- Holcombe’s A History of East Asia is the kind of dry, academic, extremely cautious textbook that gives history as a subject a bad name (and myself some flashbacks to uni).
- Nonetheless, this book is certainly a serviceable overview of the histories of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, which was the minimum I was hoping for.
- Like most other geographical regions, the overall gist of East Asian history is a move (over millennia) from many small kingdoms to centralization and now, increasingly, globalization. In-between, there are a lot of revenge cycles, family members killing each other, and foreign invasions.
- This book only included Vietnam in this second edition, and even so, the Vietnam content is pretty light. After reading it, I understand why the author was hesitant to put Vietnam into the category of “East Asia” as its history doesn’t quite follow the same kinds of patterns as the other countries. Still, I’ll probably have to seek out other resources to learn more.
In the video, I also go over some highlights and “things I didn’t know” about the history itself. Short version is: the antecedents of events and documents are often unexpected and sometimes downright bizarre… “truth is stranger than fiction”!
How does one become the President of China?
If the electoral college seems at times hard to fathom, an election in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is even more esoteric. According to Kerry Brown, author of CEO, China and former diplomat, the rise of Xi Jinping to the supreme leadership role in China “belonged more to the realm of magic than political science” (p. 92). The process by which Xi replaced Hu Jintao (2003–2013) was unlike a democratic election, in part because it required a consensus amongst the Party: a one-party state cannot be seen as divided. This image of unity is one which brought Xi to power and which continues to challenge him as he seeks to maintain that power.
|U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, 2011 –
by Jerry Morrison
Coincidence and Conviction
Xi’s life has been filled with the unexpected – from privileges as the young son of a lauded communist fighter, to harassment in the hands of Red Guard youth, and finally a prestigious career as a provincial manager and globally wise leader. Was it all luck, or was there something he did to further his appointment as the core leader of China?
From Brown (p. 75–76), we learn that during the mid-2000s there were three candidates with the most potential to replace Hu. These men were Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao, and Xi Jinping, with Xi literally coming in third place at this point. It was a tight “race,” to put it in Western terms, and what Brown suggests as having settled it were the downsides to the Lis, as opposed to a definite preference for Xi.
- Li Keqiang, who is now the premier (head of government), had displayed some inefficacy while dealing with crises in provinces under his care. His current premiership puts him second-place in hierarchy, behind Xi who once trailed him.
- Li Yuanchao, also a former provincial leader, was “more open-minded and international in his outlook than his peers” (p.76) and was relegated to vice presidency, a somewhat nominal role. In March 2018, his relatively brief term ended, even as Xi’s term was secured for life. Li Yuanchao’s rapid transition from potential president to possible early retiree says as much about the Party as it does about him.
Was the Lis’ ill-fortune the only reason Xi rose to the top, or was there an additional factor? While not understating the role of luck, Brown suggests the latter as well, and he goes back to the importance of the ideological, even spiritual, side of Xi.
He is a man who conveys the sense that he does actually believe and buy into a worldview that has arisen from his own experience rather than been handed to him or acquired through years of attending Party meetings. (p. 13)
Essentially, Xi – like every compelling leader, good or bad – presents his story as part of what he brings to the table. He is the living evidence of his own ideological convictions and his faith in the Party (p. 96). This is what the Party desires and one of the reasons he gained preeminence, while not obviously appearing to do so.
The Future According to President Xi
The second half of CEO, China is different from the first, but no less fascinating. In three chapters, Brown covers with insight and detail some topics which take up the entirety of other books:
- The Political Programme of Xi Jinping (Chapter 4)
- How Does Xi Jinping See the Outside World? (Chapter 5)
- What Does Xi Want in the Next Two Decades? (Chapter 6)
It would be inadequate for me to try to summarize these chapters. What I can do is highlight some of the topics that caught my eye in these sections.
Money, Corruption, and – Democracy?
As China continues to grow, Xi has to address issues such as private enterprise, taxation, and the political implications of both. For example, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) make up half of the government’s revenue, but they are also becoming increasingly less profitable, even compared to non-SOEs (p. 155) SOEs are also entities that attract corrupt officials, who are interested in siphoning off profits for themselves.
Taxation is a requirement for maintaining Chinese socialism, but this, too, must be handled with care. The Chinese taxpayer is not immune to their own interests, and even to allow provincials governments more power in this area is playing with political fire (p. 157, 159). How can the Party maintain central power, while still meeting the local needs of the common man? For a nation in which the state has exerted its primacy, this is a challenge that cannot be avoided. It is not impossible China may give the provinces more fiscal leeway, even while keeping a tight hold on the one-party system.
Technology as Power
Just this month, a young woman named Dong Yaoqiong disappeared after protesting against Xi and the CCP; her Twitter account was deleted, and Radio Free Asia reports she is being detained in a psychiatric hospital. Last fall, The Washington Post reported that Christian symbols were being forcibly replaced by images of Xi, as part of an anti-religion campaign announced through various media, including the internet.
While China maintains the “Great Firewall,” blocking such sites as YouTube and Twitter (with mixed success), Xi like most modern leaders has realized he can use social media to gain insights into Chinese citizens’ opinions and wants. Xi can choose his own methods of reaching the people, in the same vein as Mao and Deng Xiaoping (p. 177). Ironically, Xi can in this way circumvent Party censorship and spread the message he wishes to share.
Globalism and the Two Centenaries
China has one ruling Party, and it takes advantage of this fact by setting very longterm goals. By 2021, the 100th anniversary of the CCP, it intends to have achieved a “moderately well-off” status in areas such as urbanization, wealth, technology, and energy. By 2049, the 100th anniversary of the PRC, it expects to be the paradigm of a “modern socialist country.” Together, these two goals will supply the concrete results of what Xi calls the “Chinese Dream.”
In relation to the world at large, China expects to play an important role. It will continue to maintain a complicated relationship with the U.S. and the E.U., working together with us on issues such as the environment (p. 182) while competing in other areas such as world finance. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is poised to rival the D.C.-based IMF and World Bank, having (as of this year) 87 member nations, with the United States and Japan voluntarily among the excluded.
China’s interests in neighboring countries has grown to include Africa – see China’s Second Continent by journalist Howard French. Additionally, Xi’s renaissance of the Silk Road, now called “The Belt and Road,” contains a vast plan to bolster the Chinese economy by investing in other countries’ infrastructures. The end result would seem to be a new polarization of the globe, with Xi’s China as the new socialist leader (as opposed to Putin’s Russia) on the one hand and the U.S. on the other.
Xi may or may not live to see the second Centenary. His legacy, however, is already inextricably connected with China’s future.
CEO, China is not just a biography. I enjoyed the broader scope of the book and thought Brown was overall a fair author, coming from a Western perspective and yet mostly objective in his analysis. It’s one of my favorite books from this year, filling a hole in my knowledge and provoking me to learn more. Of Xi, I’ve gained a useful portrait; his life story is an impressive one. That said, current events and China’s human rights violations leave me wary of his leadership and what the ultimate outcome will be.
As president of China, Xi Jinping presides over 18% of the world’s population, and he is set to do so for life. How did Xi rise to such prominence, and what can we learn from his life that will help us understand his future? Kerry Brown’s book, CEO, China, offers some clues as to the man behind the mystery.
(Note: This is a multi-part review, though each part can be read on its own. You can read Part I here if you like.)
|George W. Bush and Xi Jinping, August 2008 – by Eric Draper|
The Young Xi: Two Sides of History
“The issue of whether Xi is a ‘Maoist’ is a live one in China,” writes Brown (p. 10). As he goes on to illustrate, Xi’s historical and cultural relationship to Mao is not only complicated but personal, with origins that go back to Xi’s childhood and his father, Xi Zhongxun.
Xi Zhongxun began his career as a distinguished communist soldier, fighting both the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists throughout the 1930s-1940s. This was an era of terrifying violence, in which torture and brutality were used by both sides of the communist vs. anti-communist conflict (p. 17). Xi Zhongxun survived, and his efforts won him the approbation of Mao. In the 1950s, Xi Zhongxun pivoted to the position of deputy minister of (Maoist) propaganda.
Propaganda, however, proved to be a double-edged sword for the elder Xi. Kang Sheng, a key leader in Mao’s purges, accused Xi Zhongxun of allowing a subversive novel to be published. It was a strong enough claim that Xi Zhongxun was dismissed from the Party; he would later be beaten and then, with his wife and children, exiled from Beijing.
This was a mild sentence compared to others dealt by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but it was enough to blight Xi Jinping’s youth with suffering and continued persecution. Fortunately for his later career, Xi did not join the Red Guard youth – in fact, he was barred from it, and the radicals found in him an opponent who, in spite of his regard for Mao’s thought, proved to be a tough dissenter against the violence of the 1960s.
|Mao, the “peasant emperor,” in civilian country attire|
In his teenage years, Xi Jinping experienced xiaxiang – mandatory “rustication” by being “sent down” to the countryside and forced to do farm labor. During this time of mass “poverty and loneliness” (p. 56), he was compelled to learn a number of skills, including basic medicine and mechanics. This further toughened Xi, who had begun life as a somewhat sheltered and “bookish” child (Buckley, Tatlow, 2015).
Restoration to the Party and Beyond
Xi Jinping was granted membership to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1974. Considering that Party membership was essential to upward mobility, it is no wonder he had tried for so long to gain its good graces. (His father would not be fully reestablished until 1978).
Though Xi studied chemical engineering in college, he instead pursued a career in government jobs, spending the next three decades serving in various provinces and even attaining the governorship of Fujian (1999–2002). Interestingly, his leadership in Zhejiang province (2002–2007) foretold his global capabilities, as he supported Chinese businesses such as Alibaba and encouraged foreign businesses such as McDonald’s, Motorola, and Citibank (p. 73–74).
All of these experiences bolstered not just his resume but his clout as a man of the world and a capable, profitable leader. Likewise – and in part by staying in the provinces and out of “central politics” – Xi managed to avoid scandals and accusations of corruption, which were the downfall of some of his Party peers (most famously, Bo Xilai).
One significant detail I had not realized about Xi was how large a role the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics played in his career. At this point, he had become Vice President of China, and as such he was tasked with the (thankless) honor of overseeing the Olympic Games. Brown describes some of the risks:
One terrorist attack…one Tibetan demonstration…or, perhaps, worst of all, Chinese sporting failure in the games themselves could have destroyed his ambitions. As it was, the three weeks of the tournament were a success. (p. 86)
This international spectacle became, in appearance and truth, the pinnacle of Xi’s career up to that point. He had taken on a momentous challenge and, by talent and some luck, pulled it off without a hitch. As we in the U.S. watched (and re-watched) the entrancing performers beating their drums in sync, we could not have been more delighted and pleased than Xi, the master behind the ceremonies.
“Cultural Revolution Shaped Xi Jinping, From Schoolboy to Survivor” – NY Times article by Chris Buckley and Didi Kirsten Tatlow, 2015.
“What do you know about the man who runs China?” the blurb demanded.
“Nothing,” I blinked. Well, basically nothing.
I couldn’t believe it…I knew basically nothing about Xi Jinping, one of the most powerful leaders in the world today. (I also have some Chinese heritage, which makes it even more embarrassing.)
Xi, in fact, may wield more influence than any other secular leader. He functions not only as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) but also as their “core leader” – putting him in the same league as Mao. In parallel, he shows the other communist nations (nominally very few) what a strong communist leader looks like. With a GDP on track to overtake the United States’ in the next decade, China’s version of socialism is not to be ignored, and Xi is well placed to be more than just a figurehead.
Search Amazon for “xi jinping biography” and relatively few books come up. Remove the word “biography” and the results are better, though apparently little read, if we go by the number of reviews. If Xi is so important, why do we in the West talk so little about him as opposed to, say, Putin? The mystery in my mind was growing as I picked up Kerry Brown’s biography, boldly titled CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping.
Politics, Ideology, and – Religion?
As a professor, writer, and former diplomat to China, Kerry Brown brings a well-rounded perspective to his biography of Xi. This book covers a vast amount of material beyond the chronology of Xi’s life, which is covered in the chapter “Xi the Man” as well as the helpful “Timeline” at the beginning of the book. Did I mention Brown also includes a list of key players and acronyms? By the end of the book, you still won’t remember the difference between the CNPC and the CPPCC and the CDIC, but you will know where to find it.
The confusion is no fault of Brown’s – every big organization serves alphabet soup. Indeed, Brown offers an overview of the intricate workings of the CPC to start out the book, without which I would have been utterly lost. Mingling history with his own knowledge and insights, Brown shows us the many-tiered cake that is the Communist Party in China. Its base is the CPC at large, a political party of almost 90 million members. From this foundation, you build up to the National People’s Congress (NPC), which is the Chinese parliament (about 2-3k members); and then on up to the Central Committee (several hundred members); the Politburo (25 members); and finally, the “Olympians” – the Poliburo Standing Committee, comprised of just seven members.
|Chart found on Global Macro Monitor. The source page appears to be offline.|
According to Brown, the Politburo is “one of the best known, and least understood, of modern political bodies.”
More important than a cabinet in the Western system of government, yet ostensibly separate from day-to-day decision making, the Politburo owns the crucial function of dispensing ideological, spiritual and political leadership. This description means it covers nothing and everything. (p. 24)
Understanding how the CPC works is crucial to understanding how Xi came to power. He did, after all, become the 151st alternate member of the Central Committee in 1997, when at the time, the limit was 150 (p. 72). Brown illustrates through this, and other examples, that the CPC is something of a flexible network, not a science with hard-and-fast rules, as we tend to envision one-party states (China allows multiple “minor parties,” but is de facto one party).
This interdisciplinary leadership, paired with the well-established hierarchy and culture, are part of the reason Brown likens the CPC’s structure to that of the Roman Catholic Church. In the same vein, he compares the influence and challenges of Xi to those of Pope Francis. Xi, by nature of his role, must offer spiritual inspiration as well as political impetus – this he does in many ways, from speeches about the Chinese Dream to his own installment in the Chinese constitution.
The latter accomplishment, confirmed in March 2018, means that Xi, like the Pope, can stay in office until his death, if he likes. At just 65 (and if he follows in Castro’s footsteps), Xi could easily lead China for another 20 years.
[Well – this review is turning out to be a long one, but it was such an interesting book! Part 2 to come…]