“Living in China is confusing now,” the novelist Yan Lianke said, “because it can feel like being in North Korea and the United States at the same time.” I recall smiling and nodding when he made the remark, during a roundtable discussion at Duke University’s campus outside Shanghai three years ago. In one brief sentence, he captured just how special and strange China can seem—a country that has both gulags and Gap stores.
Yan’s statement highlighted the challenge of categorizing China, but over time I’ve been struck by how it does the same for Chinese President Xi Jinping. In some ways, Xi—who became head of the Communist Party in 2012 and China’s leader the following year—seems to be taking the country backward, while in others he presents as an outward-looking free trader, one able to impress the Davos crowd by touting globalization and signing Beijing up for free-trade deals.
Part of this is due to misunderstanding Xi’s plans and priorities, leading to a belief among some outside observers that he would be a reformer in the mold of the former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Instead, his decisions—clamping down on dissent, removing the term limits that constricted his predecessors, building a personality cult—have been more like Russian President Vladimir Putin or even North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. In the process, he has centralized more power in his grip than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, while making other moves, such as mixing nods to Confucius with donning martial attire and taking on an ever-growing string of titles, that bring to mind the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.
The comparisons are imperfect—Xi clearly is not just like any prior Chinese leader, nor just like anyone now in power elsewhere. Yet in thinking about his similarities with other strongmen and autocrats, I’ve become obsessed lately with one specific way in which he stands apart: the lack of an English-language biography that takes an extended and careful look at his life.
In a well-stocked bookstore, you can find multiple biographies of Putin, one of Kim that came out in 2019 and another published in 2020, plus ones of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. If your goal was to buy a comparable volume about the life of the most powerful leader China has had in decades—a person, moreover, who is by some measures the most powerful individual in the world—you would come up empty.
There are, of course, books about Xi. They are just not substantive and careful biographies, falling instead into one of three other categories: Chinese-language hagiographies published for domestic consumption; gossipy and lightly sourced volumes, again in Chinese, in a secret-lives-of-emperors vein, which cannot be sold on the mainland; and works in various languages that have Xi’s name on their covers but are not devoted to describing and assessing his life. There have been only a few notable deep-dive article-length profiles and podcast episodes on the Chinese leader. Even though they shed light on important parts of Xi’s life and personality, it is striking that there are just a handful of works worth mentioning, given how much power he has wielded for close to a decade.
To understand what explains this glaring shortage, I sought the opinion of journalists and researchers who have been either covering Xi in formats other than books or trying to explain the lives of contemporary figures who share some traits with him (two of the people I spoke with fit in both categories). There are certainly many factors at play, including a lack of credible sources who both know Xi and will speak candidly about him (“My kingdom for a defector!” Evan Osnos, a New Yorker staff writer who wrote a profile of Xi, told me) and a general lack of access to the Chinese leader. Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times, who covers China for the newspaper and is the author of a Putin biography, noted that while the Russian leader is “very guarded, especially of the foreign media,” even he meets “with journalists and others regularly, taking questions and answering at length.” Xi, by comparison, “almost never submits to questions, even friendly ones.” Anna Fifield, a former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post who wrote a recent biography of Kim, told me Xi could be described as being “as hard a target as Kim” for a writer, but that “the bar” for writing about the Chinese leader “is higher because people think they should be able to know more about him.”
There are other issues. Xi’s “defining trait before coming to power was his caution,” the American University assistant professor of politics Joseph Torigian told me. He also noted that the study of elite politics, at least in a biographical sense, has gone out of fashion in academic political science. Last but not least, there is a fear factor—a worry that writing a critical book on Xi could lead to future difficulties in accessing China, to say nothing of other forms of online and real-world targeting. (In recent years, five Hong Kong booksellers associated with the publication of exposés on the private lives of Chinese leaders have been kidnapped and taken over the border to the mainland or, in one case, spirited there from Thailand.)
This has not always been the case when it comes to Chinese leaders. One of Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin, was willing to do an interview for an American television show, for example. And though there is no major English-language biography of the most recent Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, that is mostly not because of Hu’s inscrutability. “Some people are simply too boring for biography,” John Delury, a historian and co-author, with Orville Schell, of a book of profiles of a host of iconic Chinese leaders and thinkers, told me. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hu is not included in Delury and Schell’s book.
Xi is far from boring: Under his rule, China’s economic and military clout have expanded rapidly; he has overseen the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang; and Beijing has significantly stifled the free press and criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, both on the mainland and further afield. Under his watch, freedoms have been drastically curtailed in Hong Kong, an ostensibly autonomous city. Indeed, during a 2017 visit, he presided over the biggest military parade held in the metropolis since the handover.
My interest with this question of the absence of an English-language book about Xi is thus more than a stray obsession. For one thing, it speaks to the extent of the clampdown Xi has overseen that so little is known about him, and that so few who truly know him are willing to speak about him.
Yet this lack of biographies also has broader implications, notably for countries that deal with Xi and China (which is to say, all of them). He wields so much more power than any of his immediate predecessors that an understanding of him is far more important than understanding them was. It is also crucial to come to terms with any person at the center of a personality cult in a major country—even if, as Alice Su, the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, told me, Xi’s cult seems somehow less generative of strong emotions than was Mao’s.
This vacuum of information about Xi and lack of access to his inner circle has unfortunately led to a pair of superficially attractive but ultimately problematic ways of thinking about him.
The first, which was popular when Xi first took over China’s leadership, was to seize on a couple of biographical tidbits as evidence that he would be the kind of leader many in the West keep hoping will come to power in Beijing: a political reformer. Some early assessments—one of the most widely read, due to the author’s high profile and stature as a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter on China, was by Nicholas Kristof—stressed that Xi’s father had been a liberal-leaning adviser to Deng Xiaoping. This, Kristof and others claimed, meant that reformist tendencies were part of Xi’s “genes.” These were combined with other biographical bits and pieces to undergird the prediction that Xi would loosen controls in China. Ultimately, on issues ranging from Hong Kong to Xinjiang, this has proved to be wildly incorrect.
The second approach emphasizes two other aspects of his life story: the fact that he grew up during the Mao era; and, shifting the focus from his father’s leanings to his father’s high status, that Xi could be considered part of the “princeling” cohort of sons of hallowed Chinese revolutionary elders. Thus, the idea is conveyed that all we really need to do to make sense of him is treat him as an updated version of a past Chinese autocrat. Brushed aside is the fact that, unlike Mao, Xi shows no interest in mass movements or class struggle, and that there is no sign that he is grooming a member of his family to succeed him.
There is a lot going on in China now that cannot be reduced to the personality and life story of an individual, and much of the best work on the country in recent decades has been by scholars and journalists who have taken bottom-up grassroots approaches.
But for a country that is in some ways, as Yan put it, reminiscent of both North Korea and the United States, and seems to be simultaneously sliding backward and surging forward, it will not work to think of Xi as either a completely novel figure or a straightforward throwback. It is high time to have a better sense than we do—even if it is no easy matter to figure out how to do it—of what makes the autocratic, muscular-nationalist, order-obsessed strongman in charge of China tick.