstrators forced the city’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, to postpone new legislation on extradition it was made very clear in Beijing that Xi wasn’t happy about this.
He wants the Chinese people and indeed the world to know he is a tough, no-nonsense leader, who expects his decisions to be fully implemented. (Not like Russian President Vladimir Putin who has complained his orders are sometimes ignored or sidetracked.) He has been tightening up the rules and regulations of Chinese life since the day he was appointed president.
Dissidents have been more severely dealt with, the media has been more constrained and academics have been pushed to toe the party line. The Internet is more controlled, although this doesn’t always succeed. Workers’ demonstrations and citizens’ protests over working and living conditions and corruption are still more or less tolerated by him although lower down officials sometimes wield the stick. The only thing that still remains totally free is one’s private chat in a coffee bar, restaurant, university classroom or home. Big Brother has not arrived quite yet.
The liberalizing of political life that has been a characteristic of China since the death of its last paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, in 1997 has been stalled, while, for the most part, the liberalizing of the economy continues. At the same time, Xi has carved out more power for himself and has done a good job of eliminating rivals with his vigorous and much needed anti-corruption campaign.
He’s paid a price for some of this – government decision-making has slowed – for example his all-embracing campaign to improve the environment is moving forward at a much slower pace than he wants. The economy is not doing as well as he hoped. Government debt is at too high a level.
Now he is head to head with President Donald Trump on trade issues. We know all about the braggadocio of Trump and little about Xi, except that he’s tough, probably tougher than Trump. He’s also more confrontational than his predecessors on Taiwan and the islands of the South and East China seas. However, he’s not infallible, as the events in Hong Kong have showed. It would be good if we knew more about him.
But I look at his face again, and that of his wife, and conclude he doesn’t seek upheaval, much less war. Trump should act on that. Trump needs to relax. With this man, Xi, give-and-take is necessary.
*Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune. Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com.