Statesman, strongman, thinker and autocrat rolled into one

Some see Xi as the first leader of a new era of strongman rule, in which there are few constraints on the top leader.

International News : What kind of leader is Xi Jinping, who became general secretary of China’s Communist Party in November 2012 and China’s president in March 2013?

Specialists are giving very different answers to this question now than they did five years ago.

One reason is that rules were in place then to make Xi step down from the presidency after serving two five-year terms. Now, the rules have been changed. He can rule as long as he likes.

In addition, there are now centers on Chinese campuses devoted to the study of “Xi Jinping Thought.” His name has been added to China’s Constitution. No living figure has gotten this treatment since the most famous Chinese Communist Party leader of all: Mao Zedong.

I am keenly aware of how dramatically Xi’s stature and the thinking about him have shifted due to my experiences working on two editions of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” the most recent of which was just published.

My co-author Maura Elizabeth Cunningham and I finished writing the second edition just as Xi Jinping rose to power. We completed work on the third edition late last year, when term limits were still in place. Even then, it was already clear that Xi was a charismatic leader of a kind not seen in China for decades.

Emperor or thug?

Is Xi a bold thinker, a tireless anti-corruption crusader, a man who cares not about personal power but only about helping his country regain the position of greatness it once had?

Yes, say the official Beijing media. No, say many articles in the international press — think of him instead as a 21st century emperor, or a thuggish Chinese counterpart to Putin.

To understand Xi, the Beijing official media suggest, read his “The Governance of China,” a two-volume collection of his speeches that detail his devotion to China’s people and traditional Confucian morals.

Critics call him, instead, a Big Brother figure. Read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which describes a surveillance state whose leader demands complete obedience.

My own sense, based on following closely Xi’s moves to maximize his power and crush civil society, is that the official Beijing media’s celebration of him distorts reality.

I also feel, though, that it is not completely fitting to instead compare him to Putin, Mao, an emperor or Big Brother.

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