PROFESSOR TOM PLATE WRITES – Years ago, Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew would needle me, in all seriousness, about the time and effort we silly journalists invest in seeking to lay out a leader’s personal traits. This dynamic man dubbed our penchant for such detail “the Western journalist’s exaggeration of eccentricity.” The irony was that LKY was a fascinating man, anything but coldly humorless, as the West’s impression of him had it, with a global profile resulting not just from what he said but how he said it. He entirely missed the point about ‘eccentricity’. How is it possible to understand any leader’s talents in the absence of sense of character? Sure, Germany’s Angela Merkel will never win prizes as Miss Personality but admirers tell you she has one. Remember crabby Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘handbag strikes’? And were not America’s silky leaders John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan celebrated, and more effective, due in part to their stylish wit?
Which brings us to the personality of Mr Xi Jinping – perhaps ‘the most interesting man in the world,’ borrowing a trope from a successful American beverage ad campaign. Compared to what we know of our witless U.S. president (about whom we probably know enough), about China’s president the West knows little. Ignorance breeds speculation: Mr Xi is allegedly power-mad, for example – a DNA-Napoleon in ambition; and, perhaps most creepily of all, has almost no sense of humor (see, for example, the dismissive comment of Harvard’s Roderick MacFarquhar in the ‘The Red Emperor,’ in The New York Review of Books).
But if you troll Chinese-language social media and other mainland venues, a more nuanced view emerges. Examples are not hard to find. My favorite Xi-whiz moment (all comments in translation) came during a (presumably dreadfully boring) conference on the (presumably fast declining) water quality of a lake in Jiang Su, once so vacation-popular. Breaking into a dreary presentation on new policies for the lake, (a presumably bored) Mr Xi interrupted to say, wryly: “We can determine the water quality by whether or not our mayors want to swim there.” Mr Xi once got a light dig into and cuckle out of President Barack Obama: “I met your wife Michelle, mother in law, and daughter Sasha in Beijing. When Michelle was about to leave, she asked me to formally convey to you [Barack Obama] her best regards.” The leader of China even made droll fun of his mainland tourists: “When our citizens go overseas they need to be more civilized. Don’t litter their bottled water, don’t destroy other’s coral reefs, eat less instant noodles and have more local seafood.” To the Australian Parliament, he quipped, “Tomorrow I am going to Tasmania, after which would mean that I have been through the entirety of Australia. I wonder if they are going to give me a certificate for this.”
All this is not to suggest that Mr Xi is quite ready for a celebrity standup appearance in Hollywood comedy club – he should definitely keep his day job! But this man of international mystery would appear to have his moments – and with the impossible job that he has, might not as many light moments as possible be in the interest of his inner calm, not to mention world peace? Public comments gleaned from China’s social media are often complimentary, of course: “Compared to the other Chinese leaders, Xi Jinping has a very unique style of language …. Some people say that his words are full of humor and charm, full of confidence and assertiveness….” Others Chinese netizens greatly approve of utterly unsubstantiated rumors of Mr Xi’s (alleged) pre-marital flings, of which a few were allegedly flung with high profile stars – a different kind of belt-road campaign – that he has never officially denied. The internet allegations, and they are no more than that, are offered as public testament to prowess, not turpitude.
Without some sense of personality, how is it possible to contextualize any leader’s officious texts (see ‘spicy’ book volumes I and II of ‘XI JINPING: The Governance of China’)? Without colorations of character, we risk assessing a figure solely in black-and-white. Worse yet, we risk not seeing the figure as human, as opposed to some bloodless, fearless Star Trek data-robot. It’s not for mere show that when Mr Xi travels, the battalion of bodyguards hovering around him is huge. Might that be because the president’s punishing anti-corruption campaign has made him a potential revenge target? But the Western perspective imagines only sheer ego behind the pomp. How about prudence? Similarly, the recent shelving of police forces under the large tent of the People’s Liberation Army has been depicted as yet personal-power consolidation. One hardly need descend into the conceptual chaos of modern psychiatry to imagine at least a measure of personal worry.
There’s too much fear in interpretations of China and its Xi. Now we hear that China has been ‘secretly’ building a third aircraft carrier. Whoa – head for the bomb shelters. How one hides the enormity of a carrier construction is a puzzlement. And here’s some fleeting math: the U.S. has 12 carriers (‘publicly’) so China needs to come up with 9 more just to catch up, assuming, that is, that the U.S. Navy doesn’t lust up more (what navy in history has been lust-less?). Or, imagine, in a sea shootout, all three Chinese carriers are sunk but somehow manage to take down twice as many U.S. carriers. The result: U.S. still has six.
Direct war with the U.S. is not destined to happen, the notion is an absurdity. The Chinese naval buildup is about regional regality; what Xi desires is not crass sovereignty but regional suzerainty. One might term it ‘one Chinese region, many national systems’. Simplifying China will in no way prove helpful, and de-humanizing its leader could prove no laughing matter. With respect to mentor Lee Kuan Yew, it’s not a matter of black and white: Colorations count for a lot.
Columnist Tom Plate is editor-in-chief of Asia Media International (asiamedia.lmu.edu), the online publication of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Translations by Asia Media staffer Yi Ning Wong. An earlier, slightly shorter version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post, where Professor Plate is a columnist on the Insight page.