China, for decades a place where a near-equal collective controlled the country through a party hundreds of millions strong, now belongs to one man — Xi Jinping, the man who became president in 2012.
It’s been a mysterious, fascinating transition to observers as Xi is a man of few words and fewer expressions. However, in a profile of Xi in this week’s New Yorker called ‘Born Red’, we get a sense of what kind of man has been able to rise to such incredible heights of power.
He’s the kind of man who, in a number of anecdotes, sounds a lot like Russian ruler Vladimir Putin:
Xi didn’t have a questing mind, but he excelled at managing his image and his relationships; he was now meeting foreign investors, so he stopped wearing Army fatigues and adopted a wardrobe of Western suits. Liao said, “Not everyone could get an audience with him; he would screen those who wanted to meet him. He was a good judge of people.”
Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, is known for his transformation into a pragmatic diplomat as well as being a very good judge of people.
“For [Putin], others are participants in a game he directs. He chooses inputs, they react. He judges,” Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy of Brookings write in the book “Mr. Putin.” “Their responses to his input tell him who they think he is — but by responding they also tell him who they are, what they want, what they care about.”
And in the same way Putin’s power in Russia seems unshakable, Xi has taken over China with a totality unseen since Mao Zedong. He’s jailed the highest level officials since the early days of China’s Communist Party; he’s taken over running the economy; he’s installed an anti-corruption campaign that is purging his enemies business; the military and politics alike, and he’s created over a dozen new titles for himself.
And when it comes to exerting control, both men seem to use the same tactics. You’ll remember when Putin kept the world guessing by disappearing for 10 days in March. Xi once did the same thing in order to consolidate power before he became president.
On September 4, 2012, he cancelled a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and visits with other dignitaries. As the days passed, lurid rumours emerged, ranging from a grave illness to an assassination attempt. When he reappeared, on September 19th, he told American officials that he had injured his back.
Analysts of Chinese politics … speculate that Xi, in effect, went on strike; he wanted to install key allies, and remove opponents, before taking power, but Party elders ordered him to wait.
A former intelligence official told me, “Xi basically says, ‘O.K., f–k you, let’s see you find someone else for this job. I’m going to disappear for two weeks and miss the Secretary of State.’ And that’s what he did. It caused a stir, and they went running and said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ ” The handoff went ahead as planned. On November 15, 2012, Xi became General Secretary.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that what Xi has been calling an anti-corruption campaign — his rationale for jailing hundreds of thousands of people — is really a consolidation of power. “I don’t call it an anticorruption campaign,” a Western diplomat told New Yorker writer Evan Osnos. “This is grinding trench warfare.”