In October 2012 Sinologist extraordinaire, Henry Kissinger, observed: “Each generation of Chinese leader…reflected the mission and the conditions of his period.” And five months later Xi Jinping was named the President of China amid conditions that looked little like those faced by any of his Communist predecessors.
The reality is that all leaders, great and otherwise, both shape their times and are shaped by them. Every once in a while, however, the conditions for change are particularly ripe, posing the opportunity for truly great leaders to change the world for the better in profound and far-reaching ways. Abraham Lincoln was such a leader at such a time. As were Franklin D. Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela. Each led a nation through profound and ultimately positive change.
And Xi Jinping? Only history, not glassmakers, can answer that question but there is little doubt in this glassmaker’s mind that the time is ripe in China for great and world-changing leadership to leave its mark on history.
If, as Kissinger noted, President Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, led China onto the world stage, President Xi Jinping is surely the first Chinese President to lead from the established position of world power. So while it is undoubtedly true that President Obama remains the most powerful man in the world, President Xi is undoubtedly the man with the opportunity to change the world to the greatest degree – one way or the other – during the lives of today’s children.
So what can we expect from the man who now leads one-fifth of the world’s population and oversees the world’s second largest economy?
President Xi was born in Shaanxi Province, currently 16th of the 31provinces and autonomous regions in economic strength, an interior province known to Westerners primarily as the home of Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors.
He is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a former revolutionary hero and one of the first generation of Communist Chinese leaders. As a senior provincial leader of Guandong Province, China’s most prosperous province, the elder Xi helped to bring about the development of special economic development zones that were the cornerstone of Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to redefine socialism with Chinese characteristics. He subsequently moved on to Beijing where he was elected to the Politburo and the party secretariat, retiring from government service in 1988.
From the accounts I’ve read Xi Zhongxun was a man of moderation and tolerance, seeking political solutions whenever possible and displaying sincere accommodation of religious and ethnic diversity. And without question he was a man of both idealism and conviction, having been purged and imprisoned on several occasions throughout his career.
This included imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution, a time during which Xi Jinping, at age of 16, was ‘sent down’ to work and study at an agricultural commune in Yanchuan County, part of a widespread program developed by Mao Zedong to allow urban youth to learn from the simple ways of Chinese farmers in the hope of eradicating the perceived emergence of bourgeois decadence in urban Chinese society.
After six years on the commune and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the young Mr. Xi went on to earn a university degree in chemical engineering and, later, a doctorate in law, both from Tsinghua University, widely considered the MIT of China and one of the best and most competitive universities in China today.
Having joined the China Communist Party (CCP) while still in Yanchuan County President Xi’s first job after graduating from university was personal secretary to Geng Biao, the minister of defense, eventually moving on to a variety of county and provincial level posts before becoming party secretary of Shanghai and emerging on the national political scene.
Beyond those basic facts, of course, neither we as Westerners nor the average Chinese knows all that much about Xi Jinping the man. Chinese leaders are notoriously private, although his wife, Peng Liyuan, a famous folksinger, is widely adored by the Chinese and, unlike political wives of the past, is frequently seen accompanying her husband on official state visits. Still, no Chinese person that I’ve talked with is even certain where the couple actually live so the idea that the first family might invite television cameras into their home to share a holiday celebration, as is the custom in the U.S., is virtually unthinkable.
From watching President Xi on Chinese television, however, I must say that he strikes me as a man comfortable in his own skin. He seems quite relaxed in front of an audience and often displays a sense of disarming humor and self-deprecation seldom seen publicly in any senior government official here in the decorous Middle Kingdom.
His father, as all fathers inevitably do, undoubtedly shaped Xi Jinping’s thinking in many ways. And, I suspect, he was likewise greatly influenced by his time on the agricultural commune in Yanchuan County.
But before my fellow Western readers jump to any conclusions, I mean ‘influenced’ in the most positive way. While Westerners tend to think of being ‘sent down’ as akin to an old Soviet political dissident being sent off to a gulag, I don’t believe that is in any way a valid analogy.
My first assistant in China was a retired teacher who herself, with several of her classmates, was ‘sent down’ during the Cultural Revolution to work on a similar agricultural commune. And while the living conditions were austere, food was not always plentiful, and the work was long and grueling, I never once heard her utter anything close to anger or resentment about the experience.
She spoke about it very matter of factly. While her own family suffered at the hands of the Red Guard for allegedly being bourgeois (She told the story of a young guardsman burning a cherished photo of her mother in her wedding dress because he considered the dress to be a symbol of bourgeois decadence.) she always talked about her time on the commune in terms of the friendships she made and the lessons she learned about life. To this day she and her classmates visit the village from time to time and she holds a heartfelt reverence for the poor farmers, who like farmers the world over, feed the rest of us in relative obscurity, enjoying feint praise for their hard labor.
But this woman, who was always referred to by the simple but highly respectful term, lao shi, meaning teacher, had two notable qualities beyond her general reverence for the poor that I believe she would attribute to her time in the country. One is the complete and total lack of fear. The other is perspective.
President Xi, I suspect, shares all three of these qualities – respect for all people, invincible courage, and balanced perspective. If you can read a man from his eyes this is a man who has complete and total respect for people – all people. This is a man who genuinely shares the hopes and dreams of the Chinese people for a harmonious and comfortable life – the Chinese Dream that he so often references in his public speeches.
And the achievement of that dream, I believe, will ultimately define the agenda for the decade he will serve as the President of China. Which is to say that the first Chinese president to lead China as an established world power will spend more time and energy focused on China itself than its influence over the rest of the world.
He faces many daunting domestic challenges – environmental degradation, the polarization of wealth, corruption – both public and private, and regional unrest and the violence it has spawned. And these, I believe, are the challenges that will occupy his time and attention.
That is not to say, however, that he will simply defer to the rest of the world in defining China’s role in the new world order. He is the son of a soldier, is married to a major general in the People’s Liberation Army, and himself served in the military. He is a man, from what we’ve seen so far, who is both cool under pressure and not intimidated by either saber rattling or bellicose rhetoric. His father ‘risked it all’ and willingly paid the price for what he believed and the son, I strongly suspect, is cut from the same cloth.
I believe the quality that will ultimately come to define President Xi Jinping in history, however, is the same quality that so prominently defined my assistant – perspective. He has seen it all and experienced it all and he, unlike so many of today’s valueless leaders intoxicated by their own power, knows exactly how it all fits together.
And for that reason I am willing to bet, without hesitation, that this, more than anything else, is a man that simply deplores hypocrisy. I don’t think he expects to agree with the world leaders he will meet and work with in his duties. I don’t think he even cares if they share his perspective or his worldview.
But God help them if he concludes that they are hypocrites. More than anything else it is the perceived hypocrisy of their enemies that gave Mao and his fellow revolutionaries, including Xi Zhongxun, the strength to win despite unimaginable suffering and against the longest of odds.
I believe it is the ruins of hypocrisy on which the Chinese Dream will ultimately rise, and it is the battle against hypocrisy, both here in China and the world over, that I believe will ultimately define the leadership of President Xi Jinping.
Will history judge him to be a great leader? I dearly hope so. And, yes, I, for one, as inconsequential as I may be, sincerely believe it will. He is, in my humble glassmaker’s opinion, the right man at the right time and in the right place to change the world in positive and profound ways.
Don’t you hope I’m right?
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