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Reading Xi Jinping in Beijing

The collected statements of China's president reveal a grand ambition for the country. Why then is his party's attitude to freedom so small? 

Kerry Brown
4 February 2015

Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China has been produced to great fanfare in a number of languages, and even, infamously, appeared strategically placed on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s desk when he was meeting with a Chinese dignitary in late 2014. The book - which consists of a number of speeches, a few interviews, and some comments that he has made since coming to power in October 2012 - takes its place on bookshelves now alongside similar collections containing the wisdom of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and even Hu Jintao.

One of the characteristics of this collection is the number of times that Xi refers to ancient and classical Chinese sources. In one speech alone, made on 4 May 2013, he refers to Yuan Mei, a Qing dynasty writer; a text from the Western Zhou dynasty (1050-771 BCE); the "great learning" of Confucius, Mencius et al, and a collection of stories from the Warring States Period of about 400 years BCE. This is heady stuff for a speech of only thirty minutes. But it is continued through many of the other comments.

There is, as ever with politicians, a sound strategic reason for this. On 19 August 2013, in a speech on the importance of theoretical work, Xi states "fine traditional Chinese culture is a great strength of the Chinese nation and its most profound cultural soft power." Indigenous culture was, in the Maoist era, a symbol of Chinese feudalism and backwardness. But today it has become one of the most important sources of authority and legitimacy, and the party is willing to use it to the full.

No one disputes that Chinese culture is amazing, rich, and diverse. But there are good arguments to show just how heavy it sometimes is. The sinologist William Jenner pointed this out in a book published in 1992 pithily entitled The Tyranny of History. The government's promotion of the importance of traditional Chinese culture is well and good, but it tends to give off a conservative, sometimes stifling and parochial air. Confucius Institutes as the outward face of some of this work are a case in point, with their menu of safe, often staid cultural performances, and their reputation, fair or not, for staying clear of more dynamic, innovative modern art.

One puzzle for a China which appears, in Xi’s words, as "rejuvenated, strong and powerful" is that whatever cultural capital is accrues through its traditional art  and literature, it often almost immediately loses through news about the treatment of a dissident or activist. If Xi wanted an honest answer to his question of why China’s image is often a negative one in the outside world, it would involve discussing the very clumsy way in which some figures have been dealt with over recent years in China. Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, is a case in point – a person accused and found guilty of no crime, but someone who is living largely in seclusion, under illegal house-arrest in China, and who tearful appearances from time to time do immense damage to China’s image. There are plenty of other cases like this.

Xi himself blames the skewed western media for giving these too high a profile. He points out that America, Europe, and others have plenty of problems in their own backyard. Even so, it's natural to wonder why the Chinese government hands these "enemies" such prize ammunition. Surely one way of totally unbalancing these noisy opponents would be to simply take the highest profile cases, hold a mild "rectification campaign" much like that in the early 1980s, and let the people free. China’s image would improve overnight, it would be even better placed to take on its critics, and it is almost certain that those it liberates in this way would not have a significant impact on the stability of the country or pose any danger. In some cases, it might even rudely expose them as having impractical or unworkable ideas.

Xi wrestles in his speeches and comments with the idea of Chinese-style modernity. He speaks of the need to go along a Chinese path, suitable for Chinese conditions. He berates western universalism and the imposition of western values. Even so, this issue of how to deal with non-violent, and frequently constructive protest and opposition remains a weakness. The bottom line, at least today, is that the rich, powerful, strong China that Xi talks about is still afraid enough of some figures whose essays are read by barely more than a few hundred people on the internet that it will spend immense political and financial capital to silence them. For a government interested in efficiency, this seems an area ripe for reform and change.

Allowing space for contrary, antagonistic opinions which doesn’t involve imprisonment, diplomatic bad blood and reputational damage surely makes sense. This, at least, would be my modest proposal to Mr Xi in 2015.

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