Xi sells himself well, even if not everyone’s Jinping for joy
As far as kick-offs go, Xi Jinping’s speech upon his ascension to the Chinese Communist Party throne was a ripper. If I could have tweeted, that’s what I’d have said.
I watched it on telly in my Beijing living room. With me sat my husband, a Hong Kong-born, Brisbane-raised Australian investment banker, our five month old baby girl and a friend of ours, a smart, driven young twenty-something from Hefei.
On two sofas and a play mat we watched Mr Xi and the remaining six new members of the Standing Committee walk onto the red carpeted stage in front of that vast depiction of the Great Wall.
Though much has changed in this country, the essential formalities of Chinese political orations stagnated in about 1949.
You need red. You need plush carpet. You need little stickers on the floor to mark the distance between each dark-suited man with the posture of a lamp post. You need big, distant couches, gold accents, undrinkable tea with surface-floating leaves the size of French fries and timed pauses for emphatic applause.
But before he had even opened his mouth Xi cut through the usual trim with his steady but casual step, presenting a more relaxed version of the archetypal Chinese leader.
There is something reassuring in his smile, the way he holds a lectern and, more importantly, the way he holds a room. Xi, a man with revolutionary royalty running through his veins, has Clintonesque charisma.
When he smiled and said, ‘thanks for waiting and thanks for covering the congress’, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a couple of cold Tsingtaos with him on a hot day.’
He is personable. He has hands the average Zhou would like to shake. When he speaks, he moves; shifting his weight from foot to foot as is normal among most humans and abnormal among many of his predecessors.
I can’t, for example, imagine Xi standing to attention in the back of a moving open-top vintage Hongqi limo yelling ‘tongzhimen hao’ (greetings, comrades) into four perfectly symmetrical microphones. Xi’s more likely to pop into a local kindergarten with sleeves rolled up and chat about the history of the national anthem.
If this week’s press conference was reduced to a bumper sticker it’d read, ‘don’t worry. I get it and I’m on it.’ He was plain speaking. His messages were as accessible as they were concise.
A day later, I don’t have to Google a transcript to recall them, which is a good thing because Google has been hit and miss here in the middle kingdom for about a fortnight.
In sum, Xi heralded China’s achievements but noted a range of challenges of which he said none were insurmountable if all Chinese people banded together to tackle them.
There were nods to old rhetoric - ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ being one - but largely his text was fresh, appealing directly to his “electorate” by listing their common aspirations.
He finished up by saying that China needed to understand more about the world and that the world needed to understand more about China, a statement with which few would disagree. With Xi at the helm I reckon the latter goal falls into the realm of possibility.
As China’s spokesperson-in-chief Xi cuts a friendly, more translatable figure. He looks like the kind of guy who might crack a joke at a joint press conference, slap someone convivially on the back or shoot a few hoops with Obama.
When live news moved into commentary on our television screen, those in my living room unpacked the speech. ‘I thought he did very well,’ I said.
‘So do I,’ said my husband.
We turned to our friend who remained silent. ‘I like what he said,’ he said, finally. ‘I also like the way he said it. But I have heard it before.’ He paused. ‘I will need to wait and see what they can do.’
It was something of a buzz-kill until our little one uttered an excited shriek and slapped both hands on her play mat.
I’m with her. There’s something different about the way this guy presents and that is cause for optimism. He is the natural communicator a much-misunderstood China so desperately needs.
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