The day before the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, President Xi gave an interview with Russian television, in which he remarked on one of his hobbies: reading.
“Reading has become my way of life,” he reflected. “I read a lot of Russian writers, such as Krylov, Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Nekrasov, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Sholokhov; there are many wonderful chapters and episodes I remember very clearly.”
The following month during a speech in Paris, Xi said:
By reading Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Sartre, I have deepened my understanding of how progress of the mind propels progress in society. By reading Montaigne, La Fontaine, Molière, Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, fils, Maupassant and Romain Rolland, I have better appreciated life with all its joys and sorrows.
Four months after this, on July 9, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Beijing where Xi delivered a speech and concluded by quoting a few lines from a poem by the American poet Marianne Moore.
Xi is clearly a lettered man, more thoroughly versed in literature than many literature majors I have met and probably more familiar with French, Russian, or American written works than most French, Russian, or American citizens. And he manages it all without so much as a puff of pretension. Two months ago, a President Obama lookalike shocked Cubans by ordering a mojito at a local bar, but when Xi visited Cuba he actually did exactly that, and as he relished his drink he recalled his favorite passages from The Old Man and the Sea. If you met him in a bar and didn’t know who he was, you’d probably find him charmingly approachable and endlessly fascinating.
Still, there’s something darkly amiss about Xi’s congenial intellectualism.
At a symposium in Beijing last October, Xi said, “fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste, and clean up undesirable work styles.”
I have to think a man as well-read as Xi would be familiar with Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous remark, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” particularly since President Obama delivered a speech with that very title in 2009. At the very least, I would hope even a pseudo-intellectual would be able to understand art cannot “inspire minds” or “cultivate taste” so long as the state is using it to “clean up undesirable work styles.”
According to the report, Xi also called for “life-like works […] to tell people […] what should be praised and what should be denied.” That is, works to promote patriotism and “foster correct viewpoints of history, nationality and culture.” One almost wonders if this is a joke. After all, censorship has in certain ways intensified under Xi. How life-like can art truly be if art is censored whenever it fails to foster “correct” viewpoints? Xi also added that the purpose of art is the “pursuit of the true, the good and the beautiful” and that the best art should “touch people, baptize their soul, and enable them to find beauty in nature, life and their minds.”
But how does a Chinese artist pursue truth when censorship is so pervasive? How are they to find beauty in nature when attempts to protect nature are silenced? And how should they find beauty in their minds when the expression of their thoughts is restricted?
“Chinese art will further develop only when we make foreign things serve China,” Xi added, “and bring Chinese and Western arts together via thorough understanding.” At the Paris speech, Xi also commented: “learning about French culture has also helped me better appreciate both Chinese culture and the profound nature and rich diversity of human civilizations.”
The sentiment is admirable, but I see no indication Xi’s extensive reading of Western literature has rendered any real understanding. If Xi were truly familiar with the subject, he would know the project of literature is incompatible with censorship. Yes, censorship exists in the West (the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum is a notable example) but rather than help art “further develop” it has always been a plague upon it. The suggestion that literature should tell people what to praise or deny, as if it’s nothing more than Emily Post put to verse, is absurd.
I want to believe Xi is being sincere when he praises literature, but does he really understand, as he claimed to in France, “how progress of the mind propels progress in society?” He claims to have read George Bernard Shaw as well, whose works include this line (in the preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession): “the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.”
Either Xi hasn’t gotten to that one yet, or he just doesn’t understand.