The Peasant Emperor

A few years ago, media outlets reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping dined on steamed buns in a Beijing restaurant. Whether this venue was an orchestrated photo opportunity or the instantaneous desire of a world leader searching for a whiff of normalcy in the sometime claustrophobic alleys of power doesn’t really matter. Its true purpose was revelatory of who Xi is; a leader who is and wants to be close to the people.

I was reminded of that outing while reading Kerry Brown’s book The World According to Xi: Everything You Need to Know About the New China (I.B. Tauris), a pertinent and still timely book (2018) on the actual leader of the second most important economy on the planet.

“Of the recent leaders of China since Deng [Xiaoping], in many ways Xi is the one with the most authentic, best-known links to the countryside, and his use of this set of experiences aims to convey this.” Furthermore, and probably because he was a victim of the Cultural Revolution himself, Xi had to make no less than 10 attempts to become a member of the Party. In a nutshell, the General Secretary of the Party didn’t get an easy pass to power. And I’m certain this resonates with many ordinary people.

A few months ago, I reviewed a book by a French political scientist which reminds readers of the importance of the Communist Party in China. Kerry Brown echoes that assessment, writing that Xi “[…] is powerful because the party he leads is powerful, and he has no individual power outside of that structure and context.” And the apparatchiks of the CCP know very well that the main threat to their survival is the dissatisfaction of the people. Hence, the need to make sure that the middle class is happy, well-served and remains patriotically faithful to the régime. It might seem odd to say, but even though China is not a democracy, the public barometer carries a tremendous influence on the leadership of the country.

On several occasions, Kerry Brown refers to the notion of pragmatism in the book. Xi, It goes without saying, understands the importance of espousing this disposition. Then again, I’m not aware of many leaders of great nations who are not – at least not among those who stay long at the helm. But there’s another aspect I didn’t fully grasp in my understanding of the man who was the second eldest son in a family of seven children. As mentioned above, he has been targeted by the Cultural Revolution – his father survived the wrath of Mao – the boy who was destined to become statesman developed a resilience that is not alien to the fate “[…] of a country that has risen from the ashes of war, famine and fragmentation to become a global force again.” In that sense, Xi is the embodiment of the Chinese experience and ethos. That might be the reason why he has been called “the peasant emperor”. And, as long as the “peasants” (i.e. the middle class) are happy with him, he can sleep soundly.

This makes him ideally positioned as “the master of the great narrative” of a China who is finally returning at the center of world affairs. The prerequisite to reach that goal is the presence of a strong and growing military. Students of history will remember that the Middle Kingdom has frequently been subject to invasions by enemies in the past – the war launched by Japan in the 1930s being the last example. Said otherwise, to project strength, Xi and China must embody it. And they have some other options at their disposal.

Xi Jinping is a low-profile (this is probably the trait of character that guaranteed his accession to power in 2013) international leader whose personality does not generate enough interest in my humble opinion. And I have always been lukewarm to accept the “bad guy” persona propagated by too many, on too many occasions. It would be too simple and certainly not intellectually satisfying.

Of course, journalists, commentators and academics are not granted the same access at Zhongnanhai as those covering the White House or Whitehall in London for example. This is why Kerry Brown’s books are so interesting and, I would dare say, essential. Chapter after chapter and in a very accessible style, the renowned British sinologist unveils the dimensions of the Chinese power.

Whether one likes it or not, China will not cede its dominant place on the international’s exchequer. And one way to better understand its motivations lies in careful attention and insight into its leadership. Thus, this is why I’m always interested in learning about Xi Jinping.

Anyone eager to better understand the man in whose hands the fate of many decisions taken internationally might depend in the coming months and years would be well advised to get a copy of this short but very informative book.


Kerry Brown, The World According to Xi: Everything You Need to Know About the New China, London, London, I.B. Tauris, 2018, 160 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Mollie Broad – the genial publicist at Bloomsbury – for her generous collaboration with this blog.

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