Finally, a Chinese Leader Who Speaks Intelligible Mandarin

After 10 years of the stoic Hu Jintao, Weibo users appear to like the cut of Xi Jinping's jib.

Hu and Ji banner.jpg
Chinese President Hu Jintao (R) and Xi Jinping (L), newly-elected general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), wave to delegates of the 18th National Congress of the CPC on November 15, 2012.

The early reviews are in. As the government unveiled its next generation of leaders at 11:55 a.m. during a November 15 press conference in Beijing, Chinese Web users reached quick consensus that the line-up was, as anticipated, light on would-be reformists.  Liberal users on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, quickly commenced hand-wringing about China's future.

But there was one silver lining: The now seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), which essentially runs China, is to be headed by Xi Jinping, who provided brief remarks and introduced his new colleagues. After ten years of the willfully stoic Hu Jintao, web users appeared to like the proverbial cut of Xi's jib.

Xi said nothing revelatory or controversial, although he did implicitly apologize for the new PSC's showing up late to its own introductory press conference. But his manner of speaking, in contrast to his tin-eared Hu-bot predecessor, struck a sweet note with netizens. Web user @白云峰, the Chairman of a Chinese energy company, tweeted: "Self-confident, young, active, [speaks] Putonghua [ie, standard Chinese]."

Wait a minute. How could China's new President impress his countrymen with the mere ability to speak standard Chinese? In fact, China is a country of such great linguistic diversity that, for example, the native Beijing dialect and the native Shanghai dialect are mutually incomprehensible. Chinese television shows and adverts sport subtitles so that viewers of all linguistic persuasions can follow them. Regional differentiation is so great that a refined ear can even distinguish between two Chinese accents from neighboring towns.

It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that China's past presidents have often failed to fully master Putonghua, which literally means "common speak." China's original reformist leader, Deng Xiaoping, spoke with a thick Sichuanese dialect that some found difficult to follow. Outgoing leader Hu's Putonghua is certainly more standard than that, but online consensus holds that it cannot measure up to Xi's.

It's hard to blame Xi's predecessors, given that Putonghua is in some ways an invented language. The term is often used interchangeably with "Mandarin," although the latter literally refers to the dialects of Chinese officials-that is, the mandarins. Putonghua, on the other hand, generally refers to Modern Standard Chinese. Adopted in 1956, Putonhua is the latest government-led incarnation of a longstanding attempt to establish a standard that can be used throughout China. The inability of some in its top leadership to master the language has thus been a persistent irony.

China's youth, however, have grown up in a country far more connected via television, Internet, and the freedom and means to travel. For many younger Chinese, especially the richer and more educated cohort that comprise Web users, standard Putonghua comes easily. Xi's relatively faultless Mandarin thus implicitly signaled an end to China's long-standing gerontocratic rule. One young Weibot seemingly nodded as he wrote, "hmm hmm indeed indeed-[as a] 'Post-90s' [Chinese person born after 1990], [let me] say I don't feel a generational divide while listening to this."

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David Wertime is the co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine that focuses on China and Chinese sentiment. He is an Atlantic correspondent, Associate Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society.

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