Why did so many foreigners believe that Xi would be a reformer?

Jane Perlez, a former Beijing bureau chief for the New York Times and a Sinica Podcast guest, has been taking a sabbatical at Harvard, and has produced a podcast titled On the trail of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平.  

The podcast is an excellent retrospective of the years leading to Xi’s ascension, and how his personal history may be connected to the way he runs China today. It includes interviews with guests like former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who has probably spent more time with Xi than any other foreigner. Another interviewee is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who tries to explain why he got it so spectacularly wrong in a piece written in January 2013 that predicted a new age of Chinese liberalism under Xi.  

Indeed, the central questions of the podcast are:

  • Why did so many observers — including Chinese people such as a historian interviewed in the podcast — get Xi so wrong, and believe that he would be a reformer?
  • Why is Xi so authoritarian when there were, in fact, many signs of the opposite tendency?

Perlez packs an awful lot of information into a short accessible podcast, but there are a few incidents and factors that I would have wanted to add as signs of what was to come:

Xi’s February 2009 speech to members of Mexico’s Chinese community about foreign criticism of China’s impact on the world, in which he complained of “well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs.”

The pervasive sense of unease and anxiety that China’s growth was out of control in the years leading up to Xi’s rise to the top. This is perhaps best exemplified by:

A speech Xi gave in December 2012 that was leaked, in which he bemoans the fall of the Soviet Union, memorably noting, “Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”

Document No. 9, the internal Party directive circulated in 2012 and 2013 that warns of seven dangerous Western values and prohibits their teaching (see ChinaFile or Wikipedia).

But there’s only so much one can fit into a 37-minute-long podcast. Listen to the whole thing!