[Ahead of Chinese president’s US state visit, experts say he has stifled opposition and alienated the west – and doubt his ability to solve nation’s problems]
Earlier this month, a massive military parade proclaimed Xi’s unassailable position
at the party’s helm.Photograph: Landov/Xinhua/Barcroft Media
One morning in May, songwriter Zhang Jingchuan sat down to pen a tribute to the man China calls Xi Dada or Big Daddy Xi.
“Xi Dada! Xi Dada! On every street people sing his praises!” gushed the resulting pop anthem. “Xi Dada! Xi Dada! Every one of us loves him!”
On Tuesday the song’s stockily built subject – Chinese president Xi Jinping – touches down in America, where a 21-gun salute, a White House dinner and business leaders including Tim Cook, Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos await.
“I place great importance on this visit and am looking … forward to a profound exchange of views with president Obama,” Xi said last week, ahead of his first official state visit to the
. United States
, propaganda officials bill Obama’s
guest as an omnipotent man of the people who loves football, dumplings and,
above all, Beijing . China
But nearly three years after Xi came to power most observers are still struggling to understand the enigmatic ruler of the world’s second largest economy: a man some call
’s most powerful leader since
Mao, yet others see as the captain of a rapidly sinking ship. China
Some who have encountered Xi describe him as an affable, inquisitive man with apenchant for watching Hollywood movies including Saving Private Ryan.
“He is very charming,” said one western diplomat who has met Big Daddy Xi.
Others paint a portrait of a ruthless and calculating strongman who has more in common with Russian president Vladimir Putin than Tom Hanks.
“He is feared more than he is admired,” said Willy Lam, the author of a book called Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression?
Orville Schell, a veteran
watcher who has been following
Chinese politics since the Mao era, is among those grappling with the mystery
that is Xi Dada. Schell had a front row seat to observe China ’s then vice-president when Xi
travelled to the US to meet Joe Biden in 2012. China
“His face reminded me of the Mona Lisa: a kind of a flicker of an expression but it never breaks into anything telling, as if he were really, consciously trying to withhold his reactions,” he remembered. “It is incredible.”
Schell said he believed the Communist party leader had modelled himself on Han Feizi, a philosopher known as
’s Machiavelli whose basic
maxim was: “Keep it mysterious – don’t be transparent.” China
“I think Xi Jinping’s whole fundament of statecraft is to keep his cards very close to his chest, keep everybody a little bit uncertain and off balance and to project thereby an air of greater authority,” Schell said.
“Dostoyevsky wrote in The Grand Inquisitor about ruling with magic, mystery and the sword. I think there’s something of that.”
Mao Zedong was another key influence. “Mao too was very guarded. He rarely came out into public. He didn’t mix with the people. He ruled from behind the veil. And he always kept people off balance by no one ever quite knowing what he would do next. I think there is a bit of that in Xi Jinping.”
Xi, now 62, was born four years after Mao’s Red Army swept to power following years of civil war. His childhood and teenage years coincided with some of the most tumultuous years of modern Chinese history, as the Cultural Revolution followed the devastating Great Famine, in which tens of millions died.
Raised inside a cocoon of
privilege, Xi was initially
insulated from such horrors but not the political intrigues that have long
defined Beijing ’s Communist party. Aged just
nine, he saw his father, a revolutionary leader called Xi Zhongxun, purged
after falling foul of Chairman Mao. China
During the decade-long Cultural Revolution, a teenage Xi was sent to rural
province where he lived in a cave, shovelled
pig manure, caught fleas and studied the works of Marx and Mao. Shaanxi
Those chaotic early years instilled in Xi a ferocious determination to succeed, those who have met him say.
“A revolution like China’s gets deep into the bloodstream of a country and I think it got deep into the bloodstream of Xi Jinping because all of his formative experiences were up in Shaanxi, in the Maoist era,” said Schell.
Many of Xi’s peers sought to overcome the traumas of the Cultural Revolution by hurling themselves into “romantic relationships, drink, movies and Western literature”, a university professor who knew him told US diplomats, according to Wikileaks cables.
Not Xi. “[He] chose to survive by becoming redder than the red.” While his contemporaries were having fun, Xi was “reading Marx and laying the foundation for a career in politics”.
embassy source described Xi as
a man “repulsed by the all-encompassing commercialisation of Chinese society,
with its attendant nouveau riche, official corruption, loss of values, dignity,
and self-respect, and such ‘moral evils’ as drugs and prostitution”. As
Communist party chief, Xi “would likely aggressively attempt to address these
evils”, the source suggested. US
Such predictions have largely come true since Xi Dada, which is also translated as Uncle or Papa Xi, became China’s top dog in November 2012.
Under Xi some of the party’s most powerful figures have been humiliated and jailed as part of a high-profile anti-corruption campaign that has seenhundreds of thousands of party officials disciplined across the country.
Prominent victims include Zhou Yongkang, the feared former security tsar; Ling Jihua, once an influential aide to president Hu Jintao; and People’s Liberation Army titans such as Guo Boxiongand Xu Caihou, who died earlier this year.
“I think he is trying a Cultural Revolution but a Cultural Revolution without the unpredictable violence of the early Red Guard years,” said Roderick MacFarquhar, a
professor and the author
Last Revolution. Harvard University
“Mao tried to have the Cultural Revolution in order to try and make his people more revolutionary … and Xi Jinping is trying to make his Communist party more honest, and that is certainly a Cultural Revolution after the tremendous destruction of the ideals of the 40s and 50s.”
MacFarquhar said Xi’s determination to eradicate corruption stemmed from his conviction that it threatened the very existence of the party, which was founded in
in 1921. Shanghai
“[But] purifying the party doesn’t just mean getting rid of corruption. The main thing that Mao taught him – that Mao taught them all – is what goes on in people’s minds.”
In his fight to conquer those, Xi is waging both propaganda and ideological wars designed to boost his own standing and to squeeze the life out of any opposing idea or group.
Potentially subversive “western ideas” and liberal academics have been targeted in Chinese universities and schools with the education minister warning that enemy forces were attempting to use the classroom to topple the Communist party.
Meanwhile, spin doctors have set about building a cult of personality around their leader with books, cartoons, pop songs and even dance routines celebrating Xi Dada’s rule.
Earlier this month, thousands of troops goose-stepped through
as part of a massive military parade proclaiming Xi’s unassailable position at
the party’s helm.
“There is this aristocratic flair which has now become more apparent, particularly after the military parade,” said Lam. “The word demi-god would be an exaggeration but after the military parade he looked like an emperor.”
Many ordinary Chinese appear enamoured with their 21st century emperor. “He has the backing of the whole country,” claimed Zhang Jingchuan, the songwriter from
province, describing his
leader as an approachable man of ideas. Sichuan
Human rights activists, liberals and dissidents – some of whom will gather in the
this week to protest the
Chinese president’s visit – have been less impressed. United States
Since Xi came to power, there has been a concerted effort to obliterate civil society in
, with moderate and
once-tolerated critics including human rights lawyers, feminists, religious
leaders and social activists harassed
or thrown in prison. China
More than 200 lawyers have been detained or interrogated as part of a sweeping crackdown on their trade that began in July. At least 20 remain in detention or are missing, prompting calls for Barack Obama to cancel Xi’s visit to the US.
“We had hoped for something different,” said Sophie Richardson, the
director of Human Rights
Watch. “We are surprised by just how bad it is.” China
MacFarquhar blamed the dramatic tightening on Xi’s obsession with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which followed Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts at reform.
“When he first came in he exhibited how much the Gorbachev phenomenon had spooked him. He is very conscious of long-term threats – and maybe he doesn’t see it as long-term. If he is only thinking in terms of 10 years, now is the time to solidify the country and he thinks he knows how to do it.”
Yet for all Xi’s apparent muscle – one academic has dubbed him the Chairman of Everything – not everyone is convinced by the growing legend of Xi Dada.
“I never bought the powerful leader narrative at all. But now it’s publicly displayed to be a fiction,” said Anne Stevenson-Yang, a respected observer of the Chinese economy and politics, who believes the recent stock market debacle and deadly Tianjin explosions exposed a president far weaker than many had thought.
Lam said that while Xi painted himself as a man of the people he was now revealing himself to be an aloof leader increasingly reliant on a close circle of “cronies and aides”.
“The problem with Xi Jinping is that he is not a policy person. He has demonstrated a weakness for offering solutions, for example, in the most important area – the economy.”
David Shambaugh, a renowned China scholar from George Washington University, has controversially suggested that, as the Communist party enters its “endgame”, Xi faces the threat of a coup d’état.
But he disagreed that Xi’s standing had been affected by China’s chaotic summer.
“Xi seems pretty unruffled by the events of recent months. He is a leader with extreme confidence – perhaps too much so.”
Shambaugh argued that
now needed a strong ruler to
cope with the “multiple and serious problems” it faced. “But his attempt to
concentrate power in himself is not necessarily the best way to address the
problems. I do think that Xi sees the depth of difficulties that the Communist
party faces, but whether his actions are improving the party’s longevity or
shortening it is a debatable question.” China
Certainly his actions have done nothing for US-China relations, which have soured dramatically under Xi Jinping with clashes over issues ranging from cyber-hacking and a crackdown on Christianity to alleged currency manipulation, the building of artificial islands in the South China Sea and Obama’s “pivot” to Asia.
“I think [people in
] are beginning to become quite
alarmed at their inability to “do a Joe Biden” on [Xi] and say: ‘Let’s just get
together, you and I, and solve some of these little problems,’” said Schell. Washington
“I think Hillary [
] tried. I think Obama’s tried.
I think Biden’s tried. But [ Clinton has] been very resistant to
that idea of just signing up for a big joint effort. They say it in words but
they don’t demonstrate it in body language and fact. The common ground has
The reign of China’s inscrutable Xi Dada may have poisoned relations with the US but his promises to vanquish the corrupt and catapult his nation towards what he calls the China dream have played well at home.“Xi’s promise is to restore
to greatness and respect in
the world and this is a very meaningful thing for many Chinese,” said Schell. China
Zhang Jingchuan, whose song Everybody praises Xi Dada has been viewed more than 830,000 times online, is one of millions now throwing their weight behind the president’s drive towards the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
“I feel that I can relate to the warmth and the great expectations that the public have for Xi – [the belief] that he will lead the country to a better future and towards national rejuvenation,” the composer said. “That is why I wrote this song.”
On the eve of Xi’s trip to the
, a former Chinese propaganda
official reportedly paid $100,000 for a full-page advert in the New York Times
promoting a book that promises “a preview of what we might expect from US in the Xi Jinping era”. China
Few observers dare to make specific predictions about where Xi’s
is heading but as he enters
his third year in office there are growing concerns about what that era might
“A fragile system – like a sandcastle – can last for a long time [but] there has to be some big wave that knocks it over,” MacFarquhar said of the Communist party Xi Jinping now leads.
“I don’t think it is a crossroads so much as going down a rather treacherous road and not knowing what perils are around the corner.”
Additional reporting by Luna Lin