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Xi Jinping by Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges; China After Mao by Frank Dikötter review – power and how to keep it | Biography books

There are a number of problems with a tag line like “the most powerful man in the world,” the subtitle of this biography of Xi Jinping by German journalists Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges, its publication shrewdly timed for the imminent confirmation of its subject’s third term in office, expected at next month’s party congress. For one thing, it begs more questions than it answers; it invites comparisons that can be deceptive, and it takes the display of power at face value. The reader would be wise to approach such claims with a degree of caution.

Xi Jinping does offer useful insights into the biography and the ascent to power of China’s president, Communist party general secretary and chairman of the military commission: that he is the son of a prominent party figure and therefore a red princeling, that he was promoted to the position of mayor of Shanghai after the incumbent – ​​chiefly memorable for his tally of 11 mistresses – was arrested for corruption; that he was head of the organization committee of the 2008 Olympics, spending three times the budget of the Athens Games, previously the most expensive in history.

Four years after the Olympics, Xi was appointed general secretary of the Chinese Communist party after a most dramatic series of events, only briefly described here: the most visible and extraordinary manifestation of the power struggle within the party was the flight to the US consulate in Chengdu of Wang Lijun, head of security for Bo Xilai, then party secretary of the western megacity of Chongqing.

The scandal that followed – the arrest of Bo and his wife, her trial for the murder of a British businessman, the rumors of an attempted coup d’état and the subsequent purges – were the foundational events of Xi’s final steps to power. Xi has conducted repeated purges ever since, under the guise of the longest anti-corruption campaign in history, consolidating power in his own hands by setting up a series of “leading small groups” which he heads, and writing his “thought” into the constitution of the party and the country, while tearing up Deng Xiaoping’s constitutional safeguards against a recurrence of the kind of personality cult and dictatorship perpetrated by Mao Zedong. As the authors point out, Xi does not talk much about Mao but he studiously imitates him.

Under Xi, China has turned inward and Stalinism is back with a vengeance: grievance-fueled nationalism, the promise of a return to greatness and the need for internal and external enemies are defining features: the authors’ account of repression in Xinjiang lays the responsibility for the police firmly at Xi’s door. He has built an ideological apparatus that criminalises dissenting views of history and seeks to fuse the idea of ​​the party, the country, the state and the person of Xi into one unchallengeable monolith.

On the surface, this makes the claim that Xi is the most powerful man in the world quite compelling. But for an understanding of the getting, exercising and holding of power in the People’s Republic of China, historian Frank Dikötter has few rivals. His latest volume, China After Mao: the Rise of a Superpower is a clear-eyed and detailed account of the period between Mao’s death in 1976 and 2012, the year of Xi’s arrival in the top job.

These were the years shaped by Deng’s policy of opening China to global capitalism that produced four decades of spectacular economic growth, years that have been lazily described as the China “miracle”. Those years also gave rise to the misperception that past performance would necessarily determine the future: that China would inevitably overtake the US to become the world’s biggest economy and that would fulfill China’s destiny to become the world’s next superpower.

That idea is not yet dead, but it seems less robust than it did: the economy is performing poorly and is beset by profound long-term problems that include demographics, debt and a deflating property sector. The continuing zero-Covid policy, with its costly lockdowns and mass-testing, its dire economic impacts and its growing popular resentment, is beginning to look like a classic authoritarian error — both self-defeating and hard to reverse.

Xi Jinping inspects a guard of honor in Moscow, June 2019. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

What does Dikötter’s history tell us about power in China and how it is wielded? As a serious historian, he starts by pointing out how little we know, referencing China analyst James Palmer’s 2018 essay in Foreign Policycatchily entitled: Nobody knows anything about China, including the Chinese government. I cite the dilemma of the Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang, who described China’s figures for domestic output as “manmade and therefore unreliable” and was reduced to triangulating the figures with measurements of electricity usage, to try to arrive at a more accurate guess.

“Every piece of information,” Dikötter writes, “is unreliable, partial or distorted. Where China is concerned,” he concludes, “we don’t even know what we don’t know.”

There are degrees of ignorance, nevertheless, and Dikötter is one of today’s major historians of China: he has been mining Chinese primary sources for decades – party records, provincial budgets and, when available, official records. For this volume, he drew on 600 documents from municipal and provincial archives, as well as conventional sources such as Chinese news media.

What we learn is that while power and ideology are constantly contested, the Chinese Communist party, even in its most liberal phases, remained wedded to the Stalinist model that Xi’s China increasingly resembles. We also learn, to nobody’s surprise, that absolute truths are highly mutable: in 1940 Mao promised protection of private property, democratic freedoms and a multiparty system, but when the party came to power in 1949 it suppressed rival organizations, burned books and expropriated property . Since Mao in 1937 also reiterated the party’s longstanding policy that Taiwan should be independent once liberated from Japanese imperialism, it comes as no surprise that today’s leaders are obliged to police their historians quite so fiercely.

China in 1985
China in 1985. Photograph: Dean Conger/Corbis/Getty Images

This period of Chinese history was also the most recent manifestation of the century-old battle between liberal ideas and authoritarianism in China, covering as it does the explosion of ideas that followed the death of Mao, manifest in Democracy Wall (1978), the lurching political reforms of the 1980s, and the democracy movement and its violent suppression in 1989.

While many of China’s western supporters believed that growing prosperity would bring growing demands for political freedom and participation, Xi believes that the separation of powers, judicial autonomy and freedom of speech represent a mortal threat to the party, and that once China’s people are materially better off, they will agree with the party’s claim that China’s socialism is superior to western capitalism. As the early reformer Zhao Ziyang – later disgraced for his opposition to the Tiananmen massacre – put it: “We are setting up special economic zones, not political zones. We must uphold socialism and resist capitalism.”

Dikötter’s case is that China’s opening up and reform period was structurally limited and that these limits are undermining the benefits the model can deliver: after 40 years of opening up, he points out, China had one million resident foreigners, a smaller proportion to population than North Korea at 0.07%. In China, I argue, the state is rich and the people are poor, banks squander money and have created massive debt mountains, and as the scholar Xiang Songzuo of China’s Renmin University put it in 2019: “China’s economy is all built on speculation and everything is over-leveraged.”

The claim that Xi is the most powerful man in the world rests in part on the belief that China’s economy will continue to outperform its competitors, and that the US is in terminal decline. Today, as Dikötter concludes, the party faces the intractable challenge of addressing a range of longstanding structural issues of its own making, without giving up its monopoly over power and its control over the means of production. If we add to that list a misconceived war against a mutable virus, Xi’s claim to global supreme power may be less secure than it seems.

Isabel Hilton is a writer, broadcaster and visiting professor at the Lau Institute, King’s College London

Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World by Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges (translated by Daniel Steuer) is published by Polity Press (£25). To support the guardian and observe order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

China After Mao: The Rise of a Superpower by Frank Dikötter is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To support the guardian and observe order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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