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An authoritarian challenge

XI JINPING. The world's most powerful man
Forfatter: Stefan Aust, Adrian Geiges
Forlag: Norsk Forlag, (Norge)
CHINA / About China, it is important to be curious and willing to learn before making judgments. But how to understand something that is so fundamentally different from the culture we ourselves come from?

The chapters in XI JINPING. The world's most powerful man shows that the authors Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges focus on many other things than just Xi Jinping as a person and politician. It begins with a chapter on coronaone in China, Xi's family history, his fight against corruption, similarities and differences with Stalin and Mao, the role of Confucianism and communism, 5G and Tik-Tok, the Dalai Lama and the Uighurs, the new silk roads, trade war with the US, Hong-Kong and Taiwan- the questions – as well as a concluding chapter on China's supposed role and ambitions in the world of the future.

The English edition of the book is described both by the authors themselves and in international reviews as the first biography of Xi Jinping. But it is not a close portrait of the man Xi, but is based on his own writings and on what can be found on the Internet and in reference works such as Encyclopedia Brittanica. In addition, there are other earlier books – e.g. Alfred Chan's and three by Kerry Brown.

But having said that, it is also true that, after ten years as China's leader, Xi Jinping continues to appear somewhat enigmatic.

No real political analysis

Authors Aust and Geiges are a) German b) conservative c) journalists who have good knowledge of China from many trips and stays in the country – and these three things are felt throughout the book, for better and for worse.

Because that is precisely journalism – fixation on one person as an explanatory factor for almost everything in China. These are stories, episodes and quotes – but absolutely no social or actual political analysis and absolutely no cultural analysis of the type: What is the minimum that one must know about China's culture, way of thinking and history in order to understand the country and its leader? In other words, many facts – but without theory or concepts.

They are sometimes critical of the West's, the USA's and especially Germany's narrow-minded, self-righteous perspectives on the world.

I myself have never understood that so many who write about China seem to believe completely unreflectively that you can understand this ancient civilization in rapid change with a fundamentally Western individual and journalistic perspective, with Western norms and values. Without trying to empathize.

And although the authors are far more balanced (less black and white) than many of their Western colleagues – they have both positive and negative things to say about China's development and they are occasionally critical of the narrow-minded, self-righteous perspectives of the West, the USA and especially Germany on the world – yes, it shines through the entire book after all that China is an authoritarian challenge that is necessarily also/will become a threat to us.

In that respect, the book is better than most, and I do not want to say about the journalistic approach that the zebra should have been a camel – or a journalist should be a researcher.

Two Western systems and two civilizations

But a fundamental problem with all these kinds of books is this: Before we analyze and comment on China, what are the prerequisites for understanding something that is so fundamentally different from the culture we ourselves come from? This is also what makes the new Western/US Cold War with China so complex and dangerous: The old Cold War was between two Western systems – the Soviet Union/Russia versus the USA/NATO/EU – the one based historically on Marx- Lenin, the other on Smith.

With China, two civilizations are in conflict. Perhaps they will never manage to understand each other, but as Piet Hein says so wisely: It's either co-existence or no existence.

«He (XI) succeeded in creating a climate in China which we compare [to] the climate under Stalin in the Soviet Union. Everybody is in fear.»

Austs and Geiges' book appears as a compilation, as if composed of articles and interviews from before seasoned with an update – even a bit about the Ukraine war. But along the way, many a reader who is not already an expert will gain concrete useful information and perspectives. It is not a tendentious or Sinophobic book.

Anxiety is wildly exaggerated

What one can then miss – and again I do not want to blame a camel because it is not a giraffe – would have been a description of the Communist Party and its mode of operation, its relations with other state bodies and the people – and how there is also a bottom-and- up control/contract between the people and the party and its leader.

The claim that Xi has acquired a superhuman nature and that everyone in China is afraid is simply embarrassing. Here is what Geiges said last year to the Voice of America: «He (XI) succeeded in creating a climate in China which we compare [to] the climate under Stalin in the Soviet Union. Everybody is in fear. [People] are afraid of speaking out against him. Or even to speak out about anything he might not like, simply because they are afraid.»

Based on a single tour of China completely on my own and without any help from the authorities, from conversations in homes, restaurants and institutions, I can say that that anxiety is wildly exaggerated. But that is of course also a subjective consideration.

The book is weak when it comes to the relationship between China and the US/the West, and there is no attempt to analyze the conflict and who has done what in it. And here it does not help at all that they reproduce what Madeleine Albright or Ai Weiwei tells them.

The way the author treats both Taiwan and the terrorist problem in Xinjiang leaves much to be desired in my best estimation. It becomes – lightly caricatured – a talk à la this-is-what-people-on-the-street-tell-us. Here are historical facts, contexts and conflict analysis – as well as the West's role in mediating these problems – which I would have expected gifted journalists to have picked up. Also self-critical. But here they contribute more to propaganda than proper analysis.

About China, it is important to be curious and willing to learn before making judgments. So 5-6 out of 10 points for this book.

(Translator of the book is Merete Franz Bonnier).

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Jan Øberg
Øberg is a Ph.D. docent, director of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, TFF, Lund, Sweden. https://transnational.live

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