Coming of age is never easy, becoming a superpower even less so, and China has had it harder than most. It is true, China was a glorious empire back when the Greeks were but a twinkling in Minos’ eye, but the sun had hardly set on the Ming Dynasty when a new and stronger Japan emerged from the ashes of the brutal Sengoku period and the British began breathing down the neck of Qing elite. And domestically, for a long time, much of China was an ungovernably violent landscape. Seven of the ten bloodiest conflicts in human history took place here, three of them (the Taiping Rebellion, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the Chinese Civil War) within the last two centuries, accounting for almost 48 million deaths.
The result can hardly be surprising: a heavy-handed response to any perceived threat. China’s new cybersecurity laws and the recent crackdowns on lawyers and journalists mean many young Chinese must now endure greater constraints on freedom than they’ve ever known. Meanwhile, China’s aggression in the South China Sea is promising to do for its image what the Iraq War did for the United States.
But even while President Xi plays to his dark side, the public continues to refer to him as “Xi Dada” (literally “Xi Bigbig,” more often translated as “Uncle Xi”). In 2014, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation published a paper by Tony Saich, revealing Xi as the world’s most popular leader—both at home and abroad.
The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer explains that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and “folksy style” have boosted his domestic support, while his popularity abroad can be traced to mass appeal in Pakistan, Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, and other nations that “range from geopolitical allies to beneficiaries of Chinese investment and countries where China’s economic model is attractive.”
While that’s true, Saich notes another factor: “in countries where discussion of leaders is more constrained, the national leaders rate very highly,” whereas “in countries where the press is more open and critical, we see that leaders receive lower ratings from their citizens.” It’s therefore unsurprising that the world’s second most popular leader, according to the survey, is Vladimir Putin.
Observing this phenomenon, I cannot help but think of Donald Trump’s popularity back home. Both he and Xi enjoy strong support from a solid base, and it seems as if there’s little they could ever do to lose the faith of their congregations. But Xi’s popularity is different than Trump’s. Xi doesn’t share what David Denby describes as “the distaste, in a part of the Republican base, for virtue or high-mindedness or public spiritedness of any sort.” On the contrary, he fancies himself an intellectual. More importantly though, while Trump’s uncensored vulgarity enlivens his adherents, Xi operates within the inscrutable arcana of Chinese politics. Chinese love him because they only know of him what he wants them to know.
Xi is, a September 2014 article by The Economist notes, “the most powerful Chinese ruler certainly since Deng, and possibly since Mao.” And his seemingly unalloyed power in reshaping China is providential, given that in six years the Communist Party will celebrate its 100th birthday.
Despite the gathering storm clouds, though, I am not pessimistic about the future.
On June 11, 1945, in his closing speech at the Seventh National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Mao related the fable, “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountain.” In the story, a foolish old man decides to remove a pair of mountains with his shovel. A wise old man admonishes the fool, pointing out the futility of the task, but the fool simply smiles and replies that after he is gone, his children will continue the work, and their children after them. On the other hand, he says, the mountains, though very high, will grow no higher.
Interestingly, in Mao’s telling, God is so impressed by the old man’s effort he moves the mountain for him. These mountains, Mao declared, are imperialism and feudalism. And with perseverance, he concluded, “we, too, will touch God’s heart.” He clarified that by “God,” he meant the Chinese people.
While today it’s probably more accurate to say the government views itself as God, the analogy is, fundamentally, a good one. China had about 537 million people when Mao spoke of their power to move mountains. Now it has over 1.3 billion. By 2021, China will likely have transitioned from a superpower to a global leader.
But there’s another meaning to the fable, one Mao’s successor would find less comforting. However powerful its president, 1.3 billion people can only be held down for so long. Each scrap of information that leaks in burrows away at the mountain of deceit, and each traveler or student who ventures out begins to do the mental spadework that is needed. It’s an imperceptible effect, not much more than a shovelful of dirt, but hopefully it’s only a matter of time.