Review: Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping

Readers may remember a post from a few months ago where I excerpted a few of the most interesting passages of François Bougon’s Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping for the sake of public reference. This week Foreign Policy published my review of the book as a whole. Here is how I start it off:

Xi Jinping is a Chinese renaissance man. Self-assured, self-possessed, and utterly unflappable, Xi is equally at home on the hearths of struggling farmers and in the greeting halls of foreign capitals. State media likes to juxtapose the years he spent in the caves of Shaanxi with the days he spent governing Shanghai’s glittering towers. Here is a man as men should be: a leader who can grasp both the plow and the bond market! So things go with Xi Jinping. 

Though Xi studied chemical engineering, he presents himself as a littérateur. In Russia, he peppers his speeches with Dostoevsky and Gogol; when in France, Molière and Maupassant. To better grasp the meaning of The Old Man and the Sea, Xi traveled to Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar in Havana. Xi has a hankering for historical sites like these, especially those associated with famous scenes from the stories of Chinese antiquity. He cultivates a reputation for taking history seriously; his speeches are filled with allusions to obscure sages and statesmen from China’s past. 

But Xi is also eager to present himself as a man of the future. He revels in touring laboratories and centers of scientific innovation. He dabbles in complexity science and has tried to integrate its findings into Chinese Communist Party policies. There is a certain flexibility to China’s leader: To financiers, he adopts the argot of debts and derivatives. To Davos revelers, he drifts easily into the trendy buzzwords of the global business class. To soldiers, he speaks in military idiom (on many occasions happily attired in army greens), and to party members, the jargon of Marxist theory. For the common people of China, he consciously models an ideal of patriotic service and loving family life. 

But what of the person behind the persona? Unearthing that man is the goal of François Bougon’s book Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping, translated from the original French into English in 2018. [1]

So what are Bougon’s conclusions?

The first big take away from Bougan’s book is the centrality of Mao to Xi Jinping’s political project:

Xi’s driving need to rehabilitate Mao is partly born out of practical necessity…. But this political calculation is only half of the story. Added to it is a sincere emotional attachment to Mao and his era. This nostalgia for Maoism at first seems an incredible delusion. Why does Xi yearn for an era that saw his father, a prominent Communist Party leader, maligned, mother tortured, sister killed, and himself banished? Xi’s own answer to that question: Yanan. Xi’s associates New China not with the terrors his family experienced in Beijing but with the seven years he spent as a “sent-down youth” farming with the same peasants his father had governed 20 years earlier as a young revolutionary. More than a decade before Xi was elevated to dictatorship, he described his time farming the yellow loess of Yanan as “seven years of rural life [that] gave me something mysterious and sacred.” 

Xi came to Yanan as a bitter teenager unafraid to flout party rules. (He ran away once during his first year there and spent some time doing forced labor because of it.) He would leave Yanan a man so deeply committed to life in party service that he would apply for party membership 10 times. 

Bougon traces how these experiences with the peasants of Yanan formed the bedrock of later political positions: a withering distaste for conspicuous consumption, the belief that corruption among party cadres brings disaster, a idolization for the revolutionary heroes of his father’s generation, and the deep conviction that the party must present the Chinese people with larger ideals worth sacrificing for. “Even now,” Xi said in 2004, “many of the fundamental ideas and basic features that I have formed were formed in Yanan.” Two years earlier, he voiced a similar message: “Wherever I go, I will always be a son of that yellow earth.” 

Xi is deeply troubled that the same spirit of self-denial and sacrifice that was instilled in him at Yanan is missing from later generation of party members. (His own belief in his sacrifice has not prevented his family from accumulating immense wealth, both inside China and off-shore in foreign accounts; as with other leaders, Xi has particularly targeted any institution that reports on this.) This is one of the reasons Xi resurrected what Bougon labels the “national imaginary” of Communist China. 

Xi delights in the legendary heroes whom Maoist propagandists manufactured in Xi’s childhood: the selfless youth Lei Feng, the incorruptible cadres Jiao Yulu and Gu Wenchang, the martyred soldiers of Mount Langya, and so forth. He invokes their names and examples in speech after speech. The box office failure of three films about Lei Feng in 2013 seems to have been one of the spurs for a renewed insistence on patriotic movies. That their deeds are exaggerations or fabrications does not concern him much. Absent a personal history of sacrifice for the sake of revolutionary ideals, a spirit of consecration must be cultivated through myth. Xi believes he is the personnel caretaker of the national mythos that Chinese society needs to survive and thrive in an era of intense international competition.[2]

The second is Xi’s perception of the cultural threat the West poses to China:

This self-conception helps explain Xi’s other great obsession: defeating the so-called hostile forces inside and outside of China that would weaken the people’s faith in the political and ideological system that Xi helms. The view that China is locked in an ideological struggle for survival predates the Xi era—Bougon traces it to the later years of Hu’s administration, but scholars like John Garver and Matthew Johnson have traced the origin of these ideas all the way back to the late 1980s—but it is essential to understanding Xi’s policies. Bougon highlights a speech given in 2009 as especially important statement of Xi’s beliefs: “There are certain well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point the finger. Yet, firstly, China is not the one exporting revolution.”

In numerous speeches, Xi has identified the Soviet Union as the most prominent victim of revolutionary export. The United States and allied hostile forces, he maintains, successfully destroyed the Soviet Communist Party through a strategy of cultural subversion. Xi is determined not to let the same fate befall the Chinese Communist Party. In Bougon’s words, Xi has becomes a “culture warrior.” This culture war is more deserving of that title than the political debates that are given that name in Western countries. It has led to the jailing of historians; crackdowns on internet personalities, human rights activists, feminists, and labor organizers; censorship in literary journals, newspapers, and Chinese social media; an all-out assault on Chinese Christianity; and the labyrinth of detention centers in Xinjiang. It is also, though Bougon does not mention them, the impulse behind the coercion and surveillance of activists, students, dissidents, former officials, and Chinese-language media outlets outside of China’s borders. Culture and ideology spill across borders. To fight his culture war, so must the iron hand of the Communist state.[3]

I encourage you to read the rest of the review yourself. I also encourage you to read and purchase the book. It is not long, but is well written. Currently it is the first book I give to people when they ask things like, “What should I read to understand why things are the way they are in modern China?” or “How does the Chinese Communist Party understand the world?” The second book I recommend is Jonathan Ward’s China’s Vision of Victory. But that recommendation comes with many caveats; this one does not.

If you found this post on China’s political ideology useful, you might also find the posts “A Note on Historical Nihilism,” “Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy,” “Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability,” and “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, “Xi Jinping Knows Who His Enemies Are,” Foreign Policy (21 November 2019).

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

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It appears to me both Russia's Putin and China's Xi Jinping, are way smarter, competent than USA's Trump. That's depressing, very depressing.


QZ997: The strength of the USA isn't in pitting "our man" against "their man." It is our system vs. theirs, free peoples vs. a slave state. You may want a "man on horseback" but the genius of our system is we aren't solely dependent on that.