Barme on Xi Jinping

Source: Sinosphere, NYT (11/8/15)
Q. and A.: Geremie R. Barmé on Understanding Xi Jinping
By Jane Perlez

Tanks passed a large-screen projection of President Xi Jinping during the Sept. 3 military parade in Beijing celebrating the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II.

Tanks passed a large-screen projection of President Xi Jinping during the Sept. 3 military parade in Beijing celebrating the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II.Credit Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

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Geremie R. Barmé is a professor of Chinese history and founding director of the Australian Center on China in the World at the Australian National University. He has just released “China Story Yearbook 2014: Shared Destiny,” a lively collection of essays on China under President Xi Jinping, edited with Linda Jaivin and Jeremy Goldkorn. Mr. Barmé chose the essays on the basis of readability, as well as depth of knowledge.

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Geremie R. BarméCredit Courtesy of Geremie R. Barmé

Mr. Barmé began his career in 1972 studying Chinese at the Australian National University. In 1974, at the age of 20, he went to China to continue his studies, moving from Beijing to Shenyang and Shanghai. As the Cultural Revolution wound down, he did a stint picking apples in northeastern China and observed the collapse of Maoism. From 1978 to 1991, he wrote for Chinese-language newspapers in Hong Kong. He has been based at Australian National University since 1989, with diversions into making films, writing books and even offering suggestions for speeches on China by Australian prime ministers.

In an interview, he explained why, to understand Mr. Xi’s tenure, “you have to have a basic understanding of Mao.”

Q. As a longtime China watcher, what is special for your craft in the Xi era?
A. As an historian who went to universities in Australia, China and Japan and as a Sinologist who learned Chinese from and did a doctorate with Pierre Ryckmans, the Xi era is something of a gift. The dark art of Chinese rule combines elements of dynastic statecraft, official Confucianism, the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist legacy and the mixed socialist-neoliberal reforms of the post-Mao era.

Under Xi Jinping, the man I like to call China’s C.O.E., or Chairman of Everything, these traditions are being drawn on to build a China for the 21st century. For those used to thinking about China as being a country that “just wants to be like us,” or as one that fits neatly into the patterns of the Euro-American past, the Xi era is a challenge. For the many students of China who haven’t bothered reading Mao, taking the Marxist tradition seriously or familiarizing themselves with the country’s dynastic legacies, Xi’s version of China is positively discombobulating.

Q. Some people in China refer to Mr. Xi as “Emperor Xi.” Are there similarities?
A. Since the Mao era, it has been a commonplace for even rather levelheaded analysts and observers to speak of Chinese leaders as emperors or want-to-be emperors. This generates a comfortable metaphorical landscape, one that Chinese friends also often encourage. It puts Chinese political culture and behavior beyond the realm of the normal or knowable. It reaffirms Chinese claims about a unique history and political longevity. Mao was an expert at playing off and against the imperial tradition while sitting above factions that he manipulated in pursuit of his radical political and personal goals.

Of course, Xi aspires to something like that, if not more. But he is a long way from having Mao’s charisma or being able to play the system or the people with similar alacrity, though not for want of trying. The official adulation of Xi and the fact that he is omnipresent are reminiscent of the leader complex of other, older socialist states. Emperors were far more constrained and media shy.

Q. How is the current crackdown on expression affecting creativity on the Internet?
A. There is no doubt that the threnody of the era of “Big Daddy Xi,” as the official media call the C.O.E., is boredom. The lugubrious propaganda chief, Liu Yunshan, the Internet killjoy Lu Wei and Xi himself have together cast a pall over Chinese cultural and intellectual life. At the same time, the party-state is at pains to extol homegrown innovation and creativity. Does not a semi-Maoist state revel in the unity of contradictions?

Perhaps one of the challenges China poses to our understanding of narratives of development, progress and modernity is that innovative change may well also be possible, if not flourish, under postmodern authoritarianism. Or does one just pickpocket innovation from elsewhere and use state-controlled hyperbole to lay claim to creativity?

Q. Do you see nationalism getting out of hand?
A. In a way, nationalism in China has been out of hand for years: the intense and costly nationwide re-education campaign launched in the wake of June 4, 1989, emphasized China’s unique national situation, its undivided “nationhood” and grand history. The popular sense of exceptionalism is here to stay.

But this exceptionalism is threatened by Taiwan, which has taken such a different sociopolitical path. It is threatened by Hong Kong, where the complex legacies of colonialism feed into local identity and political conscience. It is threatened by the very pluralism that market reforms engender in China itself.

Of course, China is achieving long-cherished goals of strength and power, but in the process it has forged a one-party nation-state that, apart from tireless police action, maintains unity through aggravated propaganda and public bellicosity. But there is also the “Other China” — one that is educated, informed, skeptical, well-read, often well-traveled and part of a modern global society. This Other China is often silenced, ignored or ill-understood, but it will flourish well beyond the tenure of Xi Jinping.

Q. Where will the relationship between China and the United States stand five years from now?

A. For an Australian this is a discomforting question, in particular since my country has participated in just about every U.S. venture since World War II. Most of these gambits have been bloody, costly and enjoyed suboptimal results. Therefore, living in a country that is bound in a cap-doffing alliance with our American cousins I can only hope that if the U.S. and its regional partners proceed with a policy of “China deterrence” they will prove successful.

Failing that, one would hope that China and the U.S. reach an accommodation along the lines suggested rather idealistically by my colleague Hugh White [professor of strategic studies at Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center]: a “Concert of Asia and the Pacific.” However, having been educated at Maoist universities in my 20s, in my darker moments I think that a series of regional conflicts may well be the reality in the years to come.

Follow Jane Perlez on Twitter @JanePerlez.

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