In November 2012 Xi Jinping was made general secretary of the Chinese Communist party, the top spot in the country’s political system. Since March 2013 he has also been president, a largely ceremonial but diplomatically significant post. Having held those positions for almost a decade, and showing no sign that he plans to hand either on anytime soon, Xi is now sometimes described not just as the most powerful person in China, but the most powerful individual in the world.
And yet we know relatively little about him, a fact that Kerry Brown’s new biography – though thorough in many respects – fails to fully remedy. The facts of Xi’s early life are fairly well documented. The son of a veteran revolutionary, his family went through a major reversal of fortune late in the Mao period, when his father was purged. Xi went from enjoying a privileged lifestyle in Beijing to becoming one of the millions of “sent down” youths encouraged to learn from the peasants by working in the countryside. Once his father was back in favour under Deng Xiaoping, he studied at China’s elite Tsinghua University and took up various posts, first in the military and then in civilian bureaucracies.
The dramatic upward trajectory of Xi’s life began when he was in his 50s, a period during which he was named Hu Jintao’s heir apparent, in 2007. His period in power, initially expected to last 10 years, has encompassed the longest lasting and furthest reaching anti-corruption drive the country has ever seen, the belt and road initiative that seeks to establish ties between the People’s Republic of China and scores of other countries, and of course, Covid.
A discussion of the invasion of Ukraine will have to wait for the next edition, and one wishes there was more about Vladimir Putin in this book than the comment that neither he nor Xi show signs of disappearing from the scene anytime soon. Brown does, however, have plenty to say about other events making global headlines, especially the pandemic, which has gone from seeming likely to undermine Xi’s position to serving to strengthen it. In Brown’s words, as a tightly controlled media plays up pandemic governance failures in other parts of the world, and hides or plays down domestic missteps, Covid has “provided the fuel by which Chinese nationalism has been turbo-charged” – and this is important to Xi since, as the author rightly stresses throughout the book, he is motivated above all by a fierce patriotism and a strong desire to see the Chinese Communist party (CCP) stay in power. News of staggering death tolls in Europe and the US have been presented as “positive proof that socialism with Chinese characteristics” can “perform better than western capitalism” in a crisis.
It is curious that it has taken so long for an accessible English-language biography of Xi like this to come out. Among the reasons is the fact that neither he nor anyone in his inner circle gives interviews, and it is not even clear who exactly is in his inner circle. There are no candid tell-all memoirs by him or people close to him to offer insights.
As a result, this book is a valuable primer for anyone looking to get up to speed on how Xi achieved power (largely by inheriting and cultivating an unusually wide array of connections to members of different wings of the CCP elite) and what he has done with it in political terms. But it is less compelling as a window on to the private man, who remains an enigma. And while Brown does not shy away from mentioning the dark sides of Xi’s reign – and there are many, from horrific human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, to the strangling of civil liberties in Hong Kong, and the clampdown on critical intellectuals and journalists in Beijing – one feels the emphasis on these could be stronger.
Sometimes, Brown falls into the trap of implying that what is good for the CCP is good for the country and its people, and makes a prediction that he presumably found himself wishing he could alter as the harsh Shanghai lockdown began to make headlines around the world. “Even in the depths of 2022, with no immediate end in sight for the Covid-19 pandemic,” he writes late in the book, “my faith in China, under Xi or whoever replaces him, being able to surmount the formidable challenges facing it, and creating its own unique version of modernity, is still strong. And what a world it might be, where the whole of China buzzes with the energy and life of the great city of Shanghai.”