Xi Jinping and his girlfriends

I hummed and hahhed about writing this post. Everyone loves a gobfull of gossip but it is hardly the stuff of a serious intellectual blog. Which this is. (Really!) But when I think of some of my favorite films - Zero Dark Thirty, Dunkirk, Mary Poppins - they are great despite often not hewing close to the historical record. The point is - they get the mood right. And mood is very important. When all the dates and the names of places have evaporated like strings off a black hole’s horizon, mood resides.

Besides, there’s definitely a public-interest motive for this post. People should know what’s going on in (offshore) Chinese political fiction - and thus (I guess) how many Chinese people learn about Chinese politics (it seems many of my Chinese friends have read it already). So, here’s my review of Xi Jinping And His Lovers (习近平与他的情人们), a book apparently by Chang Boyang(常博洋), which I downloaded recently. The title bears an uncanny resemblance to the unpublished work that supposedly got the Causeway Bay bookshop guys renditioned. I have no idea if it is the same text, or one which was written with the same alluring title. If it is, then one has to wonder why they bothered with the renditioning; these stories are all over the Chinese internet, and are told over dinners among friends.

In recent western political fiction, Michael Wolf’s Fire and Fury was widely derided as innuendo-on-ice, but was doubly enjoyable for it. This work is of a similar oeuvre. But Wolf’s book stands erect like a stone tablet handed down from the desk of Robert Caro compared to this tale.

Mr. Chang’s book is a jumble of racy stories too perfect to be true, and certainly too good for any outsider to report as fact with any certainty. Private conversations are re-imagined from decades ago. There are movie stars, a female CIA agent, a long-running friendship between our hero and Bo Xilai, money and plenty of (thankfully off-stage) sex. Such is the lack of verifiable information, inevitably imaginations can run away with themselves. There’s likely some truth in it - somewhere.

But it is the mood which counts. And this is the mood: China is run by a few families, from generation to generation. Conspiracies abound. TV stars move seamlessly through the political world. Policy is not at all important. The Party is in business with the mafia. A few words from the key guy guarantees your future. Favors matter. And a good-hearted man can get ahead. Eh? Yeah, right.

Anyhow, the first thing you need to know about Xi Jinping is that he’s a kind, well-intentioned chap, always ready to lend a friend a hand. And he’s at sea in the world of power (unlike his childhood friend Bo Xilai, who also knows a thing or two about girls). And Xi Jnr. does not even grow in guile over the course of his career. His lady friends, young and old, are always ready to help out because he’s such a nice fellow.

The next thing you need to know is that Xi is where he is today because of Jiang Zemin and his mate Zeng Qinghong. This is, of course, received wisdom in China-watching circles - Xi was the pawn used to prevent Li Keqiang’s ascension to the top job. But Mr. Chang, or whoever wrote this thing, attempts to paint out the canvas.

Xi was not just a random pick. Young Jinping first meets Minister of Electronics Jiang at Deng Xiaoping’s place on Anmennei Street in 1982. Then (and this is the kicker), in 1986 Jinping gets called for a favor. Jiang has been lechering a little too vulgarly over actress Liu Xiaoqing, a favorite friend of Deng. Deng hears about it and refuses to see Jiang anymore. A panicked Jiang tells Zeng who calls in Xi, who at this point is owed a favor by famous singer Li Guyi, who knows Liu - and before you know it, with some funds courtesy of Lai Changxing (on which more below), Jiang is back in at Deng HQ. Six months later, Jiang is Shanghai Party Secretary. It’s such a neat tale you could tie a ribbon on it.

Jiang does not forget his friends though. He recommends Xi to Deng, who is more than happy to pass on the revolution to the next generation of Red families. This accelerates Xi’s rise through the provincial bureaucracy. In late 1987 he becomes deputy party secretary in Ningde, a poor town a few miles away from Xiamen where he’s been deputy mayor in charge of culture. Jia Qinglin, Fujian Party Secretary, tells him not to worry about leaving his old friend Lai Changxing (Fujian’s famous peasant-turned-smuggler-turned-mafioso) behind - they’re already well-acquainted. Lai had helped fund Li Guyi’s singing shows in Xiamen, which made Li very fond of Xi. (Lai is now, apparently, still alive in a Chinese jail cell somewhere.)

Two years later, in 1990, Xi arrives in Fuzhou with a mandate for economic growth. He calls Bo Xilai for advice. Xi travels to Dalian to learn how Bo has generated growth. “It’s all about land appreciation, Jinping! Build infrastructure, attract industry, get a real estate boom”. “You’re a genius Xilai”, an impressed Jinping replies, “though what about the poor rural people?”. Cue a lesson from Bo on the need for the rich to get even richer first.

Not only is Bo an expert in Marxist thinking, he’s also thinking politics, several steps ahead. “We’ll end up as enemies” he tells a startled Jinping; “We’re both Fifth generation leaders, and we’ll fight unless you don’t compete with me for the top job.”

Xi: “Big Brother, I’m not successor material, I’m not up to competing with you, you’re great at theory, and you’ve done amazing things in practice too. The old Chairman said of Liu Shaoqi, ‘You can’t beat Liu Shaoqi even if you study for three days’. It’s the same with you.” Superficially reassured, Bo helps Xi develop his town. (More on Bo later!)

The tale shifts here and there. Xi aces his viva at Qinghua (“My ruling concept is one thing: Limited government”), helps some June 4 students escape (as you do), and gets some good intel on a visit to Taiwan and is thus instrumental in improving CCP-KMT relations (“The DPP are the real enemy now!”).

In fact, it just hit me - he’s Forrest Gump - he’s always there at the right time, a bit naive but with the right connect. And everything turns out splendidly for him. And like Mr. Gump and his Apple shares, Xi is really just not interested in money.

But he moves in a world of glamour and conspiracy. In the US, Hollywood and Washington exist in two universes; in Beijing, the two are the same small ballpark. It is not just the physical proximity. China’s entertainment industry (back in the day, mostly awful singing; nowadays, mostly awful movies) runs on the same logic as the political world - friends, money and sex can get you a long way, talent not so much. Zhang Yimou and Zhang Ziyi have cameo appearances (of course).

The CIA figure too (of course). They try to recruit Jinping on his visit to the US in 1985. Years later, it is the same agent (they’re so sneaky those Americans!) who hands Jinping a CIA file showing that Bo Xilai has been tapping the phones of senior leaders. Xi is taken aback. This file ends up triggering Bo’s fall. The Neil Heywood murder was arranged for Bo and his wife Gu Kailai to take the fall on (which is definitely not the official history). It’s all pretty mucked up.

And then we have the famous ‘democratic vote’, organized by Zeng Qinghong, to decide who should be on the next Politburo. This was reported on, but I don’t recall seeing any details. So, according to Mr. Chang, the pivotal day was June 23 2007, in the good old Jingxi Hotel. 400 (or is it 420?) people vote to choose the next Politburo from a list of 200 under 63-year olds with minister-level rank. Hu Jintao thinks he’s got a lock on 270 votes for his man, Li Keqiang. But Jiang, Zeng and Xi have surreptitiously won Han Zheng and Liu Yandong’s voting blocks. Xi wins the vote for Party Secretary by 222 to Li’s 209. Hu is not happy. Old Jiang is delighted.

The story more or less ends there. I guess it is wise not to venture into Xi’s tenure as Party Secretary; the Forrest Gump character would not hold. One last scene: Xi visits Bo in Qincheng prison - and tells him that while they both have known many women in their lives, Xi has never used them like Bo - his exes remain loyal friends.

And so ends this fairytale wrapped up in a gossip mag stuck inside a (possibly banned) political drama. I have no idea if any of it is true. But the mood at least feels mostly right.