Kerry Brown has been covering China as an academic, a diplomat, and a journalist for decades, including many years living in China. His optimism about the future of China is hard to miss in CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping. Ostensibly a biography of Xi, the current president of the People's Republic of China, Brown's treatment wanders far and wide across the political, cultural, and economic landscape of modern China.
Brown's comprehensive narrative lost my interest from time to time. I came away with some broad impressions about Xi and about China, but felt like I had just dipped my toe into the subjects. First impression: China's government operates like a large, nepotistic corporation. (No big surprise, given the title.) How do you rise to the top in China, specifically in the Chinese Communist Party? Have the right family ties, know the right people, do what you're told, and go to work in places where you may not want to go. The most telling part of this formula is the practice of sending regional governors to serve in areas where they have no connection. Like at my company, when a new director comes in having had no experience at our site, Xi was sent to a region where he knew no one and had no natural ties. It's another step up the ladder, but in a democratic or republican system would make no sense.
Another impression is that unlike other Communist countries, China leans more toward oligarchy than toward dictatorship. Xi is the leader, but he leads at the mercy of a central committee, not on his own like Castro or Stalin. Yes, he's the man in charge, but he's not the end-all of the state. He's the guy for now, but when his time comes, a suitable replacement will be appointed. It's that central committee that pulls the strings. Brown doesn't have much to say about suppression of dissidents, persecution of Christians, or the persistence of one-party rule. Given that the Communist leaders have overseen great economic growth over the last couple of decades, they have managed to fend off criticism, even from many Westerners.
Brown may be right, that China is poised to take huge steps forward in building the middle class and expanding their economic footprint around the world. Xi could very well be leading China in that direction. Brown's book will be of interest to Sinophiles and those who want a decent, balanced perspective on modern China. The insights on Xi himself are limited and distant. I assume that, for obvious reasons, Brown had no access to Xi, his family, or other intimates.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!
2016 Reading Challenge: A biography of a world leader