Who is this man Xi Jinping who rules China?

Jonathan Power
Jonathan Power is a Foreign affairs
columnist, film-maker and author

Despite the enormous power he wields, Xi Jinping, president of China, remains an enigma. We watched him on television last weekend as he watched the dancing in Pyongyang in the company of Kim Jong-un. His face was near to expressionless. Xi doesn’t pose or stand like an arrogant man. His face doesn’t look hard, as did Hitler’s or Stalin’s. Or as does Donald Trump’s, and Boris Johnson’s, today. We recall the time he went out to eat in a noodle cafe and joined the back of the queue, even as President.

They say that once a man gets over 50 his character is stamped on his face. And we know that who a man’s wife is, tells a lot too about him. Xi’s wife, a former singer, looks unpretentious. She looks like the woman who still enjoys the company of her husband, after 25 years of marriage. This is not another Mao-Jiang Qing, wife to Mao Zedpmg, who was 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 truth is we know next to nothing about how Xi Jinping 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 Jinping. Yet its author does nothing more than skim the surface of the man's character. We know that Xi was 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 the author nowhere gives us a detailed portrait of Xi's personality.

We don’t know for instance, why his colleagues have thought him special enough to be given the top job. Even more so we don't know why they have abolished the traditional ten-year term limits of the presidency. It just may be that Xi is more conservative and in some ways more old-school than 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 Xi Jinping 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. 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, 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, 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 a high level.

Today Xi Jinping is head to head with President Donald Trump on trade issues. We know all about the braggadocio of Trump and little about Xi Jinping. 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 all powerful, as the events in Hong Kong have showed.  It would be good if we knew more about him.

But when I look at his face again, and that of his wife, and I can only conclude that Xi doesn’t seek upheaval, much less war. Trump should act on that.