Intelligent design: Reading the reading list of Xi Jinping to figure out his goals and conceits
For some years now, learning what Chinese President Xi Jinping is reading has become a sort of a game in China. Netizens pore over photographs of book shelves that form the backdrop when Xi delivers his New Year speech from office.
All this pre-supposes that Xi actually has read all these books, or intends to read them. It is well known that Xi is an avid reader because his speeches have often used quotes from Dickens, Victor Hugo and Paul Coelho. But even if Xi’s office has been dressed up for the occasion, the very choice of the books has a meaning.
None of us read all the books in our libraries, even so the choice of the books is a pointer to our intellectual pursuits and, possibly, conceits. In Xi’s case, to go by what the netizens discovered, the choices are eclectic and somewhat overwhelming. There are, of course, the usual texts on Marxism-Leninism, Mao and Deng. But this year sharp-eyed analysts noted that the classics – Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto – have been brought to easier reach near him.
Does this reflect Xi’s policy directions outlined to the 19th Party Congress in October? Xi announced that a “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics” was unfolding, rooted strongly on China’s Marxist, Leninist and Maoist heritage. Indeed, he signalled that China was moving away from the path of liberalisation back to the monolithic and authoritarian state.
His collection of western literature which has included the works of Diderot, Rousseau, Dumas, Gogol, Turgenev, Pushkin and other classical greats, grew larger this year. It now includes Homer’s The Odyssey and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. A pop psychologist could well say that despite the seeming consolidation of his authority, it is actually taking a great deal out of him in terms of effort.
There are also some new texts on the military in his book cases, on the history of PLA, ancient Chinese texts on strategy, and a Chinese military encyclopaedia. Once again, this seems to reflect the reality of Xi’s intense effort to reform PLA and keep it close to himself. Far reaching changes in 2016 have made him directly responsible for PLA. He often dons military fatigues, most recently on Wednesday, when he attended the first of its kind “mobilisation meeting” to speak directly to a crack PLA division, with the speech being relayed to formations at 4,000 other locations.
The economics texts in his library also speak for themselves. Among those visible are WW Rostow’s classic on the stages of economic growth, William N Goetzmann’s Money Changes Everything and Michele Wucker’s The Grey Rhino, and various books on ecological economics. Goetzmann’s historical survey argues that finance is really the key to economic transformation. A far cry from Lenin’s critique of finance capital, but summing up the contradictions of China of today and the role its finance is playing around the world. Wucker’s book is about the black swans we know about, and yet fall prey to. Xi is aware that if there is one thing that can bring his brittle system crashing down it is a major crisis of any kind – weather related, military or financial. And it is significant that he is seeking to understand the nature of the beast.
Equally striking are two other books on understanding artificial intelligence – Pedro Domingo’s The Master Algorithm and Brett King’s Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane. Xi and the Communist Party of China are betting big on AI, both as a means of social control of the vast Chinese system, as well as a driver to the kind of innovation economy that they want to create. The Chinese government is investing $100 billion in the next five years to develop AI technology hoping to have its giants like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba in the global driver’s seat in the area of self-driving vehicles, smart cities and health technology.