The World According to Xi Jinping

China’s president has staked his reputation on fulfilling the “Chinese Dream.” Here’s what he envisions.

Martial-arts students in Nanjing rehearse for a performance entitled "building the dream." (Reuters)

The Governance of China, a collection of the political theories of Chinese President Xi Jinping, is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. I mean that quite literally: The book, as an object, is lovely. There are 515 pages of creamy, heavy, acid-free stock; gold-flecked endpapers; a full-page frontispiece portrait, complete with a facsimile of Xi’s signature; 22 glossy, double-sided photo pages; a silver-embossed, silk-bound cover; and a sturdy white dust jacket.

This is China’s new scripture, a book, published in October 2014, that the government has willed into being a bestseller. Chinese state media claim that over 5 million copies have already been sold around the world. Translators have labored to put the book’s 79 speeches and addresses into immaculate English, French, Russian, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Japanese. They say it’s a hit in Bulgaria. Supplicants to the Communist Party, such as Mark Zuckerberg, have made a point of brandishing the book in public like the latest offering from Malcolm Gladwell.

Yet from all the available evidence, very few people outside of China—except maybe Bulgaria and Mark Zuckerberg—have read it. No major American news outlet has reviewed the book in detail. None of my journalist friends in Beijing has read it (one used his copy, which I borrowed, to buttress the wall of his cubicle). It’s a book that seems to matter more for the phenomena it has generated than for what it contains.

But at a time when economic tremors in China are rippling through world markets and the People’s Liberation Army is flexing its military might in unprecedented displays, understanding the content of this book—the most extensive compilation of Xi’s thought—takes on urgency. Xi, who will meet with Barack Obama this week in his first state visit to the United States, has staked his reputation on fulfilling the “Chinese Dream.” Across the 18 chapters of The Governance of China, the Chinese leader outlines a comprehensive ideology that points to where he aims to take his country, despite strengthening economic and geopolitical headwinds. Though not yet three years into his expected 10-year rule, Xi has already recentralized authority to an extent that could justify considering him the single most powerful human being on earth.

It’s worth exploring what such a man is thinking.

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You can’t blame people for not wanting to read The Governance of China. Even for someone interested in China and Marxist theory, passages like this, which begins the chapter called “Enhance Publicity and Theoretical Work,” are like freebasing literary Ambien:

Our publicity and theoretical work must help us accomplish the central task of economic development and serve the overall interests of the country. Therefore, we must bear the big picture in mind and keep in line with the trends. We should map out plans with focus on priorities and carry them out in accordance with the situation.

Or sentences like this, which fly downward like portcullises of dullness five pages into the book, as if to forbid readers from entering any further:

The political report to the 18th National Congress of the CPC has charted a grand blueprint for bringing about a moderately prosperous society in all respects, accelerating socialist modernization, and achieving new victories for socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new historic circumstances.

(This is an accurate rendering of the flavor of the original Chinese. I read the book in English, but anyone familiar with the droning cadences of the Communist Party’s Mandarin propaganda will recognize the familiar abstractions, the insistent buzzwords, and the numbing repetitions.)

Even when you can keep your eyes open, the temptation to roll them is sometimes irresistible. Like when Xi compares governing China to “frying a small fish,” or exhorts the people to observe the “Three Stricts and Three Earnests,” or assures Tanzanians that they are China’s “Trustworthy Friends and Sincere Partners Forever.”

And yet beneath the clunky, neo-Leninist language, there is real substance. What emerged for me was Xiism—what I’d describe as an ethno-nationalist variant of Marxism, which holds that the people of China are heirs to a unique civilization and a utopian destiny that entitle them to a privileged position in the world. This destiny can only be achieved by following the moral leadership of Xi Jinping, who in his person (due to his birth and upbringing) embodies the virtues of the people and is their champion.

If Xi’s program is duly followed, Xiism promises a pinnacle of prosperity in 2049—precisely 100 years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China—at which point Xi avers that the Communist Party will “solve all the country’s problems” and the Chinese Dream will be fulfilled. China will be “strong, democratic, culturally advanced, and harmonious,” he vows, adding that in his view, “realizing the great renewal of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream in modern history.”

It’s either a scary or an inspiring vision, depending on how you view the consequences of China’s aspirations to preeminence. For this American, at least, one of the more unsettling aspects of the vision is the degree to which the United States barely exists at all—neither as an enemy nor, to borrow Xi’s description of the U.S. in 2014, as a partner in “non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.”

Xi’s utopian world, as mapped out in The Governance of China, is one in which the United States is an insignificant, faraway blip, and countries that China can manage mostly without fear (Russia) or regard benevolently as obedient tributaries (Tanzania) fill the void.

The book is also a testament to the construction of Xi’s persona, and how the state is tapping into both imperial tradition and lingering nostalgia for Red China to present the Chinese leader as everything to everybody: a Marxist messiah for leftists, a people’s emperor for peasants, and a righteous, thundering Jeremiah for urban constituencies fed up with corruption.

This is the Gospel of Xi.

* * *

The terminology of the Chinese Dream appears to be a ripoff of the American Dream and, perhaps, a 2012 Thomas Friedman column in The New York Times, whose entire website, including that column, has since been blocked in China. (The Atlantic’s James Fallows also used the phrase as the headline of a feature six months before Xi Jinping spoke it aloud.)

Whatever its origin, the Chinese Dream (or “China Dream,” as it is rendered in Chinese) has become the trademark slogan of Xi’s administration since he first publicly uttered the words in a November 2012 speech at the opening of an exhibition in Beijing called the “Road to Renewal.” The exhibit featured artifacts related to China’s defeats from the Opium Wars of the 19th century to the Qing Dynasty’s overthrow in 1911—events that have been enshrined in Chinese history as symbols of humiliation—and served as a stage for Xi to pronounce the Chinese Dream “the long-cherished hope of several generations.”

The speech was brief, and the details sketchy, but the “dream” terminology soon spread everywhere in China: to TV shows and advertisements, to the Party’s ubiquitous red propaganda banners, to the landing strip of China’s first aircraft carrier.

Like the American Dream, in common parlance the Chinese Dream can mean many things to many people. But for Xi, it spells out a somewhat more specific prophecy of China’s ascendance to military, economic, and cultural power. It’s not just a slogan, but a particular vision of utopia that could materialize in 34 years if the Chinese people are willing to stick with the Communist Party.

By 2021—the first predicted milestone—the Party pledges to make China a “moderately prosperous society in all respects,” defined as doubling the per-capita GDP to roughly $10,000 per year and housing 60 percent of the population in cities, along with other goals such as building a space station. By 2049, the vision goes (though it gets more nebulous here), China will be a fully developed nation, having overcome the poverty, pollution, corruption, and ethnic strife that bedevil society today. In that year, Xi says, “the dream” will “be realized.”

The paradise Xi promises, however, is one that is primarily built for people of a single race. Despite rhetorical flourishes gesturing at China’s “56 ethnic groups,” Xi returns again and again to the notion that those who share responsibility for the Chinese Dream, and a claim to the privileges it will bring, are people who share blood.

“The blood of the Chinese nation flows in every one of us, and ours is forever the soul of the Chinese nation,” he tells the people of Taiwan. “Remember that wherever you are, you are a member of the Chinese family,” Xi tells Chinese educated abroad.

Belonging to this family, with Xi at the head, entails duties and opportunities. “A great Chinese nation will be a blessing for all Chinese,” he tells Taiwan. “The closeness between us is rooted in our blood, our history and culture. … It is a simple truth that blood is thicker than water.”

Young Chinese should be educated in the “glorious history and excellent culture of the Chinese nation,” and immersed in “patriotism, collectivism, and socialism,” he says. The goal above all is to “fortify the will of the Chinese people, who should be prouder of being Chinese.”

To achieve this vision, he says, no sacrifice is too great because “one can do well only when one’s country and nation do well.” Chinese people therefore must “pool” their strength to become “an invincible force.”

A "China Dream" sign in Shanghai (Aly Song / Reuters)

The unsettling echoes of 20th-century ethnic nationalism aside, Xi’s race-based vision raises the question of what, exactly, Chinese leaders should do about minorities. Roughly 114 million people in China are non-Han. How do they fit into the Chinese Dream? Tibet and Xinjiang, which feature resentful minority populations and constitute the country’s largest, most volatile, and most dangerous regions, are never mentioned in the book. The only acknowledgement of the existence of Uighurs, a 10-million-strong Turkic group that has clashed violently with state forces, is an awkward photo of Xi holding hands with Uighur men on a daybed. On the opposing page, a picture shows Xi sternly awarding a flag to a strapping member of the paramilitary police force—precisely the forces that are legion in the Uighurs’ homeland.

The only solution Xi offers to the question of minorities is a bland assertion of unity. “We have to unify the thinking and will of the whole Party first in order to unify the thinking and will of the people of all China’s ethnic groups,” he says in a speech to a plenary meeting of cadres, or representatives from the rank and file of the Communist Party.

When it comes to the broader, non-Chinese world, however, Xi is much clearer in his thinking. In a classically Marxist formula, he identifies China’s extraordinary destiny with history. “The tide of history is mighty,” he tells an audience of Russians. “Those who follow it will prosper, while those who resist it will perish.”

In a speech in Taiwan, he employs this logic of inevitability to intimidate anyone who seeks a future independent from Beijing. Taiwanese can either go in the “right direction” or follow “outdated perceptions” and, presumably, suffer for it. When he urges Taiwanese to adopt a “responsible attitude toward history,” what he means is to bow to the ineluctable force of mainland supremacy.

In Germany, Xi professes that China has always been committed to peace, while warning that those who “stick to the beaten track” without recognizing the path of history will “hit a stone wall.” No country, he adds, “should expect China to swallow any bitter fruit.”

Looming in the background of Xi’s foreign-policy vision is the one country that is still stronger than China and could thwart his utopian plans: the United States. As with the thorny dilemma of minorities, Xi’s silence on the U.S. is telling: In his scripture, Americans—like Uighurs and Tibetans—have no place. In the index, the United States has two listings. This is one more than “Chubby Boy” and “Paul the Octopus,” and several less than Kazakhstan, India, Latin America, “Arab people,” Russia, and Tanzania.

But while ignoring the United States—and, it should be noted, the liberal democracies of Western Europe—Xi appeals to ideals of diversity and tolerance to argue that Communist Party rule should be preserved. “We should respect the rights of all countries to independently choose their social systems and development paths and the diversity of civilizations,” he says—though of course, he is not speaking of the right of people in Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan to choose a path different from Beijing’s.

It’s a shrewd strategy. Xi often refers to the long sweep of Chinese civilization—a rightful source of pride for many people—and conflates respect for that tradition with respect for the dictatorship of the Communist Party. “All human civilizations are equal in value, and they all have respective strengths and weaknesses,” he says in a cringe-inducing speech to UNESCO, comparing civilizations to the seven colors of the rainbow. (Missing in this speech is the hubris of an earlier chapter, where Xi boasts to a room of elite Beijing schoolchildren that China’s continuous civilization is not equal to anything on earth, but “a unique achievement in world history.”)

Xi’s call for tolerance also masks the fact that he has overseen China’s greatest repression of liberal and putatively “foreign” ideas, organizations, and scholarship in generations.

* * *

In addition to sketching out Xi’s Chinese Dream, The Governance of China spends a lot of time showing where he gets the authority to define it. His dual heritage as a princeling—the son of a Communist Party founder—and a youth who spent time in the countryside frames the book, underscoring his unique qualifications for leadership.

Xi spent only a fraction of his life on the soil, but stories of his exploits in his father’s power base of Shaanxi province, where Xi went in 1969 after Mao ordered urban youth to the countryside to be “reeducated,” figure prominently in the portrayal of the president as a humble man grounded in the virtues of rural China, where more than 40 percent of the population still lives despite rapid urbanization. Xi supposedly won the favor of the Shaanxi peasantry by carrying 200-pound sacks of wheat over mountain passes, building dykes, and hauling manure by hand. The lead anecdote in a mini-biography at the end of the book, titled “Man of the People,” tells of his nonchalant appearance in a Shenzhen park after taking power in 2012.

A sub-heading from the biography lends some interpretive clarity to all this: Xi is to be understood, officially, as “Regarding the People as Parents.” The implication is that Xi, as a responsible Marxist-Confucian son, is loyal to the people, empowered by them, and sanctified by them.

The image of Xi as the people’s champion is not merely the creation of propaganda. Many Chinese genuinely love Xi Dada, or Uncle Xi. (How he can be both a son and an uncle to China is a biological curiosity state media has yet to explore.) Surveys by the Harvard professor Anthony Saich suggest that a stunning 95 percent of Chinese approve of Xi’s handling of domestic affairs. Dumpling shops where Xi ate pig intestines have become pilgrimage points. His face beams out from commemorative plates and posters in Beijing markets.

Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China at a newsstand in Beijing (Jason Lee / Reuters)

Xi’s public identity, as presented in The Governance of China, also encompasses a dual role as the savior and scourge of the Communist Party.

In his role as savior, he has inspired the reddest-of-the-red, many of whom feel nostalgic for a simpler time when cadres were poorer, more idealistic, and more revolutionary than today’s wine-drinking, Audi-driving officials. To them he addresses faith-bolstering remarks like the exhortation to cadres to “lay their lives on the line for the sake of their ideals.” The Communist Party, he assures them, is engaged in a project Marx and Engels couldn’t imagine, as they “had no practical experience in the comprehensive governance of a socialist country.” Even Lenin never answered the question of how to run a socialist society, and the Soviet Union “made serious mistakes and failed to resolve the problem” of how a revolutionary party should govern, which, he says, the Communist Party of China has continued to tackle. Cadres are urged to be “paragons of morality” in order to “marshal strong spiritual and ethical support for realizing the Chinese dream of national renewal.”

As a scourge, Xi adopts an entirely different tone. He reassures citizens aware of the Party’s vices that he is going to restore their confidence in government by rooting out corruption. The reassurance takes the form of jeremiads: “Some Party officials don’t understand or concern themselves with reality. … Their duties are a game to them—they pass the buck or muddle through. … [They] make casual decisions and empty promises. They blindly launch expensive projects, walk away when they fail, and leave behind an unresolved mess: some curry favor with their superiors, and rudely order their subordinates around.”

Others “demand bribes before doing things that are part of their duties.” Still others “implement the decision of superiors to a superficial degree, while others awkwardly imitate—doing things according to the old way…” And still others “are ‘empire-builders,’ high-handed and arbitrary in their approach, intolerant of any alternative view.”

From there Xi launches into a denunciation of various sins, including hedonism (“the main features of hedonism are mental laxity, resting on one’s laurels, coveting pleasure, pursuing ostentation, and seeking to keep oneself amused”); extravagance (“extravagance means waste, squandering resources, expensive building programs, endless festivals and ceremonies, a luxurious and dissolute lifestyle…”); and the pride of those who “glory in their misconduct, moral corruption, and dissolute lifestyle, instead of feeling shame.”

In these ways and others, Xi has made a big promise to his people—a promise, judging by the signs so far, that he is determined to deliver on despite China’s slowing economic growth, aging population, and increasing threats of terrorism and unrest, particularly in Xinjiang.

For as long as he is in power, the question is what will happen to the rest of the world, to the Communist Party, and to Xi Jinping himself when it becomes apparent that his impossible, beautiful dream—the Chinese Dream—is as idealized as its American counterpart. If the dream can’t be realized, what then?

What happens when China wakes up?