A Byronic Hero for China’s Supremo

A 14th Century Classic Could Clarify Xi Jinping’s Leadership Style

A little known vignette about Xi Jinping’s fondness for Song Jiang, a fictional hero in the 14th century classic novel The Water Margin, gives a peek into the private thoughts of China’s most powerful man. For someone born with a red spoon in his mouth, his identification with a rebel leader is not out of character, but Song’s flawed personality and self-destructive behavior raise questions about where China is going under Xi’s leadership.

Short in stature with a dark complexion, Song is a clerk in a local magistrate’s office but he has an unusual ability to inspire loyalty in people on the fringe of society. After killing his teenage mistress, he becomes an outlaw and subsequently a rebel leader. Mao Zedong once praised Song for his tactical patience in raiding a fortified village; but later in life, he condemned Song’s “defeatism” because Song’s aspiration was not toppling the dynasty but begging the emperor for amnesty, which sealed his fate and doomed his followers. “The value of The Water Margin is a lesson by negative example,” intoned Mao.

A vivid profile of Xi Jinping by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker magazine describes Xi as an admirer of Song Jiang for his ability to “unite capable people” and his manliness as evidenced by a bloodthirsty line in the tales. If so, Xi comes across as a deeply insecure person anxiously yearning for a few loyal followers who are ready to die for him.

Xi is lonely at the top. His closest ally, the tiger-hunter Wang Qishan, is due to retire in two years. Xi’s career in the provinces did little to foster a tightly knit personal network. After taking the helm, he has cast about for trustworthy candidates to fill numerous posts vacated by officials disgraced in the anti-corruption crackdown. The pickings are slim from the roster of “Fujian old boys” and the “Zhejiang troop,” referring to his former staff in these two provinces. Lately the “New Tsinghua men,” centering around Hu Heping, his buddy from the days they studied in university as worker-peasant-soldier students, appear to be his flavor of the day.

Unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, who does not care if he is liked, Xi wants to be adored. His publicity image-maker crafts a branding of Xi Dadaism: he was seen on TV eating steamed buns in a fast food restaurant; he was sighted taking a taxi one evening in Beijing; he travels abroad accompanied by his diva wife; he assures his French hosts that China is a peaceful and friendly lion.

But having witnessed the bloody purges in the Communist Party, Xi is aware of the peril of the personality cult. If he had not been the chosen one, someone else would have been. His closest followers can turn against him in an instant. The Wang Lijun affair must be particularly haunting. The confidant of the ambitious Bo Xilai, Party Secretary of Chongqing, made the dash to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and spilled the beans on the covered-up murder of a British businessman that unraveled his boss’ career.

Criticizing Song Jiang was a year-long political campaign starting in August 1975. His sin was bowing to the reactionary feudal order, and the contemporary analogy was capitulation to bourgeois capitalism and foreign imperialism. The real target was Premier Zhou Enlai, who, like renegade Song Jiang, was said to be scheming to seize leadership from Mao and undo the Cultural Revolution.

The born-red Xi is still an enigma. He is given the mandate to preserve the regime. His admiration for Song Jiang has never been mentioned inside China or in the gossipy overseas networks. It is intriguing that this predilection for a Byronic hero, if true, was revealed to a foreign journalist. The culturally coded language conveys that Xi is no Maoist. That a man sitting in his chair is a secret admirer of Song Jiang is enough to make Mao turn over in his glass coffin.