Review by Neil Mackay
WHO is Xi Jinping – the man who rules China, a nation on the threshold of global domination, with an iron fist?
If seasoned Beijing-watcher Kerry Brown – professor of Chinese Studies at Kings College London – is heeded, Xi is an ultra-nationalist; a reformer who’s waged war on corruption; a cosseted princeling raised among the Chinese communist elite; and a robotic bureaucrat wedded to totalitarianism in such an Orwellian fashion that it’s as if his soul has been amputated.
Essentially, though, Xi is an inheritor: a man always in the right place at the right time. Thirty years ago, he’d have been all wrong for a struggling China, trying to find its feet; today, he’s in the Goldilocks zone. With his country on the cusp of surpassing America on the world’s stage, Xi’s fervent, and rather frightening, ethno-nationalism appeals to the population’s growing sense of power and an attitude that broaches no disrespect.
Above all, China’s red emperor – in Brown’s portrait of him Xi: A Study in Power – is a ghost. He seems to have no real personality, beyond that which communism imbues; no character, beyond a desire to rule; and no interests beyond fulfilling his totalitarian vision of Making China Great Again.
Brown makes great play of Xi’s ability to tell stories to the Chinese people – he’s a man who shapes political narratives about cleaning up corruption, about ‘the Chinese Dream’, about the party’s love for the people, of China finally embracing its destiny as a great power, of the need to turn China – most of all – into a country of the middle class, like the western nations Xi wishes to rival. A man who’s somehow convinced 1.4 billion people that capitalism in a communist system isn’t a dark joke but an historic necessity.
“Part of Xi’s effectiveness has been in crafting messages and policies domestically that speak to the growing middle class and their hopes and ambitions in ways that keep them onside,” Brown writes. “Failure to see this factor clearly has been one of the key reasons why many outside China have dismissed him merely as a dictator and autocrat … The paradox of Xi Jinping is that in many ways he as an individual person does not count – rather it is the body he represents, the Communist Party of China … that is important.”
Xi is the Communist Party – impersonal, all-consuming, unstoppable, inhuman. And as such, the stories he tells his people serve the purpose of propaganda and power alone.
There’s a sense, though, in reading Brown that it’s the stories we don’t hear which matter more. The stories Xi would never utter – the stories which Brown, curiously, seems reluctant to dwell upon much. And the stories we don’t really hear in this work concern Xi’s sins.
The assault on the Uighur people – which many have decried as a nascent genocide – gets little more than a few pages. The same lack of attention is given to Tibet, and Beijing’s many other victims. The 1984-style surveillance and control, not just of dissidents but of all ordinary Chinese, is paid only lip-service – as is the crushing of Hong Kong.
From the perspective of the Communist Party, there’s little to be upset about in Brown’s study. Most western daily newspapers contain many more barbs for the Beijing regime than are found here. What Brown does exceptionally well, though, is take the reader by the hand and lead them through the byzantine world of Chinese communist politics. He is Virgil to the reader’s Dante ushering them through the underworld – through the inferno, the Divine Comedy, of totalitarianism.
The Xi at the centre of this hell is a cipher, a nothing. Now, that may be down to the fact that Xi is indeed just an empty vessel merely filled by the party he runs and represents; or it could be a failing in Brown’s research and writing. Brown has not tried to write a colourful, gossipy account of the life and times of one of the world’s most powerful dictators. Instead, he’s chosen to write a primer for those wishing to understand how Xi rose to power and what his rule means for China and the rest of the world today.
One cannot complain that Brown didn’t deliver a zesty, fast-paced, very ‘human’ read – he has taken as his task the need to explain the Xi phenomenon, and on those grounds he’s acquitted himself well. But this work needed to be leavened. The reader emerges fully abreast of how Chinese politics works, and what Xi’s rule means for the planet.
What they won’t get from Brown’s forensic political account is any sense of what Xi’s own story is – which is slightly ironic, given Brown makes so much of Xi’s ability to spin stories to his people. It is ‘story’ which this book lacked. Brown’s work is a very accessible academic account, not gripping non-fiction. Perhaps I’m too demanding to want both, but both I needed if I’m to fully understand China’s new emperor.
One ends this book feeling that history may have some surprises in store for the dictator, though. China’s middle classes are the key to Xi’s worldview. If China is to dominate the globe then it must become an economy like America – driven by a population of consumers. Cities like Shanghai are now full of luxury cars, penthouses and the super-rich, supported by an industrious and hustling middle class. But with the middle class comes middle class problems: health care is becoming unaffordable, house prices – yes, under Xi’s twisted form of Chinese communism everyone wants to be a home owner – are spiralling out of reach for average earners.
For now, China’s successes – its newly found military swagger, its space missions, its Belt and Road initiative which has won it obedient allies in the developing world – are enough to keep the educated middle class happy. But once the Chinese economy buckles – and buckle it will sooner or later – then how does a ruler like Xi bring an angry bourgeoisie back under control?
He can abuse a small statelet like Hong Kong, or an ethnic minority like the Uighurs, but can he brutalise an entire nation? China has had many emperors in the past. They were all capable of falling. Nobody is a god.
Xi: A Study in Power by Kerry Brown is out now from Icon Books priced £9.99
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