Xi Jinping by Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges; Review of China after Mao by Frank Dikötter – power and how to keep it | Biography books

Jhere are a number of problems with a slogan like “the most powerful man in the world”, the subtitle of this biography of Xi Jinping by German journalists Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges, its cleverly timed publication for the imminent confirmation of the third of his subject mandate, expected at the party convention next month. On the one hand, it raises more questions than it answers; it invites comparisons that can be misleading and it takes the display of power at face value. The reader would be advised to approach these assertions with some caution.

Xi Jinping offers a useful overview of the biography and rise to power of the Chinese President, General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Military Commission: that he is the son of a prominent party figure and therefore a Red Prince, that he is he was promoted to mayor of Shanghai after the incumbent – mainly memorable for his tally of 11 mistresses – was arrested on corruption charges; that he was the head of the organizing committee for the 2008 Olympics, spending three times the budget of the Athens Games, previously the most expensive in history.

Four years after the Olympics, Xi was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of China after a series of most dramatic events, briefly described here: the most visible and extraordinary manifestation of the power struggle within the party has was the escape to the US consulate in Chengdu of Wang Lijun, head of security for Bo Xilai, then party secretary of the western megalopolis of Chongqing.

The ensuing scandal – the arrest of Bo and his wife, his trial for the murder of a British businessman, rumors of a coup attempt and the purges that followed – were the seminal events of Xi’s final steps to power. Since then, Xi has waged repeated purges, under the guise of the longest anti-corruption campaign in history, consolidating power in his hands by creating a series of “small lead groups” that he leads and enrolling his “thought” in the party and country constitution, while tearing up Deng Xiaoping’s constitutional safeguards against a recurrence of the type of personality cult and dictatorship perpetrated by Mao Zedong. As the authors point out, Xi does not speak much of Mao, but he imitates him carefully.

Under Xi, China has withdrawn into itself and Stalinism is back in full force: nationalism fueled by grievances, the promise of a return to greatness and the need for internal and external enemies are traits Determinants: The authors’ narrative of the crackdown in Xinjiang places blame for policies firmly on Xi’s doorstep. He has built an ideological apparatus that criminalizes dissenting views on history and seeks to merge Xi’s idea of ​​party, country, state, and person into a single indisputable monolith.

On the surface, this makes the claim that Xi is the world’s most powerful man quite compelling. But to understand the obtaining, the exercise and the detention of power in the People’s Republic of China, the historian Frank Dikötter has few rivals. His last volume, China after Mao: the rise of a superpower is a lucid and detailed account of the period between Mao’s death in 1976 and 2012, the year Xi rose to the highest post.

These were the years shaped by Deng’s policy of opening up China to global capitalism that produced four decades of spectacular economic growth, years that have been lazily described as the Chinese “miracle.” These years also gave rise to the misperception that past performance would necessarily determine the future: that China would inevitably overtake the United States to become the world’s largest economy and that it would fulfill China’s destiny of becoming the next global superpower.

This idea is not dead yet, but it seems less robust than it used to be: the economy is performing poorly and is plagued by deep long-term problems, including demographics, debt and a deteriorating housing sector. decrease. The pursuit of the zero-Covid policy, with its costly lockdowns and mass testing, disastrous economic impacts and growing popular resentment, is beginning to look like a classic authoritarian mistake – both self-defeating and difficult to reverse.

Xi Jinping inspects a guard of honor in Moscow, June 2019. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

What does Dikötter’s story teach us about power in China and how it is exercised? As a serious historian, he begins by pointing out how little we know, referring to Chinese analyst James Palmer’s 2018 essay in Foreign Policecatchy headline: No one knows anything about China, including the Chinese government. He cites the dilemma of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who has described China’s domestic production figures as “man-made and therefore unreliable” and has been reduced to triangulating the figures with measures of consumption. of electricity, to try to arrive at a more precise estimate.

“Every piece of information,” writes Dikötter, “is unreliable, partial, or distorted. When it comes to China,” he concludes, “we don’t even know what we don’t know.”

There are degrees of ignorance, however, and Dikötter is one of the leading historians of China today: he has mined China’s primary sources for decades – party registers, provincial budgets and, when are available, the official records. For this volume, he draws on 600 documents from municipal and provincial archives, as well as conventional sources such as the Chinese news media.

What we learn is that while power and ideology are constantly challenged, the Chinese Communist Party, even in its most liberal phases, has remained committed to the Stalinist model that Xi’s China increasingly resembles. We also learn, unsurprisingly, that absolute truths are highly changeable: in 1940, Mao promised the protection of private property, democratic freedoms, and a multiparty system, but when the party came to power in 1949, he removed rival organizations, burned books and expropriated property. . Given that Mao in 1937 also reiterated the party’s longstanding policy that Taiwan should be independent once liberated from Japanese imperialism, it is not surprising that today’s leaders are forced to control their historians with such ferocity.

China in 1985
China in 1985. Photography: Dean Conger/Corbis/Getty Images

This period of Chinese history was also the most recent manifestation of the century-old battle between liberal ideas and authoritarianism in China, covering the explosion of ideas that followed Mao’s death, manifested in Democracy Wall (1978 ), the political reforms of the 1980s, and the democratic movement and its violent repression in 1989.

While many Western supporters of China believed rising prosperity would bring growing demands for political freedom and participation, Xi believes the separation of powers, judicial autonomy and freedom of speech pose a deadly threat to China. the party, and that once the Chinese people are materially better off, they will agree with the party’s assertion that Chinese socialism is superior to Western capitalism. As early reformer Zhao Ziyang – later disgraced for his opposition to the Tiananmen Massacre – said: “We are creating special economic zones, not political zones. We must defend socialism and resist capitalism.

Dikötter’s case is that China’s period of openness and reform was structurally limited and that these limits undermine the benefits the model can bring: after 40 years of openness, he points out, China had a million resident foreigners, a lower proportion of the population than North Korea at 0.07%. In China, he argues, the state is rich and the people are poor, the banks are wasting money and have created huge mountains of debt, and as researcher Xiang Songzuo from Renmin University of China in 2019: “The Chinese economy is entirely built on speculation and everything is over-indebted.

Part of the claim that Xi is the most powerful man in the world is based on the belief that China’s economy will continue to outperform its competitors and that the United States is in terminal decline. Today, as Dikötter concludes, the party faces the insoluble challenge of solving a series of long-standing structural problems of its own making, without giving up its monopoly on power and its control over the means of production. If we add an ill-conceived war against a mutable virus to this list, Xi’s claim to global supreme power might be less secure than it seems.

Isabel Hilton is a writer, host and visiting professor at the Lau Institute, King’s College London

Xi Jinping: the most powerful man in the world by Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges (translated by Daniel Steuer) is published by Polity Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

China after Mao: the rise of a superpower by Frank Dikötter is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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