Transcript: On the Trail of Xi Jinping

The following is a full transcript of Jane Perlez’s Shorenstein Fellowship project podcast on Xi Jinping and U.S./China relations. Click here to listen to the podcast.

Unidentified Voice: The methods that our comrades have at hand are too primitive.

Jane Perlez: These are the words of Xi Jinping, China’s leader.

Unidentified Voice: None of these weapons is any answer for their big machete blades, ax heads and cold steel weapons.

Jane Perlez: These lines come right from China’s Communist Party documents: secret memos and speeches that were recently leaked.

Unidentified Voice: We must be as harsh as them and show absolutely no mercy.

Jane Perlez: Xi Jinping used this language to order his people to roundup an estimated million people in western China – members of the Muslim Uighur minority. He thinks they’re terrorists so he’s locking them up in secret reeducation camps. People who are detained have no contact with their families and people outside can’t reach their relatives once they’re inside these camps. It’s draconian, it’s chilling. And when these words became public in November 2019, I thought Xi Jinping is really doubling down on the Communist Party as the most ruthless tool possible.

I’m Jane Perlez.  Now, Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rule is crystal clear. Crystal clear. But that wasn’t the case at all when I started covering China for The New York Times 7 years ago. One day, Jill Abramson the executive editor called up and said, “Well, listen, why don’t you go to China? You’ve been State Department correspondent, you’ve been in Southeast Asia. You know how foreign policy works. Go and cover their foreign policy.”

I said, “Great. Okay, you’re on.”

So I went to Washington to prepare for my assignment in China. This was the end of 2011, beginning of 2012, and it coincided with the coming to power of Xi, the current leader.

I was there on February 14, Valentine’s Day, 2012, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, and she threw a big formal lunch for Xi Jinping. He was still vice president, but everybody knew he was going to be the leader.

Hillary Clinton: It’s an honor to welcome all of you to the State Department this afternoon….

Jane Perlez: So, she was on the stage, and Joe Biden was on the stage, because he was equivalent to Xi Jinping – that was the two vice presidents, and Xi Jinping was standing there. Henry Kissinger was in the front, and Yang Jiechi, former Chinese foreign minister, and the State Department had been very kind and given me a seat right in the front.

Xi Jinping:  speaking Mandarin

Jane Perlez: Xi Jinping, speaking through an interpreter, made a toast.

Interpreter: To the remarkable development to China US relations in the past 40 years and to an even better tomorrow of China-US relations. Cheers. (glasses clinking) (applause)

Jane Perlez: I’ll always remember the reception before the lunch. You know you stand around and talk to each other before you go to your tables, and everybody was so upbeat. And I don’t think it was just Valentine’s Day; I think they really thought this was a leader who the United States could deal with.

After that really friendly State Department lunch, Xi Jinping flew off to Iowa where he’d spent time on an agricultural exchange as a young party official in 1985. And then he went to Los Angeles where he attended a Lakers game. It was really skillful stagecraft, designed to appeal to Americans who knew nothing about him. Everywhere he went he was seen as the smiling face of a newly confident China.

As we now know, US diplomats and experts and even intelligence officials got it wrong. They misjudged Xi Jinping. They thought he would be a reformer. Instead he turned out to be the most authoritarian Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. This is the story of Xi Jinping. And the leader he became.

ACT ONE – Xi’s Rise

Minxin Pei: Well his early life was filled with ups and downs.

Jane Perlez: This is Minxin Pei. I turned to him to find out more about Xi Jinping’s early life. Pei is a professor at Claremont McKenna College who came to the US from China in the 1980s. He told me Xi was born in 1953 and grew up in and around Zhongnanhai, the legendary compound in Beijing where China’s leaders live. It was a nice life, with chefs, bodyguards…

Minxin Pei: …chauffeur-driven cars, steady supply of nutritious food, health care and specialized schools set up just to educate the children of the Communist Party elites.

Jane Perlez: Xi Jinping’s father was a famous general and a high official under Mao, and because of that, Xi was known as one of the princelings – they were the red nobility – the sons of the original revolutionary leaders.

Minxin Pei: When he was born his father was still in power, one of the really key leaders in the Chinese government at that time. But when he was nine, ten, his father fell out of favor.

Jane Perlez: His father was suddenly demoted, purged from the Party and sent off to do manual labor in the countryside. It was quite a comedown for such a powerful man. And shocking to his young son, Xi Jinping.

Minxin Pei: He saw, firsthand, what the loss of power would mean in that system. That must have made a very deep impression on him.

Jane Perlez: Not long after his father was sent off to exile, Xi Jinping was sent to the countryside as well. The Cultural Revolution had just started. That’s when Mao Zedong launched a campaign that turned the country upside down. A decade long period of chaos.

Minxin Pei: At the political level it was a purge. Then, at the societal level, it was just a combination of madness, ideological madness, extremism, but complete insanity in the sense that common sense went out the window. Professors were not allowed to teach, colleges were shut down, law and order broke down. The country descended into absolute chaos. Different factions fought each other with weapons, military units got involved.

Jane Perlez: Millions of people died. Xi Jinping was just a teenager and he had to leave his friends in Beijing, his school was dismantled, and he had to dig fields in the barren northwest of China.

Minxin Pei: After some months, he couldn’t take it. (Laughs) He came home. He essentially ran away from the boondocks. And then he was sent back.

Jane Perlez: I was growing up in Australia when all this was happening. In fact, I first travelled to China as a university student in 1967. A very early trip for any foreigner after the Communists won power. 57 of us got on board a ship, a cargo ship. We went steerage class to Japan, spent about a week in Japan. Then we came down to Hong Kong and went into China and we found ourselves in the middle of the Cultural Revolution.

Film Audio:  Music + “Our train passed many of these tiny bands of long marchers their ages range from 12 to 30 away from hometowns marching by day staying at night in thousands of red guard hostels.”

Jane Perlez: This is footage of a film we made about our trip. It feels naive now. And it’s a bit surreal looking back at that harsh revolutionary landscape. I remember the rural poverty, the bleak cities, bicycles if you were lucky as the only form of transportation.

Film Audio: Music + “In China Mao is everywhere seemingly in every street and on every building. He seems impregnable.”

Jane Perlez: There was the intense political indoctrination, no-one could escape the hour-long study sessions on Mao Zedong, or the megaphones blaring party propaganda all the time. That visit planted the seeds of a lifelong fascination with China.  

Film Audio: Chanting, drumming, applause, music + “This was our farewell to Red China by the Customs Department Choir after it they checked our luggage.”

Jane Perlez: Everywhere we went people put on a good show for us, but I can only imagine how these years of exile affected the young Xi Jinping when he was banished from a life of privilege. Yun Sun of the Stimson Center think tank in Washington thinks it probably left an indelible mark:

Yun Sun: I think for a Chinese and I’m speaking as a Chinese, the most direct lesson is that political struggle in China is ruthless and you don’t want to lose. Because when you lose you could lose everything.

Jane Perlez: Eventually the Cultural Revolution waned and in the mid-1970s Xi Jinping returned to Beijing to study. His father was welcomed back into elite party circles and became a champion of economic reform.

Minxin Pei: His father was really a path blazing reformer.

Jane Perlez: So much so the older Xi was one of the first Chinese officials to visit the United States. He came in 1980, just one year after diplomatic relations were established between the two countries. He was hosted by the National Committee on US China relations. I wanted to know more. I went to see the group’s president Stephen Orlins at their headquarters in New York.

Jane Perlez: Hi, how are you Steve? 

Stephen Orlins: Great, great.

Jane Perlez: So this is the hallway outside your office…

Stephen Orlins: Yes.

Jane Perlez: …and prominent on the wall here…

Stephen Orlins: So, these are pictures of the history of the National Committee on US China relations soon your right, you have our hosting of the Chinese ping pong team. You have President Carter where we’ve you know introduced some Chinese leaders to him. And then in 1980, you have a picture of Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, who was governor of Guangdong province at the time.

Jane Perlez: It’s a striking image. Xi Zhongxun has this big smile on his face, and he’s standing next to Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles.

Jane Perlez: Do you know where they had just been?

Stephen Orlins: They’re in LA.

Jane Perlez: They had been to look at Hollywood?

Stephen Orlins: To Disney.

Jane Perlez: Oh, to Disney.

Stephen Orlins: Yes. We have a wonderful photograph of Xi Zhongxun shaking the hand of Mickey Mouse.

Jane Perlez: I wonder what he did with that photograph.

Jane Perlez: Xi’s father and other Chinese officials spent several weeks in the US. Steve Orlins says the purpose was simply to find out more about the American system and how it works. 

Stephen Orlins: To see what the US was doing and what China could do to emulate the United States to lift, at that point, 800 million out of poverty. Andhis desire to learn what was going on, by all accounts, was enormous. He was truly committed to reform.

Jane Perlez: Xi Jinping’s father went on to implement significant economic reforms back home in China.  As the younger Xi rose to power in the years after that, China watchers expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps–someone open to change and new ideas. Son like father.

Over the next couple of decades Xi Jinping began his steady climb through the party ranks. He married a famous singer, Peng Liyuan. She was such a star that Xi Jinping was sometimes known as the husband of Peng Liyuan.

The historian Chen Jian remembers meeting Xi during this period. It was 1999 and Xi was acting governor of Fujian Province by then.

Chen Jian: He was handsome. He was very friendly, smiling. And when we sat down and he straightforwardly asked, what can I do for you?

Jane Perlez: Chen Jian and his colleagues told Xi they wanted to do research in the Provincial Archive.

Chen Jian: And I remember, he almost had kind of relief because he did not know what we went there for. Something maybe very difficult. When he learned that we just would like to get access to archival documents and he says, okay. He called his secretary to ask him, in front of us, to call the archival director.

Jane Perlez: And just like that, Xi Jinping arranged access to the records Chen Jian and his colleagues were searching for.

Chen Jian: And what followed was just an amazing experience in doing research in Chinese Provincial Archive.

Jane Perlez: The whole encounter left Chen Jian with a positive impression of the future Chinese leader.

Chen Jian: He spoke clearly, he spoke softly and his Putonghua, his Mandarin, from my perspective, as a Shanghai boy, was amazing, was attractive, with kind of a power of attraction and he treated me with respect.

Jane Perlez: There was no hint then of the authoritarian Xi Jinping would become. In fact, the opposite.

Chen Jian: He listened, very, very carefully. You know. It’s very amiable. The exchange was very, very smooth. We stayed there for about one hour and then he treated us a little lunch and then we left.

Jane Perlez: Xi’s experience as a governor of two coastal provinces paved the way for his rise to the top of the Communist Party. He began to get a reputation of being a market-oriented reformer. And also someone other party officials saw as flexible, non-threatening and competent. Here’s Yun Sun again.

Yun Sun: I remember the Chinese saying was that he was very obedient, playing a very obedient role of the successor.

Jane Perlez: By 2007, he’d been appointed a member of the Politburo Standing Committee — the top of the Communist Party hierarchy. Harvard China scholar Tony Saich remembers meeting him on a very formal occasion in the Great Hall of the People

Tony Saich: He was very sturdy. He shook everybody’s hand as they came in, and then we sat down to the normal formal sitting in chairs with antimacassars, that prevent the possibility of any genuine dialogue.

Jane Perlez: This was a shift from the warmth Chen Jian the historian had experienced in Fujian years early. Xi had begun to put on a mask.

Tony Saich: We went into a very ritualized set of conversations between himself and Harvard University President Drew Faust.  It was remarkably different from the previous meeting that we’d had, for example, with Jiang Zemin, when he sat very informally, really enjoyed the banter, and back and forth of discussion.

Jane Perlez: In contrast, Xi Jinping behaved like a man unwilling to risk a  false move. He was now vice president and the leader-in-waiting. He spent the next four years traveling the world including to that Valentine’s Day lunch to the State Department. Everything was set for him to assume power. And then, in September 2012, he vanished.

ACT TWO – Xi in Power

Mira Rapp-Hooper: The significance of his rise was really driven home by his absence.

Jane Perlez: The American political scientist Mira Rapp-Hooper was just starting her career when Xi Jinping disappeared. It fascinated her. No one to this day knows what happened, but it was a huge mystery.

Tony Saich: Beijing loves rumors.

Yun Sun: One version was that he fell in the swimming pool.

Mira Rapp-Hooper: It seemed to me at the time that the most plausible answer was that he was ill.

Yun Sun: But there were also more wild versions that attributed it to a political plot, a political coup, assassination attempt.

Tony Saich: Perhaps there was a light wounding that kept him out of the public eye.

Mira Rapp-Hooper:  One of the big questions that was raised was why he not only cancelled a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but why he could not even speak on the phone to her. That was something that never seemed to quite resolve in my mind.

Jane Perlez: And then, two weeks after he disappeared from view, Xi Jinping reemerged. Apparently unscathed. He was back. Shortly after, in November 2012, he was installed as General Secretary of the Communist Party. At his first press conference I remember he came on stage with other members of the standing committee.

Xi Jinping: in Mandarin.

Jane Perlez: I’m sorry I’m late he said…and everybody thought wow, he’s apologizing this isn’t how the party brass usually behave. This guy is different, but that was one of the last spontaneous touches we saw from him. After that he lost no time getting to work.

Mira Rapp-Hooper: What struck me in that very early period was not only the perception of his strength, but the speed with which he appeared to be moving.

Jane Perlez: This is Mira Rapp-Hooper again, with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Mira Rapp-Hooper: And we saw that the anti-corruption campaign which he had previously signaled as a key part of his agenda started to be implemented within weeks of his ascension, that there was no delay in his consolidation of power and his implementation of his stated goals.

Jane Perlez: Inside China, the perception was similar, according to Tony Saich.

Tony Saich: Friends of mine in China were really taken aback by the speed with which he moved to consolidate power, his aggressive control over dialogue and discourse surprised people, his strong reassertion of state control of the economy also took people by surprise.

Jane Perlez: I wanted to know more about this period so I went to see Taylor Fravel, a professor at MIT who follows China closely.

Taylor Fravel: Hi!

Jane Perlez: Hi!

Taylor Fravel: How are you?

Jane Perlez: Fine. Are you expecting us?

Taylor Fravel: Yeah.

Jane Perlez: This is amazing. Look at all these books. Chinese books. I’m impressed.

Taylor Fravel: (Laughs) My personal library. When I was in grad school, I would bring a separate roll-on suitcase just for books and it was so heavy I didn’t want to check it because they would charge me overweight fees. (Laughs)

Jane Perlez: Fravel says there was a huge change in Xi’s behavior at the end of 2012.

Taylor Fravel: A leader whom we may have thought from early 2012 was going to be a relatively approachable and a sort of consensus-builder, so to speak, did not necessarily act that way afterwards.

Jane Perlez: Fravel guesses that something dramatic went down behind the scenes — during that mysterious period when Xi disappeared.

Something that made Xi feel that his rule over the Communist Party was fragile.

We do know around this time that there were big rumblings at the top of the Party, and Xi eventually decapitated his main opponent, the flamboyant Bo Xilai, who ended up in prison.

If Fravel’s right, that explains why Xi started a massive roundup of party officials and businessmen, all under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign.

Xi’s crackdown proved popular with ordinary people. And he was good at relating to them. His first year in office, he stopped by a dumpling shop in Beijing for a bite to eat.

Sound of video

In this video Xi Jinping stands patiently in line. Customers are milling around him holding up their phones to capture the moment. He looks completely at ease in the crowd. This was Xi the populist.

That first year in office, Xi travelled to the United States and had a no-tie, shirt sleeved meeting with President Obama at the Sunnylands estate in California.

President Obama: The importance of this relationship in some ways is reflected with the somewhat unusual setting we’re hosting the President in.

Xi Jinping: in Mandarin

Interpreter: This is a wonderful place. A place of sunshine and it’s very close to the Pacific Ocean and on the other side of the ocean is China.

Jane Perlez: They were still getting to know each other, and the optics were warm and open. The two leaders sipped martinis served by a butler in the cocktail hour. Someone who was there told me Obama asked Xi what he would have. And Xi apparently said I’ll have whatever you’re having and looked very surprised when he was handed a giant martini. But it wasn’t all sunny at that meeting, and it wasn’t long before Xi Jinping’s willingness to challenge the United States was on full display.

At the time, I don’t think I really thought, “Well, is this guy going to be good or bad?” I just thought, “He’s a new face, and he’s showing the power of China, which is quite considerable.” In that first year, he went to Kazakhstan, which is in Central Asia. It’s a neighboring state to China. And I thought, “Oh, I’ll just go along and see what happens.”

Xi Jinping + Interpreter: Ladies and Gentlemen

Jane Perlez: What happened was Xi’s historic speech announcing China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Xi Jinping + Interpreter: To forge closer economic ties, deepen cooperation and expand development space in the Eurasian region we should take an innovative approach and jointly build an economic belt along the silk road.

Jane Perlez: Xi Jinping was saying, “I’m the new leader of China, and we are going to build this infrastructure across Central Asia into Europe, and we’re going to recreate the Old Silk Road.”

Parts of the speech were pretty boring but some of it was quite evocative. He said things like “I can smell the scent of the camels and hear the songs of the camel bells as I speak. I can see the smoke of the campfires.”

The Belt and Road Project developed into this big overseas program which is challenging the United States in most corners of the world. It was the first sign that this was not going to be a Chinese leader content with concentrating only on domestic issues. There were other signs of that too. One of the first things he did as leader was visit Navy sailors in Hainan who work in the South China Sea, shouting greetings from atop a moving vehicle.

Xi Jinping in Mandarin: Greetings, comrades!

Troops in Mandarin: Greetings, leader!

Jane Perlez: “Comrades you are working hard,” he booms. “We serve the people,” they shout back.

Xi Jinping in Mandarin: Comrades, you are working hard!

Troops in Mandarin: We serve the people!

Jane Perlez: Then he rattled everyone, and he did something totally unprecedented. He started building artificial islands in the South China Sea that could be used as military bases. 

Music: Song praising soldiers stationed in the Spratly Islands

Jane Perlez: In this propaganda video, you hear the ballad of a soldier  stationed on an island in the South China Sea. The song plays over images of beaches and military ships plowing through the turquoise waters and soldiers on patrol visiting Chinese territorial markers. At the end the sun sets over an island air strip. 

Taylor Fravel, the expert at MIT, says the island-building was all part of a newly assertive nationalism on the part of the Chinese leader. And it came hand in hand with a buildup of the military.

Taylor Fravel: Clearly, he likes to flaunt China’s capability. I mean, he’s had three military parades in seven years, which is quite remarkable.

Jane Perlez: Fravel’s speciality is the Chinese military. And he found a bunch of internal speeches Xi Jinping made to the troops when he first became party leader.

Taylor Fravel: It’s striking at least to see how early on he was worried about China’s position in the world and the various kinds of threats and challenges he saw.

Jane Perlez: One big one was the Arab Spring – those revolutions were breaking out right as Xi was coming to power.

Taylor Fravel: Of course, from his point of view, the West has been the enabler, the facilitator of these revolutions right. It makes him view the West as more hostile, or at least as quite dangerous. So, I think in the United States at least we’ve underestimated perhaps the degree to which our system has been viewed as a threat by China’s Communist leaders.

Jane Perlez: With that threat in mind perhaps, Xi Jinping has put security and stability over everything else.  His biggest fear continues to be disarray in the Party. He built up and reorganized the military. He censored online speech. And cracked down on human rights, including, as we now know, ordering the detention of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism.

He also created volumes of Communist Party propaganda and put them in his own name. This is “Xi Jinping Thought” and it’s enshrined in the Constitution and everyone is compelled to learn it. These are classic strongman tactics says Minxin Pei.

Minxin Pei: And you can say, well, this is really a throwback to the Maoist era, to the Stalinist era, that is you have one dominant, unassailable, political leader at the top.

Jane Perlez: Pei says it’s like going back decades to the Cultural Revolution.

Minxin Pei: Instead of the little red book we have this little red app.

Jane Perlez: Then last year, Xi Jinping made a move that startled even the most sympathetic observers. He abolished the Party’s traditional term limits, effectively becoming Emperor of Everything, forever.

I can remember when this was announced, it was kind of leaked accidentally in English on Twitter by one of the state-run media outlets and, oh my God, it went around like wildfire. The Constitution had been changed from a two-term limit for the president, to no limits whatsoever.

So about 20 minutes after this announcement, I called someone at one of the universities in Beijing, who was quite pro Xi Jinping, very proud of Xi having made a splash on the world stage, and I said to this person, “What about this new announcement?”  And, he was a quasi-friend, I mean, we talked quite a bit. And there was just silence at the other end of the phone, and he said, “I don’t know what to say, Jane. This is not good,” and hung up.

ACT THREE – Emperor of Everything

Jane Perlez: I often think about that moment. It was really striking. It was clear that Xi Jinping had finally gone too far for some people. His control had never been more acutely felt. It was getting harder and harder to report in China. People didn’t want to talk. They actually didn’t want to talk with each other. Everything was kept within the family. The fear was palpable. Party officials escorted me away from places that were totally unimportant, but they still didn’t want me to see them.

I wrapped up my assignment a year later and returned to the US. I came to Harvard for a fellowship at the Shorenstein Center where I’ve spent my time reflecting on Xi Jinping and talking to people who have studied him closely. Trying to figure out why Xi felt he had to act this way, why he had to impose this oppressive atmosphere on an economically successful, ever-richer China.  One person I checked in with was my colleague Nick Kristof, one of my predecessors as Beijing bureau chief for The New York Times. He had written a glowing column about Xi in 2013. I asked him to read from it. 

Nick Kristof: Here is my prediction about China: The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer, will be released from prison.

Jane Perlez: So, I’m sure you can be self-deprecating about this.

Nick Kristof: (laughs) One doesn’t need to be self-deprecating about that. It would be hard to imagine a prediction more wrong than that one!

Jane Perlez: So why do you think you got it wrong?

Nick Kristof: We were all trying desperately to figure out what direction Xi Jinping would take the country and perhaps partly because we’d been so frustrated by his predecessor the country just seemed paralyzed everybody was ready for some forward movement and  there were some really promising signals about Xi Jinping and I think we grasped at them and read too much into them.

Jane Perlez: This has happened before, says James Mann, author of The China Fantasy and other books about China.

James Mann: Well there have been essentially five leaders of China. The United States tends to get them wrong in the early stages as they’re coming to power, by projecting too many hopes and interests of the United States onto their analysis of who these leaders are.

Jane Perlez: Mann says there’s no mistaking what kind of a leader Xi Jinping is, now that we’ve seen him in action.

James Mann: He represents a concerted, advanced effort to not just reimpose but entrench an advanced authoritarian system with full use of not just the police but high tech all kinds of new surveillance facial recognition.

Jane Perlez: I wanted to understand what lay behind that chilling vision. So, I wanted to find someone who had spent real time with Xi Jinping. As luck would have it, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was visiting Harvard and he kindly agreed to talk to me.

Jane Perlez: Prime Minister Rudd!

Kevin Rudd: G’day.

Jane Perlez: G’day.

Jane Perlez: Rudd speaks Mandarin and he’s met Xi Jinping many times. He hosted him one winter evening at the Lodge, Australia’s equivalent of the White House.

Kevin Rudd: And it was bloody cold and so I kept stoking the fire. We chatted I think for at least one and a half, two hours about all manner of subjects for which there is no official Australian record cuz the only Australian official attending was our ambassador who didn’t speak a word of Chinese! He certainly struck me then as deeply self-assured, deeply confident in his answers to any question I posed.

Jane Perlez: So, one of the things that we’re trying to do in this podcast is to wrestle with the following: people in Washington perhaps naively, thought he was a reformer. You were at that State Dept lunch Valentine’s Day 2012 when everybody was so optimistic, but clearly this has not turned out to be true. Does it matter that the US misjudged him?

Kevin Rudd: To be fair to the Americans and other interlocutors, many of us got that wrong. I remember saying to President Obama having met the guy, Xi Jinping, many times, Barack, I think you can do business with this guy. And I meant it.

Jane Perlez: Rudd said there’s a reason people didn’t understand Xi.

Kevin Rudd: To survive in Chinese domestic politics requires wearing a mask for a very long time. Therefore, like the rest of the Chinese senior political class many of these folks’ actual substantive views are not known by very many people beyond their narrow most immediate set of friends. And it’s only when you’re finally as it were put into the position of executive responsibility what makes the man.

Jane Perlez: How would you describe his leadership today? What are the characteristics.

Kevin Rudd: Absolute Machiavellianism in terms of his capacity to identify threats to his power and to deal with him anyone who underestimates that does not understand the Leninist in Xi Jinping. To survive in a Leninist system requires those skills.

Jane Perlez: Rudd and I spoke for quite a while. He’s Head of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York now. He had just spoken with Xi Jinping the week before in Beijing. He told me one last thing about Xi that really stuck with me.

Kevin Rudd: He’s a party man. The standard phrase in Chinese internal politics is (Mandarin) or second generation red, literally the second generation of first-generation revolutionary leaders whose view was hey we actually paid in blood for this revolution we’re not about to give up the party’s future. So, when he looks at the party’s future, he and those around him are often heard to say (Mandarin) which is the party’s in our blood.

Jane Perlez: What Rudd said reminded me of something Yun Sun said about the lesson Xi Jinping learned from the Cultural Revolution — that he had to win at all costs.

Yun Sun: His childhood experience esp falling from the high cloud down not only to the earth to the dust contributed to that personality that people in China do regard him as having a vindictive and ruthless personality.

Jane Perlez: He also has a sense of his own destiny. And that is wrapped up in China’s global ambitions.    

I want you to hear Xi’s voice one more time. In May when trade talks broke down between China and the United States, Xi Jinping purposely went out of his way the next day and traveled a long way to Jiangxi Province. He deliberately chose one of the most hallowed places in Chinese Communist Party history to deliver a singular and important message.

Xi Jinping: in Mandarin

Jane Perlez: “Now it’s a new Long March,” Xi said. “We need to start all over again.

Everybody knew Xi was referring to a long march against the United States. Relations between the US and China are now at their lowest point since diplomatic relations were established in 1979. Xi has made clear that he takes this rivalry with the United States as a paramount challenge. And that he intends China to win. That China will be working to be self-sufficient, to be separate, and to be number one in the world.

Just before I left China, a senior official who I was friendly with invited me for a farewell lunch. I thought it would be an hour of pleasant memories, family, future, and so on. Instead I received a four-hour lecture about the villainy of the United States.  

I realized that I was leaving a different country to the one I had come to at the start of my assignment. I had witnessed a major episode in the transformation of China pushed along at headlong speed by one man, Xi Jinping.



Jane Perlez: I’m Jane Perlez. Thanks to everyone who helped me make this podcast during my time at Harvard.

On the Trail of Xi Jinping was produced and edited by Jeb Sharp. Our assistant producer was Helen Zhang, our researcher was Luz Ding. Sound design by Tina Tobey Mack.

Special thanks to the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, including Nancy Gibbs, Tom Patterson and Liz Schwartz.

Thanks also to Harvard’s Ash Center, the Fairbank Center and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs for all your support.