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.
“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.
Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.
On page 71 of your compelling book, you write that President Nixon was impressed “[…] witnessing Zhou Enlai redo the front page of the People’s Daily.” I often ask myself if any figure has a comparable influence in Xi Jinping’s entourage?
I imagine the figures from the outside world that most impress Chinese leaders today are more our business or technology leaders than our political ones. The excitement of new acquaintance from the Nixon era has long gone. Now, figures like Warren Buffett probably arouse more interest in China, or Bill Gates. I guess this is simply a sign that Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.
I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around the issue of the relationship between China and the US.
In the case where there would be no such influential figure, do you think it would help, notably in the relations with the US, and why?
Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China, and indeed, till recently, went there. I don’t know however whether intermediary figures are of much help now. This is not an issue of individual people being able to sort this out – the disagreements between China and the US are structurally too deep. There are maybe groups of people who might, over time, help – academics, perhaps, in trying to at least maintain some middle space. But I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around this issue.
“Ideology doesn’t attract Chinese people – Marxism-Leninism barely registers with them”, writes Professor Kerry Brown in his succinct excellent new book whose title is soberly China (Polity Books). That notion comes as a surprise to anyone following international politics and assuming that communism is the glue of the régime. But the key to understand the rising superpower can rather be found in two other aspects. First, nationalism, which is frequently evoked between the covers.
And pragmatism. The author, who is also Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, credits Deng Xiaoping with ensuring the rise of his country on the world scene. “It was the less dramatic Deng who finally found a balance, trying to work with the world, gain from relations internationally, but always with an eye to China’s benefit.”
Those who assume that those who work at Zhongnanhai (the seat of Chinese power in the Forbidden City) are just a bunch of ideologues should think twice. Of course, the ruling party still advances under the red banner, but its strategists have a cunning vision of history. Hence, the shift from being simply concerned with influence on land to developing capacities to also emerge as a sea power.
While Mao Zedong is pictured as a vengeful and petty figure who encouraged open criticism to expose his enemies, Deng Xiaoping emerges as a more balanced personality and the real power broker behind the current positioning of China. The future leader of the country survived Maoist’s purges because of his “administrative abilities”. Along the way, he was also “[…] one of the many who had noticed that for all the rhetoric of Maoism, something was amiss.” His approach would not be about big speeches and slogans, but concrete actions.
In light of the current crisis about Covid-19, Professor Kerry Brown, one of the world’s most renowned specialist on China who is also a biographer of Xi Jinping and who serves as Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London has accepted to respond to a few questions. Here is the content of this written interview.
Professor Brown: many sincere thanks for accepting to receive the following questions for my blog.
One thing we have learned in this current chaotic situation: we all have to become much more attuned and knowledgeable about each other before we end up simply shouting past each other and making things even worse.
In the article, you write that China’s image is damaged in the West. Just today (May 13th), a Canadian poll was released detailing that “More than four-in-five (85%) Canadians say the Chinese government has not been honest about what has happened in its own country.” Since China wants to be considered and respected as a world power, it cannot tolerate that its prestige be tarnished. What will Beijing do to correct that situation? Do you think they might try to mount a PR campaign or any sort of outreach operation to reverse that trend?
It was always going to be hard for a country with China’s political system, its cultural, social and historical differences with the outside world, and its quite specific world view informed by its own complex, often fragmented history to be able to speak easily to the world at a time when its economy is growing more and more important. COVID19 has just made this challenge even harder. It has deepened some of the issues that were already there, and showed that in the US, Canada, etc, a combination of unfamiliarity towards China along with the speed with which China has come to people’s attention has at the very least proved disorientating. This is exacerbated by the ways in which China itself undertakes messaging – something which is often heavy handed, and ill adapted to the sort of audiences in the West it is aimed at. Everyone has to have a rethink about where things are going. Beijing’s messaging needs to fundamentally change – probably the reason behind the government accepting an investigation at some point of the spread of the pandemic, and the stress at the late May National People’s Congress on the need for co-operation. But as the world moves into addressing the massive economic impact of the virus, rhetoric needs to move to actions, and to seeing what sort of collaboration and co-operation is going to be possible. One thing we have learned in this current chaotic situation: we all have to become much more attuned and knowledgeable about each other before we end up simply shouting past each other and making things even worse.