by Alfred Chan (Oxford University Press, 736 pp., $49.95)
With more than 500 pages of carefully constructed text and roughly one hundred pages of endnotes, no other English-language biography of Xi Jinping can rival the comprehensiveness of Alfred Chan’s new book, Xi Jinping: Political Career, Governance, and Leadership, 1953–2018. Chan carefully traces Xi’s life from childhood to the end of his first term as Party chairman. Party minutia is sedulously recorded in organizational charts. The book is a slow crawl, but its sheer volume of information makes it mandatory reading for China watchers.
The strongest parts of the book are not on Xi himself but on the institutions that have shaped his political career. Much of what we know about Xi comes filtered through Party propaganda, so it is hard to get a clear view of who he really is. Instead, Chan mainly focuses on the challenges Xi has faced and the policies he has implemented. His study is thus a view onto China in general and the Party in particular, and it offers a wealth of revealing detail on how the Party functions. A who’s who of recent Party leadership shows that members of the Politburo Standing Committee between 1997 to 2007 were exclusively technocrats or engineers, whereas today they’re generally educated in the humanities or social sciences. That’s a noteworthy shift.
As the son of a first-generation revolutionary, Xi benefited from his “princeling” status. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a member of both the Politburo and the Secretariat in the post-Mao era. But he was purged in the Cultural Revolution—imprisoned for sixteen years, including eight in solitary confinement, before being rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping. The “sins” of the father were visited on the children: Xi was reduced to pauperism, enduring hard labor in the countryside (where he supposedly performed real Stakhanovite feats). He was publicly humiliated at struggle sessions—i.e., Maoist spectacles of public humiliation—where his own mother was forced to shout abuse at him. His half-sister killed herself. Chan believes—plausibly, I think—that these experiences hardened Xi’s resolve. Mao’s portrait still hangs on Tiananmen, but it isn’t because Xi has fond memories of that era.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
From an early age, Xi was single-mindedly focused on his career, ever ready for another hour of committee work. U.S. intelligence noted that he “bored” women. He seems further to have exasperated his first wife, with whom he fought endlessly. The Party, though, rewarded him for his loyalty.
Chan emphasizes the Central Organizational Department’s role in cultivating candidates for Party leadership. By rotating them through postings, the Party gives them varied experiences while testing their skills. Thus, Xi served on the Central Military Commission (conveniently headed by one of his father’s friends), held several posts in the coastal province of Fujian, governed Zhejiang province and briefly Shanghai. His record in the provinces, it seems, is unexceptional, if fairly unblemished by scandal. It shows him to be an impatient reformer—in that regard he’s like his father, who modernized Guangdong province. Unlike his father, though, Xi follows the Leninist line on centralized Party supremacy: The Party can only collapse if its factions turn on each other. That should be avoided at all costs, or China might splinter irrevocably.
Chan writes that Xi “clawed himself back up the political ladder” through “sheer iron determination.” His avoidance of scandal and abuses of power clearly played a role in his rise. When Xi was offered the use of a mansion in Shanghai that exceeded Party standards for those at his professional level, he refused it. He also turned down a Mercedes Benz, since that would have violated Party regulations stipulating that officials use Chinese-made cars. Chinese Communist Party leaders saw him as untainted by the corruption scandals that had rocked Shanghai politics, and this is seems to be why he was offered the top Shanghai job.
Chan insists that his biography strives for “objectivity and balance.” It is, he claims, “scientific.” But history is no science, of course. Scholars, however meticulous and rigorous, bring assumptions to their work. Chan is no exception.
Consider the topic of Xinjiang’s Uighurs. Chan seems to think that the internment camps—he invariably chaperones that phrase with “alleged”—constitute only minor missteps. To be sure, he writes that the Party should consider ways to give minorities “more respect,” and perhaps there could even be a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. But his criticism of Party’s policy in Xinjiang is remarkably mild. This is how he characterizes credible reports of systematic rape, forced sterilization, and mass-imprisonment:
Official rhetoric from both sides contains half-truths and exaggeration, and the complexity of the Xinjiang issue can hardly be accounted for by the lone factor of 'oppressive state.’
The issue is not whether the “oppressive state” is the only factor but whether it is a material factor. Chan, it seems, thinks not. “Most indications suggest the Uighur culture and religion is [sic] thriving,” he writes, claiming that government investment has “buoyed” Uighur ways of life. In the very first paragraph of the book, he instructs us to eschew past historical comparisons; but here he unloads a fatuous analogy: The situation in Xinjiang, he says, “is comparable to the North Ireland [sic] conflict.”
Xi’s only known unscripted outburst when confronted by journalists with China’s shabby human rights record came in 2009 when he visited Mexico: “Some foreigners who have eaten their belly’s fill and have nothing better to do are eager to point the finger at us.” Chan has more patience than this, but he still recycles the claim made by various Chinese leaders that “Western” notions of freedom and democracy are mere “by-products of a metanarrative of domination,” since they were “forged through colonial dispossession, slavery, racism, and the exclusion of the indigenous population.” Chan seems, strangely, not to have considered the rather obvious rejoinder: The fact that enslavers praised liberty in no way invalidates liberty itself.
Invocation of “complexity” is common throughout the book to shield the Party from criticism. “The governance of China is a complex matter.” “Xi’s rule exhibits both progressive and regressive features;” Xi “is indeed a complex person, rich in contrasts.” This may be true, but one would like to learn whether the regressive or progressive features prevail. It is the role of the historian to find predominating patterns, but Chan hides behind vacuities like this one: “The motivations guiding Xi have been a mixture of power, ideology, policy, and expediency, all intertwined.” The result of all of these evasions is that the picture that emerges of Xi is somewhat blurred, leaving readers still struggling to know the man behind the public persona.
Gustav Jönsson is an essayist and critic based in London.
Image: Xi Jinping (Flickr: UN Geneva)
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