Sep 26·edited Sep 26Liked by Noah Smith

I would retitle your essay:

XI Makes Sense to XI

One important thing I think you left out of your analysis of XI is his obsession over why and how the Soviet Union fell. He believes that they lost their ideological commitment—but it was their nationalist ideology rather than their communist ideology. He sees the focus of the individual Chinese on their own economic welfare as so much attention subtracted from the nation's collective welfare--on Great China.

One reason why he feels affinity with Putin is that Putin has restored the primacy of Great Russia in the Russian mind, thereby reversing in a large degree the fall of the Soviet Union.

XI believes that the people of China have as much welfare as they need— in fact the populace should head toward belt tightening rather than the pursuit of a higher standard of living. At the same time, they should remember the truly poor among them and be glad to watch while the poor catch up with the median Chinese in a move XI calls "common prosperity."

XI is clearly determined to swim against market forces.

That is why XI shows no interest in bailing out the average Chinese or losses in the real estate market or in economic stimulus. Xi thinks the average Chinese has more than enough of this world's goods already.

This is a major reason why I think XI will never invade Taiwan. He doesn't respect or trust the Chinese people to have the intestinal fortitude to get the job done. In XI's mind, two decades of excess prosperity have made them — gasp! — decadent.

Finally, in adopting a posture of swaggering strength on the world stage —suppressing Hong Kong, wolf diplomacy — he wanted to show that China was finally post-colonial and could walk with its head as high as the US or Britain ever did. in fact, XI's invasion of Hong Kong was the final act in the reconquest of that bit of Chinese territory from British colonialism. He may have thought that China's swaggering attitude might actually be attractive to other post-colonial nations. It worked for Donald Trump. In fact, China’s swagger would have attracted other nations as cowed suppliants if there had not been another 800 pound gorilla in the world in whose shadow they could take refuge—the United States.

Note to readers: if you like if you're interested in my take on China, please subscribe to my substack because there will be more posts on China forthcoming.


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Surprised by comments here defending Chinese growth. Covered well in the post, and demographic outlook alone is enough to continue dropping the growth rate. As others have said, like Putin, Xi has a ‘historic’ vision of China and its ideology and would rather stick to that and sacrifice growth. Both men are old and leading decaying empires, one at the end of decay and the other at the beginning. In their old eyes, who cares about growth? It’s about preserving some historical vision of the country in amber. Ironically it’s the strong armed attempt to do so that will make sure it doesn’t happen.

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Sep 26Liked by Noah Smith

Brilliant efitorial and good for you, for going where few would go.

Luck favours the Brave

My piece on the current India/Canada crisis and its links to Chinese foreign interferance which is the worst of any democracy today.


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Sep 26·edited Sep 26Liked by Noah Smith

I justed to say that I think this article (I believe Noah retweeted) on Wang Huning is a really great resource for understanding Xi:


Adding my own commentary now:

I think its exactly right to say it is an extreme type of cultural conservativism, authoritarianism, and paranoia not unlike an ideology from US right-wing cold-war politics. Xi believe his society is hopelessly contaminated by the liberalism of the West, and therefore that China must be isolated and micromanaged at all costs. That includes undoing most of the economic growth since the Deng era (making him a kind of reactionary degrowther). Furthermore, the very thawing of relations and development of human rights the West has been waiting for in China is the very thing that Xi seeks to avoid - for his project to succeed, ours must fail. When it's zero-sum and no mutual trust, I fear we are heading for a dark place.

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What's with the dig on boomers? Blaming Xi's competence with being a boomer makes no sense given that there was no comparable baby boom in China to the one in the U.S. For that matter, I'm not even sure that boomers in the U.S. exhibit the characteristics ascribed any more than subsequent generations, but what do I know since I'm a boomer.

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I'm no fan of Xi or the CCP but these points all seem unfairly harsh on him in ways that could easily be rephrased as neutrals or positives if they were about western leaders (depending on your personal politics).

> The top leader’s apparent reluctance to embrace such moves, which people familiar with the matter say is partly rooted in his ideological preference for austerity

I mean fuck me sideways, do we really have here western "capitalists" telling a communist he needs to increase government spending? And the communist saying no because it will create welfarism?

Given that the Chinese economy is apparently now tanking due to way too much government spending on propping up economic zombies, an ideological preference for austerity might seem pretty sensible! The west is heading towards bankrupt social security systems at full speed, so telling Xi he should be reinflating the real estate bubble (or any bubble) and then blaming his reluctance to do so on "ideology" just seems completely upside down. It's endless stimulus that's the ideology!

> there’s another set of stories about how Xi is growing increasingly paranoid, and causing turmoil in China’s leadership with a series of purges of his own hand-picked officials

Western leaders replace subordinates all the time, it passes largely without comment. Trump did a whole lot of this but it wasn't described as "purges", was it?

> The Chinese leader also overhauled the generals overseeing China’s Rocket Force, which manages the nation’s nuclear arsenal, without giving an explanation

Why should he give an explanation? He's a dictator! This is being presented as evidence of instability or incompetence, despite the fact that the CCP has never been a paragon of openness including in its supposedly competent earlier eras.

> There’s also a fun anecdote about Xi replacing every single object in his hotel room in Sudan with replacements flown in from China. It’s not clear whether this represents the beginning of a spiral into Stalin-like paranoia, but the signs certainly do not seem auspicious.

He's almost certainly the most spied on man in the world, why would he *not* be paranoid when staying in foreign and almost certainly bugged hotel rooms?

> policy mistakes like fiscal austerity in the middle of a financial crisis are only to be expected

A financial crisis caused by the lack of fiscal austerity (continence). This is only a policy mistake to western central bankers steeped in fake pseudo-Keynesianism, of the sort whose own competence is very much in question.

I'm sure there are tons of reasons to dunk on Xi. I just don't think legacy media is going to do a good job of communicating them.

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An interesting take on China, but it begs the question: "As compared to what?"

The whole world is going through spasms of abrupt change which is accelerating exponentially. Modern China is a relatively new country emerging out of Stalinist communism and transforming itself to being a leader in the transformation of the world into a technological economy in the 21st century. All of us have never been here before and none of us are going to get everything right every time.

Yes, China is organized as an hierarchic merit-based system just like most modern corporations and first responder organizations. Most of the Western World operated under monarchy up until the end of WWII and the rise of the far right politicians shows that many still long for the simplicity of autocracy. We just conveniently forget that King Arthur of Camelot was an autocrat and his Round Table resembles the current Chinese Politburo.

We disparage 'Wolf Warrior' diplomacy while convincingly forgetting Neocon invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. is still reeling from the toxic effects of "tariff-man"Trump's four years of economic and diplomatic world terrorism. I am a true "boomer" and in my 76 years I have seen the world's opinion of the U.S. wane considerably from post WWII days of respect and glory. If Xi is screwing up, he is at least keeping it largely private within Chinese borders.

Is China lacking grace and clumsy? Yes, but remember it is emerging from more than a century of humiliation under the brunt of Western imperialism. Modern China and most of Asia are finding their place in a world racked with growth pains. The regional disputes you mention are largely the result of centuries of imperialist subjugation of the region and remarkably Asia is finding their footing again and struggling to reinvent themselves and their national borders. Any meddling from former imperialists will naturally be resented. There is lots of ancient history to sort through and Asians must do this for themselves and to determine their own future. Our intrusive paternalism is insulting.

Asia comprises more the 60% of the world's population and has historically been the epicenter of knowledge and culture. The Industrial Age upset this president, but Asia is pulling ahead in the Electronic Age leading on most all indices. China has short-term problems, but compared to others they are manageable. Meanwhile the U.S. labor force is on strike and the government is threatening to shut itself down. Xi may not be Deng, but he certainly is not Trump.

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Noah - appreciated your original, and the update.

Certainly seems Xi's plans are hard to fathom, especially from a western perspective, but I'm reminded of some study I read somewhere that the world you think is "right" is the world as you came of age, when you were old enough to understand something about the world, but didn't actually have any responsibilities yet.

The article I remember was in the Atlantic about Trump's (white) voters wanting to recreate the world of their youth (the optimism of the white suburban 50's, with "no" racial problems and world dominance), but it seems to be common - people want to recreate the world as they thought it was at that time of their life, as it feels "right".

So if you have the power to do it - perhaps a factor in Putin's irrational insistence that Ukraine isn't a county, because is wasn't when he was growing up. Recreating the Soviet Union of his youth is an arc towards what's "right."

And Brexit pining for the Empire of days gone by - when Britain was "great." Not possible for them in the 21st century world, but having an emotional resonance beyond the rational.

And so Xi - what was China like in his coming of age years? Cultural Revolution time - and even if he isn't so stupid to launch an army of Little Red Guards to smash "4 olds," the emotional resonance of the collective and forging steel to be strong and the posters extolling a strong, single leader against the evil imperialists may be coming "home" for him, what feels "right." He had to eat bitterness, so kids coddled on video games should have to as well. Builds character or some such stuff. It may be more of a factor than a lot of rational economic arguments.

Just a thought...

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Yes, and China's auto exports surpassed Japan's this year to become the world's largest, and the IMF forecast that China's GDP per capita will reach $20,000 in 2030. You know nothing about the pragmatism in the Chinese system. Keep underestimating China until you can't justify it

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What if Xi isn't that competent [at running a country]?

I have a couple of thoughts on that:

1. Of course he isn't that competent at running a country. The system that chose him doesn't select for competence at running the country, and is only interested in running the country effectively to the extent that it helps keep the Chinese Communist Party in control. As you say, his main competence is taking control of a large organization by putting his loyalists in all the key positions.

2. No one is competent at running a country - that isn't a skill set that exists. Some people are more inclined to interfere destructively, and some have fewer constraints on interfering than others. Xi seems to be inclined to take action, I suppose as a way to claim legitimacy. I'm not sure he needs this type of legitimacy - he might do just as well by counting only on terror. He has few constraints on his scope to cause problems, aside from inability to personally monitor everything.

3. No other country really selects for competence at running the country, either. Democratic systems at least tend to limit the harm that leaders can cause. And they have the potential to replace leaders who are too conspicuously incompetent, corrupt, or misguided.

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Xi was never received formal education thanks to cultural revolution, he ‘brought’ a PHD in law to decorate his CV as most of privileged CCP high officials did during 2000s. I remember his academic credentials were joked and questioned on internet after he was selected as heir of Hu. There was a good time in China during 2005-2012 as the CCP simply has no mean to control social media. Xi likes history but never had any training in academic so he turned to historical fiction like Yongzheng Emperor(雍正王朝) by Eryue He (二月河). Eryue He was popular during late 90s and early 2000s, as he depicts Qin Emperor as assertive, benevolence , dedicated and brought glory to his nation. I watched two of his Qin emperor trilogy at the time and I am convinced today that Xi is influenced by the world view of Eryue He. Xi’s polices are so obsessed with the appearance of assertiveness both domestically and internationally even though they are at the expense of weakening the very foundation of the country’s power. Note that Eryue He is no historian and his accounts for Qin ‘s emperors are almost certainly false. He has little knowledge about Qin’s domestic and foreign policies. Such shortcomings are reflected on Xi. It is unfair to say Xi doesn’t care about economy or foreign relation, it just his vision of it are according to transitional Chinese Machiavellianism (帝王術) which is the main theme of Eryue He’s novel. Certainly these visions are incompatible with today’s economy and international relations. Poor Xi is product of cultural revolution. He is a one of many typical 50s born Chinese males - lacked education but seized opportunities in 2000s which ascended them economically or politically. They know education is their weak spot so they turned to alternative source to find knowledge (such as Eryue He who is popular mostly among 50s Chinese male) .I personally met many of this kinds. So what can you expect from Xi? To manage such a huge and complex nation, Xi is almost certainly going to Fxxk it up. We don’t see this coming in his early years simply because he hasn’t consolidated his power then so these issues we see today were left alone. We will see more and more Xi’s policy missteps in future and i am 100% confident on this prediction.

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Just want to say I greatly appreciate when you hold yourself accountable by looking back at claims and predictions you made and evaluating whether you got them right or wrong. Understandably you've focused on the former but you've also called out the latter. It's a refreshing change from writers who just endlessly spew stuff without any further reflection, no matter how inaccurate.

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Augusto Pinochet would like to be remembered in the list of competent autocrats

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I sort of wonder how much of this is that we can't speak Russian or Chinese so their leaders seem tough and stoic. The French leader often is translated much more often so more of a person. The UK and US leaders are so familiar as to be a bit repulsive.

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Good luck to your rabbit. Mine was stolen by an hawk many years ago. Just turned my head towards my coffee cup and he was gone. As to Xi, I've had some doubts since he became the absolute monarch. China was not a democracy before we it looks to me that it was ran collegially in the upper circle with a primus inter pares. And it was working well for them. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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Venezuela's Maduro just returned from going hat-in-hand to China in an attempt to beg for more money ahead of the 2024 venezuelan presidential elections. Little has been said about the outcome, which reinforces the possibility that two things happened:

-Xi said no new money will be lent to Maduro and the $10 Billion now due MUST be paid. It becomes a matter of respect towards China, and if any leniency is shown it will make it more difficult for China to collect on the loans it has issued worldwide.

-Xi communicated displeasure with the appearance that the American company Chevron has been treated better than China by Maduro.

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