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Xi’s true colors

The speech of China’s state and party leader Xi Jinping at the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party revealed nothing new. His most telling remarks that revealed his values and true thoughts are from the time when he was the heir apparent to the throne of party general secretary and when he first took that office. A chronological analysis of his statements not only helps to understand Xi himself, but also shows how his mindset gradually became known to the Chinese-speaking world.

“Some well-fed foreigners are so bored that they give uninvited instructions and criticism on our affairs. China exports neither revolution nor hunger nor poverty. Neither do we bother you (the West) and create troubles for you. So why are they making a fuss?” These remarks were made in 2009 when he met with overseas Chinese during his official visit to Mexico in the capacity of China’s vice president.

Xi was tapped as the successor of the then General Secretary Hu Jintao at the 2007 Party congress, set to take power five years later. He had been quiet since that Congress, which was normal. The transition of power to him was still not one hundred percent certain. He was therefore expected to act and speak cautiously to avoid a significant change of opinion about him within the Party.

Chinese politicians generally maintain a very formal style. When it comes to international relations, they would almost always resort to a number of templates with diplomatic, dry wording.

China was on relatively good terms with the West back then. Chinese diplomats would fight back against western criticism on such issues as human rights. But they took generally the defensive position and used much milder words than today.

So Xi’s remarks in 2009 seemed to be taking the offensive out of the blue. Until that point, his values and inclinations were unknown to almost everybody. It was assumed that he would be at least as enlightened as his father, who was also a senior Party official and a liberal ally of Deng Xiaoping. The assumption also stemmed from the fact that Xi had spent most of his political career in the business-friendly coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang.

So when Xi’s scornful candid comment on Western criticism made it to the public, people still believed he did that to please conservatives in the party. People realized years later that those comments were a reflection of his genuinely anti-West mentality. They also heralded the age of China’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy and spiking hostility between the country and the West.

His argument about China not exporting revolution was also a hint that his mind is steeped in the Mao era, when the country attempted to stir communist revolts in developing countries or aided communists there. 

Mourning the Soviet Union

“There was not even a single real man.” He was referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and bemoaning nobody in the USSR “rose up to fight” for its survival. That was December 2012, two months after he officially came to power as the Party head. Speaking to officials in the wealthy Guangdong Province, he showed his true colors: the communist red.

Although the fall of communist regimes in Europe around 1990 has been a nightmare for Chinese leaders ever since, they rarely talk about it openly.   

“A softly spoken sentence by Gorbachev that the communist party of Soviet Union is disbanded and then such a big party was over,” he said with profound regrets. “There was no single real man,” he said, citing a line in a poem from a chaotic 10th century in China lamenting the demise of a small kingdom. (Interestingly, this patriotic-sounding poem was written by an infamous concubine of a playboy king, by the way.)

It is obvious that he sees no problem with the cruel communist rule in the Soviet Union. And he is keen to steer the CPC away from a similar debacle.

By this time, hopes for positive change in China were already history.

Xi shows his true colors

“To be fed by the communist party and smash the wok of the Communist Party, this is absolutely not allowed.” He said this at a working conference in 2014 on dissent and criticism towards the Party’s top leadership. He was using a grassroots idiom, which describes an ungrateful person benefitting from something but at the same time damaging it.

Around the same time as this statement, some party and government officials were punished for “unwarranted comments on the central leadership”.  “Central leadership” is pretty much a veiled term referring to Xi himself.

The “food-wok” comment quickly spread to non-CCP context and has been used to attack anybody criticizing the party or the government. With that, a totalitarian regime became more totalitarian. His “food-wok” analogy was shocking to many because it painted the party as the patron of the people, instead of a political organization living on money from taxpayers.

By then, Xi’s image as a strongman (or the real man) is fully established within China, and a new wave of emigration and capital flight took off. It took some time for observers outside of China to grasp the true Xi. His soft talks in forums such as Davos promoting globalization mesmerized listeners into believing China would remain a safe, lucrative market.

But then Xi had the constitution amended, laying the foundation for his lifelong rule. Now the whole world recognized who he really was.

Xi the architecture critic

“We should have no more weird buildings.” Xi made this remark at a conference for writers and artists in 2014. He lectured them that they should in their works champion “socialist core values,” jargon for the Party line. He was apparently alluding to a 1942 speech by Mao that set the tone for literature and artistic works in Communist China.

But somehow he made this arbitrary side comment about architecture, setting off a scramble in the construction sector for the definition of “weird building”. It is believed Xi referred to several post-modern buildings erected in Beijing and other big cities in the first years of the new millennium. Some of them were designed by renowned international architects such as Zaha Hadid.

Xi’s comments again betrayed his aesthetic taste, which is, to put it politely, very conservative. His talking style also reflected similar taste. He loves to use colloquial expressions, even in formal speeches, and openly encouraged expressions with a common touch.

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