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Xi’s secret million-dollar accounts

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

China’s head of state and party leader Xi Jinping is generally regarded as the most powerful man in the world. But the leader of 1.4 billion Chinese receives what is probably the lowest salary in comparison to other presidents. Since 2014, he has received a monthly base salary of 11,385 yuan – around 1,560 euros. Although his salary has increased since then (without any specific figures being available), a German chancellor like Olaf Scholz with a monthly salary of around 30,000 euros would probably earn a dozen times more than Xi does now.  

An ad at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2022. Volumes 3 and 4 of Xi Jinping’s speeches and essays “The Governance of China” are now distributed internationally in 160 countries and have been translated into 21 languages. Since 2014, Xi has had the massive volumes published, catching up with Mao’s famous four-volume “Selected Works”. By the end of 2018, volumes 1 and 2 alone had sold more than 20 million copies, according to Xinhua. Xi is entitled to at least seven percent of the retail price of 80 yuan as book royalties – in foreign currency.

However, the nominal state wage does not count in China. Mao received a salary of only 404 yuan per month until he died in 1976. Nevertheless, he died a yuan millionaire. His income was supplemented by legal author’s fees and book royalties, which accumulated on their own thanks to the gigantic print runs of his works. Xi Jinping set out to eclipse Mao, constantly pumping out books for domestic and foreign markets. He can rely on 96 million party members alone as mandatory subscribers. 

As with Mao, the amount of Xi’s income is completely unclear, as is the question of whether he has to pay taxes or what he does with it. Such topics are taboo for the public. The only certain thing is that no Chinese leader has published as many books and publications as Xi in just ten years of office. And that he is entitled to generous compensation for this. 

Yet Xi, back when he was still vice president, only used to play the mailman for the works of other top officials. The Frankfurt Book Fair had chosen the People’s Republic as its international partner country in 2009. Xi went to Germany as head of the delegation. On October 12, 2009, he paid his respects to German Chancellor Angela Merkel for 90 minutes. He presented her with two Chinese non-fiction books on energy and information technology that had been translated into English. With the best regards of former President Jiang Zemin, who had written them and personally signed them for Merkel.

At the time, the Beijing correspondent of Singapore’s newspaper Lianhe Zaobao wondered about the meaning of the gift. Jiang, who retired in 2002, and Merkel, who assumed office in 2005, did not know each other personally. The gift was probably more of a tribute by Xi to Jiang, who still maintained power in the background. Merkel showed surprised gratitude: These books were helpful for a better understanding of China.

More and more of Xi’s publications of all kinds flood the book market. Particularly expensive new publications 2022: Two-volume English-language edition of Xi Jinping’s speeches on diplomacy with more than 1054 pages. Retail price of the softcover edition: 150 yuan. Including illustrated volumes of a five-volume official book series on Xi’s career, with speeches and biographical material from the time before his rise to Beijing. Retail price 356 yuan.

It was the first and only time Xi honored a foreign head of government with books written by others. Since his rise to power, he only gifts his own books. Most recently, on Nov. 19, 2022, he graced Thailand’s Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha, head of the country’s military junta, with a complete set of his four-volume compendium, The Governance of China (习近平谈治国理政), in English translation. According to Xinhua, the Premier was “very happy” with the gift (收到 这份礼物,巴育总理十分高兴). China’s news agency revealed that the premier had previously recommended the books to his cabinet members at a meeting. “Everyone should get them and read them carefully.” Xinhua commented, “Xi’s books are on bestseller lists in many countries and are on the desks of many foreign politicians.” 

Party publishers issued a new publication under the author name Xi Jinping about every three weeks since 2013. Excerpt: Order list at book wholesalers for new Xi brochures 2017. “Xi Jinping on…” with information on discounts on the respective book price.

This is no exaggeration. Beijing has done everything it can to win international advocates for Xi’s works. Even for Volume 1, former German Chancellors Helmut Schmid and Gerhard Schroeder wrote and gave enthusiastic praise. In England, Prince Andrew, Duke of York (2018, even before the scandal surrounding him) praised Xi’s book as a “milestone.” Mark Zuckerberg, who had hopes for Facebook’s China business, prominently displayed a copy on his desk.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2022, the China International Publishing Group, which distributes Xi’s works internationally, advertised on a huge billboard the newly published volumes 3 and 4, which, like volumes 1 and 2, will be translated into more than 20 languages and distributed in 160 countries. The domestic Chinese print run is unknown. By mid-2018 alone, however, Beijing’s propaganda boasted foreign sales of 6.6 million copies for Volume 1 and 13 million copies for Volume 2. With the four volumes, Xi has caught up with Mao, who also published four volumes of his selected works. And Xi’s four “Governance of China” volumes are just the beginning, having been given the go-ahead by the 20th Party Congress to continue ruling for the rest of his life. Each volume costs 80 yuan (hardcover 120 yuan), of which Xi is entitled to at least seven percent. 

Debates about the amount of Xi’s earnings, whether he pays taxes on them, and what he does with them are taboo in China. During the 20th Party Congress, bloggers protested on Weibo (where they were quickly deleted) and on Twitter, mocking:
“In nine and a half years, he has published 125 books (…). This can be translated into about 3.1 billion yuan in book royalties. He is the master of publishing the most books, of most books written by ghostwriters, of most books written by ghostwriters, most books that generally remain unread remain, most of the books that are bought with public funds and most books that end up in the paper garbage.”

Royalties for the country’s leaders are a politically sensitive issue for China’s media. “China’s Youth Newspaper” published an article about it in September 2015 because many Politburo bigwigs donated their million-dollar earnings to foundations. Their report confirmed for the first time that members of even the Standing Committee are entitled to author’s fees or book royalties. For articles they write for Party media, they receive between 100 and 150 yuan per 1,000 characters; for books, 7 to 10 percent of the retail price. The report cites Premier Li Keqiang or ex-premiers Zhu Rongji and Li Peng as examples. By 2015, for example, Zhu Rongji had sold more than 1.3 million copies of his four-volume compilation of speeches (朱镕基讲话实录), published in 2013. At 196 yuan retail price, he received 7 percent royalty minus 11.2 percent taxes, or a total of more than 15 million yuan remuneration. The premier, who was considered incorruptible during his tenure, publicly declared that he would donate his foundation’s earnings to education support. This is how the Shanghai Hurun Philanthropic List (2014胡润慈善榜) documents it.

Beijing rallied against a heated public debate in 2008 about how cultural revolutionary and people’s tribune Mao profited from his book royalties. Global People, published by the People’s Daily, featured the cover story “Mao Zedong’s actual fortune” in July 2008. Beijing called Mao’s former secretaries, bodyguards and housekeepers to the stand. The Great Chairman did not leave behind 131 million yuan just from author’s fees when he died. It was only 1.24 million yuan.

The youth newspaper did not mention China’s party chief Xi Jinping. In immediately deleted posts during the recent Party Congress, bloggers claimed that Xi “published 125 volumes under his name during his nine and a half years in office since March 2013. They earned him remunerations of about 3.1 billion yuan.” Then they scoffed, “Xi is the great master who publishes most of the books that no one reads, no one buys themselves, that are publicly procured and eventually thrown away.”

Since 2013, new ideology brochures, training booklets, essay compilations, thematic volumes or essays of all kinds under the author name Xi have appeared in the party publishing houses almost every three weeks. The country is being flooded with Xi books. Propaganda announces sales successes: on September 27, 2019, for example, the newspaper of the Party College Xuexibao reported that the illustrated volume “Xi Jinping’s Seven Years of Educated Youth,” published in August 2017, had sold 7.3 million copies, and “Xi Jinping in Zhending,” published in March 2019, had already sold 4.3 million copies. 

Mao is still considered the true master of the propaganda battle over his own words. Beijing’s business newspaper Caijing reminded readers about his Little Red Book, which reached one billion copies during the Cultural Revolution until 1969, 370 million of which were printed in 1967 alone. For this and other inflationary Mao works, which were also published abroad in 14 languages, the book printers had to procure more than 650,000 tons of paper between 1966 and 1970 – more than all the book printing paper consumed in the entire People’s Republic between 1949 and 1966.

Such cost-benefit calculations are taboo in Xi’s China. They were not even possible until 30 years after Mao’s death, when renowned party research and theory magazines looked into Mao’s publications, including the amount of fees Mao received. Their findings caused a shock. The communist egalitarian and opponent of all private property had saved up a fortune in earnings at the People’s Bank of China: The main portion of his 76 million yuan renminbi was in the hands of the Beijing head office. The funds were deposited for him under the name “First Party Cell of the Central Committee in Zhongnanhai”.

After Mao died in 1976, his bank deposits doubled to 131 million yuan by May 2001, thanks to the investment strategies of the socialist market economy, interest and new royalties from Mao books that continued to be sold. But the account no longer belonged to Mao’s heirs. In the early 1980s, the Politburo had decided that Mao’s works were the “essence of the collective wisdom of the entire Party” and those author royalties, therefore, belonged to the Party.

This was not so wrong. The only tolerated liberal journal published by reform communists, Yanhuang Chunqiu (which Xi shut down in 2016), published text-critical research in 2011 showing that of the 160 articles in Mao’s collected works, only a small fraction was written or edited by him. Most came from his secretaries or other fellow Communist compatriots.

But that was one step too far. Beijing party leaders rallied against a heated public debate that branded the Great Chairman a “multimillionaire” with a knack for money who appropriated the intellectual property of others in return. Four of his once closest servants, Wang Dongxing, the commander of his bodyguards, and especially Wu Liandeng (吴连登), who had run Mao’s household for 12 years, took the public witness stand. Mao had been frugal and left only 1.24 million yuan in fees, it was said. Everything else was fiction, rumors and vicious lies. Mao allegedly even had poor allied states such as North Korea and Albania return already-paid book royalties. He had never cared about money, property or possessions. In a twist of historic irony, Beijing used Mao’s own earnings to absolve him of accusations of money-grubbing. The debate is again taboo. But Mao’s portrait was printed on all renminbi notes circulating in China. Xi’s likeness, on the other hand, does not adorn any Chinese banknote. Yet.

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