One of the most remarkable things about China is how poorly understood it is, even by experts. By way of example, you probably think China has a president named Xi Jinping (習近平). Most people do. But actually, China doesn’t have a president. That title doesn’t exist in any official Chinese language documents or news reports.
If you can read Chinese, you can confirm this with a few taps on plastic. Try it. You will see that Xi is called chairman, general secretary, and core leader. He has many other official titles too. But he is never called president by the regime except in English-language propaganda materials intended for foreign consumption.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda services are professionals. They are masters of mental manipulation. They know better than anyone that words matter. For that reason, they intentionally mistranslate Chairman Xi, using the title “President Xi” to make him seem less communist, less dictatorial, and most equal to his main rival, the President of the United States of America.
When it comes to China, nothing is as it seems. The CCP excels at deception. Indeed, deception is an integral part of its organizational DNA and probably the main reason the CCP has been able to survive and thrive as the most successful radical political organization in modern history.
Elizabeth Economy points out in her book, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, that an explosion of information about China has accompanied its emergence as a superpower. Yet, she argues, this information doesn’t always help inform us. More often, it confounds understanding. When information fails to inform, but rather serves to confuse, is it really information?
Of course, the confusion about China is not the result of an accident. It’s by design. The CCP employs millions of people in both civilian and military organizations whose main purpose is to distort the truth. We’re not talking about simply spinning the news to benefit the regime. All governments, and, indeed, all organized groups of people, spin the news to one degree or another. No, we’re talking about the wholesale destruction of the truth, the corruption of meaning and thought itself, and the fabrication of facts in tandem with the concealment of facts.
To get a sense of how this manifests itself and why it matters, try to engage a Chinese government official in conversation on Tibet, or Hong Kong, or liberal democracy. Try to read an official CCP document on pretty much anything. It won’t take you very long to become seriously befuddled by all the logical contradictions and lies you are being hit with.
The CCP inhabits an alternative universe. It is an organization that takes Orwellian mass surveillance for granted and believes murder in the name of the state is normal — even just. Xi Jinping’s establishment of concentration camps and his war on religion are chilling reminders that China is in the grip of a wicked and warped regime. Make no mistake about it, China’s leaders are tyrants. But they are also very sophisticated and smart. Some might even say diabolical.
This matters a great deal because China is not weak like North Korea. China is a powerful, hyper-competitive authoritarian power that seeks world domination. Beijing intends to undermine the liberal world order and replace it with something unenlightened and dark. Getting away with such a heinous crime against human progress would normally be next to impossible. Reasonable and rational people are naturally attracted to the ideas of freedom and representative government and repelled by oppression and bad governance. Yet, if mass deception works, the CCP can continue to infiltrate the United States, United Nations, European Union, Japan, and other bastions of liberal values with its money and technology. It can weaken them, corrupt them, and silence them, inducing their complacency and inaction until it is too late.
There is little doubt that China is a remarkably high-performing totalitarian state. By comparison, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union made only modest achievements in their respective quests for power. So far, in the absence of a countervailing American-led strategic effort, China’s strategy has worked. The US and its allies, like Taiwan, are now ill-prepared for the common threats they face.
What does it say about the usefulness of our free and open Indo-Pacific strategy when the State Department claims it’s not a strategy, it’s a mere “vision,” and it’s not about China? What does it say about the quality of our thought and diplomacy when we say China has a president?
So, the next time you see someone refer to the leader of the People’s Republic of China as “President Xi,” remember they are using a false and purposely misleading title. And remember to question received knowledge.
My friends, let’s be honest. China has no president.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (中共攻台大解密).
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