Maverick Life

BOOK EXCERPT

Author Kerry Brown examines Xi Jinping’s impact on the West

‘Xi: A Study in Power’ by Kerry Brown book cover (left) and author Kerry Brown (right). Images: The Reading List / Supplied

‘Xi: A Study in Power’ by acclaimed academic and author Kerry Brown is a timely introduction to the enigmatic Chinese leader, his vision for the country, and what this means for the rest of the world.

Although Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago, he remains an inscrutable figure in the West. His priority has always been to keep Chinese society as stable as possible, steering a course through a period of astounding economic growth while ensuring that nothing challenges the political status quo.

But with unrest stirring in Hong Kong, reports of human rights abuses taking place in the Xinjiang region and the fallout of Covid-19, understanding Xi’s China is more important than ever.

Maverick Life brings you an exclusive excerpt from Kerry Brown’s essential book.

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By 2022, one of the points of attack towards Xi is that he is a dictator of a country that does not really exist. This line of thought suggests that the country he represents is an artificial invention, to some extent, with profound underlying potential fractures and causes of instability that will, at some point, cause the whole place to implode and break up. Bill Hayton has written of the invented status of contemporary China, and the way it has emerged from a number of different predecessor states. Similar points could be made about almost every nation on the planet. But there are valid questions about how the very shrill nationalist tone in China, which has only intensified since 2012, is prompted not by outside questions like this but by an inner sense of vulnerability and doubt among Chinese people themselves. Diplomats like Zhao Lijian started to appear during the Covid-19 crisis in 2020, deploying shockingly aggressive language towards those seen as attacking China in ways that hinted at how sensitive and insecure Chinese beliefs might be. Xi’s brand of Communism is, in some ways, an answer to this sense of insecurity. It is very much about removing this lack of confidence and telling the Chinese they should be proud of who they are, and not to doubt their unity and coherence as a nation. But this is obviously not an easy thing to learn in a few years.

This explains why, particularly since 2017, Xi has talked strongly about how the singular, uniform party he represents also stands for the best interest of the singular, uniform country it is in charge of, guarding against this underlying fear and insecurity. Xi is insistent that the Chinese people should be proud of who they are and feel that their own culture is every bit as strong, if not stronger, than that of Americans or Europeans. He and his party make strong claims about a very distinctive, almost monolithic Chinese identity and history, which they represent and protect from threats. Party and nation are bound together so tightly in this discourse that it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. The message is, as with so much else Xi says, unambiguous. There would be no modern China without the focus and unity of the Communist Party reassuring everyone that the vexatious questions and doubts of foreigners are both insincere and wrong.

This approach does arouse strong emotions. The bottom line is that Xi Jinping Thought has proved to be profoundly nationalistic. The problem is that while nationalism might be inflamed by the party and often prove useful to it, it can also run out of the party’s control. Relations with Japan are one of the important examples of this, due to the complex, often horrifying and destructive track record between the two nations in the first half of the 20th century. These matters still play a real part in politics and diplomacy today. In 2004, for instance, a final between China and Japan in the Asian Football Cup held in Beijing, in which the latter were victorious, resulted in widespread riots across the city. One report said, ‘Japanese flags were burned, there were calls for boycotts of Japanese goods and boos and jeers greeted Japan’s every move’. Seventeen years later, things had not improved. During the 2021 Olympics held in Tokyo, there was widespread claims in China that the Japanese hosts were discriminating against Chinese participants. In events like table tennis, a sport where China has enjoyed almost total dominance since it began participating in the games after a long hiatus in 1984, a loss by two Chinese stars to their Japanese counterparts prompted enraged complaints against ‘Little Japan’. In an unpredictable world, it seems that continuing bad blood between these two nations is one of the very few things that one can be certain of.

If we accept that Xi Jinping is a man of faith, then at the core of that creed is a pure form of nationalism. This is a living belief system that unites the present with the past and the future and joins the heart and the mind. From 2014, Xi and his colleagues often used the word ‘comprehensive’; theirs was a comprehensive leadership, undertaking comprehensive reform and seeking to implement what was called the ‘Four Comprehensives’. These demanded that focus be put on building a prosperous society, improving rule of law, continuing economic reform and governing the party well. The Four Comprehensives acted as the precursor to Xi Jinping Thought. But standing over the various uses of the term, what lay at the heart of them was the comprehensive construction of a great Chinese state. Nationalistic fidelity to this is one of the strongest threads linking Xi with former leaders, with his current colleagues and with the country’s citizens. In a world of fragmentation and disunity, such an explicit faith gives the party the most precious of all assets – a united, uncomplicated message, which everyone in the country can believe in, despite their differences. In my observation from 1991 when I started dealing with China, it was often the Chinese who were accused by the West of not having a real, coherent set of beliefs or vision, which meant that they could continue the anomaly of practising capitalism economically while maintaining a Communist system. Now, with the US politically divided, and Europe mired down with in-fighting until the tragic invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022 caused signs of a new sense of unity and purpose – the durability of which is hard to confidently predict at the time of writing – China is a place of true faith.

The role of Covid-19 between 2020 and 2022 illustrates this tale of two convictions – China and its nationalist faith versus the West and its self-defeating love of pluralism and uninhibited but undefined freedom. The crisis originally looked as though it might envelop China, but by mid-2020, it had exposed almost every other form of governance to be inadequate and wanting, showing how misjudged the original criticisms levelled at China had been. As noted earlier, China had experienced significantly lower rates of infection and fatalities than Europe or America. While the Chinese data may be an underestimate, it would need to be either a colossal act of miscounting or a huge concerted effort to downplay the extent of the infections for the real figure to reach the same levels seen in America and Europe. It was not surprising that the Beijing government used this as a propaganda opportunity and a testament to the viability of their own system. To Xi and his colleagues it was tangible proof that, in democracies, people are so wedded to the notion of individual freedom that they prioritised it at the cost of their own health.

Covid-19 has provided the fuel by which Chinese nationalism has been turbo-charged. The Chinese looked at how their government had managed to control the spread of the virus, and then at the staggering statistics produced by countries as far afield as Australia, the UK, Italy and Canada, and shook their heads in astonishment. Here was positive proof that socialism with Chinese characteristics could perform better than Western capitalism – as long as the country had faith.

Covid-19 also proved to be an international crisis laden with geopolitical symbolism and meaning. It has confirmed all the fears that the US and China in particular have about each other. By mid-2020, Xi announced the idea of ‘dual circulation’. In many ways, this was a reflection of what was already taking place – the attempt to decouple the Chinese domestic market with its rising middle-class consumers from the outside world, and to give them a stronger role in fuelling growth. In the past, China manufactured goods to export to the outside world. Zhu Rongji, premier in the late 1990s, called the country the factory of the world. One plant produced most of the world’s microwave ovens, while another made a large proportion of its socks. But by Xi’s second term in power, this was no longer the economic model his government wanted. Instead, it wished to have innovative, technologically strong home brands. That prompted the ‘Made in China 2025’ campaign that so riled the Americans during Trump’s presidency. Trump’s response to the campaign was that China was a freeloading cheat, a country to which the US had extended the hand of friendship and concord in the 1980s and 1990s and which was, by the late 2010s, a systemic competitor, an ideological opponent with its Communist system and a threat. In 2021, former US Vice-President Mike Pence typified this stance, saying that ‘Communist China’ posed ‘a greater challenge to the United States than the Soviet Union ever did throughout the Cold War’. For Chinese nationalists, this was high praise indeed. DM/ ML

Kerry Brown is a Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at Kings College London. He is the author of over 10 books on modern Chinese politics, history and language. Xi: A Study in Power is published by Icon Books (R260). Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts! 

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