Does Xi Jinping want to be feared or loved? The answer is critical. What China’s paramount leader wants from the world will shape it, in everything from how we tackle climate change to the future of technology and whether the world tumbles into another age of superpower competition. Xi himself doesn’t provide a clear answer. Take his speech in July, marking the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party: In a scene straight from another, darker era, Xi took to the stage dressed in a Mao suit to spew fiery rhetoric to an enthusiastic crowd of adherents.
They applauded as he ticked off China’s many achievements: Its earth-changing economic rise, the alleviation of poverty, the rebuilding of the country’s strength. But an especially thunderous roar erupted when Xi issued a stern warning to the world: Foreign powers who wish to do China harm, according to one translation, “will crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
There were also lines of the speech showing a different side to the Chinese president. A few breaths before the blood and steel Xi was all peaches and cream, pledging China to “peaceful development” and international cooperation. China “will continue to work with all peace-loving countries and peoples to promote the shared human values of peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, and freedom,” he said. After the speech, official Chinese media also softened the translation, insisting Xi had not intended to be bellicose and Westerners had misunderstood his meaning.
Like his speech, the true meaning of Xi’s agenda can be hard to discern and appear mired in contradictions. He craves a larger role in international institutions but seems to undermine them. He champions globalization, then pursues insular policies. He wants to win over hearts and minds to China’s cause, then engages in alienating bullying.