Xi Jinping - Person of the Year 2013
By David Gosset
In the fall, the shutdown of the U.S. federal government forced the 44th American President to cancel a series of trips abroad, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bali, in the absence of Barack Obama, China's President Xi Jinping was de facto the most powerful man in the room, the American pivot to Asia ironically reduced to a mere rhetorical posture.
It is indeed Xi Jinping who most influenced the year 2013. The constant movement in China contrasted with the lack of leadership in the European Union and the American political paralysis, on the global chessboard, the West lost the advantage of the initiative, it simply reacted to China's new moves and rapid actions.
Within 12 months, China's top leader introduced a powerful narrative apt to express the Chinese zeitgeist, the "China Dream," he managed to reconnect with Deng Xiaoping's spirit of reform, and, from Sunnylands to Bali, he occupied without departing from his natural modesty the center of the world's political stage.
At the age of 40 when Xi became the secretary of the Fuzhou Party Committee in the province of Fujian -- one of the 16 leadership positions he held before becoming China's President -- he requested his aides to hang on the walls of the office four Chinese characters "Ma Shang Jiu Ban" -- "Take immediate action"; twenty years later, he has taken to Zhongnanhai a management style characterized by swiftness and effectiveness.
Xi's China Dream is a dynamic synthesis which can be presented as a triptych, the interrelated visions of "Modern China", "Global China" and "Civilizational China."
"Modern China" summarizes the achievements which have been accomplished since the Republic of Sun Yatsen but it is also the quest for even greater socio-economic advancement. The People's Republic took hundreds of millions out of poverty, liberated the Chinese women -- "Women hold up half the sky," proclaimed Mao Zedong -- and extended for all the life expectancy -- 41 years in 1950, 76 now -- but Deng Xiaoping's "Reform and Opening up" remains a catalyst for improvement across the Chinese society.
As the core of the PRC's fifth generation of leaders Xi Jinping has a double task, he needs to maintain a certain level of continuity with the work of his predecessors -- Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao -- but he has also to introduce a new momentum in rapidly evolving internal and external contexts.
On the occasion of the third plenum of the 18th Congress of the Party, in a direct reference to the historical 1978 third plenary session of the 11th CPC Central Committee, eight months only after he became the PRC's President, Xi Jinping reaffirmed Deng Xiaoping's spirit of reformism with the notion of "comprehensive deepening of reforms" - quanmian shenhua gaige.
It is Xi's father Xi Zhongxun (1913-2002) who worked for almost three years in the Guangdong province from 1978 who pushed for Deng's idea of Special Economic Zones, moreover, Xi Jinping's tenure in Xiamen, one of the Special Economic Zones, from 1985 to 1988, put him in a situation to especially appreciate Deng's visionary strategy.
As stated in the plenum's communiqué Xi is taking China on a new course: "In the face of new circumstances and new tasks (...) reform must be comprehensively deepened from a new historical starting point." The choice to clearly allow market forces to play a decisive role in resource allocation immediately won the support of enlightened reformists like Wu Jinglian.
The abolition of the laojiao or the "Re-education through labor" system, the adjustment in the one-child policy, the constitution of a leading group to conduct a wide range of economic and financial reforms and the establishment of a National Security Committee form a series of well calculated decisions which perfect the way China is governed.
"Modern China" is interconnected with "Global China," the world's most significant factor of change. Chinese goods, technology, people -- diaspora, business men and women, students, tourists -- capital and culture are reaching every corner of the globe through an almost infinite number of 21st century's Silk Roads.
In an upgraded version of the Tang dynasty (618-907), the Middle Country is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan but it also projects itself globally with the awareness that interdependence and cooperation characterize the 21st century. In the China Dream, peace is to "Global China" what progress is to "Modern China", a conceptual reference and a project.
The widening of "Global China" is not accompanied by any missionary spirit, its horizon is not hegemony or even global leadership but the return to the Middle Country's ethos of centrality.
The announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) which envelops the Diaoyu Islands should be interpreted for what it is, a defensive mechanism already used by the U.S. or Japan and certainly not an offensive operation. It is obviously a masterstroke altering Asian geopolitical status quo since it invites the world to gradually recognize China's mapping of the East China Sea, and, despite the use of a spectacular rhetoric, the American administration has already asked the U.S. commercial airlines to abide by Beijing's new policy.
"Global China" is not only the increasing Chinese presence abroad from stations in Antarctica to the Northern Sea Route of the Arctic but it is also an age of space travels and discoveries. The Xi Jinping decade started with the launch of the Chang'e-3 and its moon rover, another significant step into the Chinese exploration of deep space.
The contrast is striking between the West's attempts to preserve the status quo and China's making of a new world, the former believes that the post 2008 crisis period can be a copy of the pre-crisis situation, the latter anticipates a future which will be increasingly conform with its interests and intentions. As never before, globalization rimes with Sinicization.
Distinct from the American Dream, the China Dream can not be a narrative of pure newness, it is the imagination of a better future with the memory of 4000 years of history, a movement of renaissance -- a concept often used by Xi -- expressed in the vision of "Civilizational China."
In architecture, design, fashion and in the arts, a renewed Chinese aesthetics is gradually imposing itself, from tea to calligraphy, the Chinese savors and forms are been revitalized. The opening up of the Middle Country is not the dilution of China into a Western centered order but it is the reaffirmation of the Chineseness and, therefore, the entry into a multipolar world.
"Civilizational China" aims to reinvent the Chinese classical culture but it is also the reinterpretation of traditional notions. While quantitative growth is transforming the life of the Chinese people, harmony has become the imperative to take into account the environmental factor, the call to maintain the equilibrium between material development and sustainability.
Progress, peace and harmony are the principles which substantiate "Modern China", "Global China" and "Civilizational China."
In what can be interpreted as a coincidence but also as a revealing synchronicity, China's First Lady, Peng liyuan, has become a symbol of China's confidence. Correspondence between the message, the China Dream, and the medium, China's First Couple, the Xi Jinping decade has also started from Moscow to Bali through Sunnylands with a master class in global communication.
But it is in reference to Taiwan that the year 2013 might have been highly significant. While Xi met a senior Taiwanese envoy, Vincent Siew, at the APEC Summit he explicitly signaled to the island and to the world that his decade might also mark the end of the Chinese political divide.
If Deng Xiaoping's political genius was at the source of Hong Kong's "One Country, Two Systems," Xi Jinping is ideally positioned to design a framework which would take into account the specificities of the Taiwan issue. After 17 years spent in Fujian, culturally a mirror of Taiwan, of which three years in Xiamen where he neighbored with the Jinmen archipelago administered by the Republic of China, Xi has gained truly unique insights on the Taiwanese economic and political dynamics.
He certainly had many occasions to reflect about the historical China Dream of unity and to meditate on the opening of Luo Guanzhong's immortal novel The Three Kingdoms : "The world under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide."
David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.