“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.