Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping, by Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Jonathan Mirsky on the undistinguished qualities of a president who wants China to ‘learn from Chairman Mao’

April 9, 2015

In the field of Chinese studies, Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a phenomenon. For once, the word “polymath” does not seem excessive. Historian, political scientist and journalist, he masters a vast range of sources, and marshals fine detail in the service of analysis and explanation.

In his latest book, Lam observes that Xi Zhongxun, the father of China’s current president, was one of Mao Zedong’s closest allies. (Like most such men, he would also become one of the chairman’s victims, and was imprisoned several times.) Xi Jinping is, therefore, a “princeling”, one of a tiny cadre of powerful and favoured leaders. What I did not know, and which Lam shows with great clarity, is just how close to Xi are the army “princelings” – generals descended from other generals, who are central to the growth and maintenance of his power.

Nor did I know that Xi’s father had been on such good terms with the exiled Dalai Lama, or that after Mao’s death in 1976 the elder Xi exonerated some of Mao’s victims, including the “Li Yizhe” trio of dissidents jailed in 1974, during the Cultural Revolution, for publishing a sensationally anti-Party wall poster. But the elder Xi’s qualities, as Lam shows, were not inherited by his son, who above all exhorts the Chinese to “learn from Chairman Mao”.

What emerges from this account, as Lam eloquently observes, is the president’s undistinguished quality; indeed, it shines out of his plump, well-made-up face and dyed hair – all Chinese leaders do this – on the book’s cover. He made his cautious way up the perilous pole of provincial advancement, never shining, never making a ripple, much less a wave. Xi is proud of his PhD at the elite Tsinghua University, an achievement frequently mentioned in state media. But he attended Tsinghua when it was a Cultural Revolution stronghold, and his dissertation is a combination of Party documentation and probably, Lam contends, plagiarism.

Xi’s views on education will be of special interest to Times Higher Education readers. Lam, who holds an adjunct professorship at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, scrutinises this aspect of the president’s views and statements with his usual care. Even by the standards of Maoist narrowness, Xi is exceptionally hostile to what the Chinese Communist Party calls “universal standards”, such as free speech, academic independence, freedom of religion and the rule of law. His views are stringently enforced in China’s education system, from the earliest years up to university level, where academics find themselves lucky if they are merely disciplined and not purged should they slip into championing academic freedom and learning from other countries. Moreover, Lam says, “economic standards have been degraded by malpractices such as plagiarism and influence peddling”, and the prevalence of research papers “based on dishonest or fraudulent research has raised eyebrows”.

What has also become increasingly common, Lam writes, is what the Chinese call “drinking wolf’s milk”, namely absorbing the ferociously nationalistic views of leaders such as Xi, and especially their “extreme nationalism and [efforts] to render class struggle absolute and one-sided”. This has led to threats to neighbouring countries, sweeping maritime claims and an insistence on a global status commensurate with China’s comprehensive strength.

Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
Routledge, 322pp, £85.00 and £27.99
ISBN 9780765642080 and 2097
Published 24 March 2015

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Reader's comments (1)

Willy has done nobody a useful service with this book. It's a lazy piece of criticism based on the most superficial knowledge of Mr. Xi. For example, "What emerges from this account, as Lam eloquently observes, is the president’s undistinguished quality; indeed, it shines out of his plump, well-made-up face and dyed hair – all Chinese leaders do this – on the book’s cover. He made his cautious way up the perilous pole of provincial advancement, never shining, never making a ripple, much less a wave" is almost completely contrary to the truth. Willy, who does not know Xi and has probably never laid eyes on him, calls him 'undistinguished'. Lee Kwan Yew, who's known Xi since he was a young man, called him "A Chinese Mandela, a man of great moral strength. In short, he is extraordinary". Xi's so-called 'princeling' status is uncommon in the upper levels of Chinese government, and represents no great advantage. Most senior officials are like Premier Li: people from extremely humble origins. What earned Xi the top spot was his moral quality. Just as his predecessor, Mr. Hu, was admired for his humility, Xi has always been admired for his personal and professional honesty. That's why he was handed the job of cleaning up the traditional cesspool, Shanghai, after a China-size corruption scandal. And that's why he's cleaning up China now: it's what he's done at every stage of his very public career.

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