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The Little Red Book vs. the Big White Book

As part of our What Everyone Needs to Know series, we take a look at the famous writings of two of China’s predominant leaders.This article first appeared for The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) on 15 May 2018.

There are some similarities between former Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong’s most famous book, Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (“The Little Red Book”) and current General Secretary Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China (“Big White Book”)—the second installment of which came out last year, each volume the same cream color and featuring the same photograph of the author. For example, even those in China uninterested in actually reading from the Little Red Book half a century ago would have found it politically useful to have a copy on hand and be able to claim familiarity with it—and the same goes for Xi’s Big White Book now. In addition, it is widely known that Mao’s writings were the works of many authors and there is little doubt that Xi’s ever-expanding corpus is also a collective creation.

There are, however, limits to this sometimes overstated comparison. For example, The Big White Book has not been put to nearly as many uses as the Little Red one. Only the latter was waved aloft at rallies and read aloud from in hospitals by true believers, convinced that its sacred words could make the deaf hear.

In addition, some outside China believed Mao’s short tome would offer guidance as they struggled to bring about radical change in their own countries. Today, there is increasing talk in some quarters of an exportable “China model.” Yet most foreign fans—a group that includes Mark Zuckerberg, who had a copy of Volume One on display on his desk in Silicon Valley when Lu Wei, then the chief Chinese censor, paid Facebook a visit a few years back—have so far contented themselves with claiming that Xi’s Big White Book matters simply because it offers insights into the author’s slogans, goals, and psyche.

The Little Red Book contains short sections from Mao’s writings, composed over the course of decades, while the speeches in The Big White Book were given during a short time span and appear either as lengthy excerpts or in their entirety. Mao had things to say about all the main Marxist concepts and criticized Confucianism as antithetical to his Party’s vision, while Xi ignores class struggle (neither this term nor the word “class” are listed in the Index of Volume One; instead one finds “Clash of Civilizations” and “Cloud-based Computing”). And he quotes Marx and Confucius together, as though the man Mao called a “feudal” philosopher and the German co-author of The Communist Manifesto belonged to the same philosophical school.

Only the [Little Red Book] was waved aloft at rallies and read aloud from in hospitals by true believers, convinced that its sacred words could make the deaf hear.

In China’s political system, those who end up leading do not take part in public campaigns in which they spell out what they believe and will do once in power. They attain the top spots first, then make statements about what they believe, give speeches about what they have done, and describe their goals. This means that dipping into Volume One of The Governance of China is a bit like working your way through a compilation of stump speeches. He claims that under his watch, China’s 2010 GDP will be doubled by 2020, and that the country will be a thoroughly “modern socialist” one by the middle of the century, when the People’s Republic of China turns 100.

Volume Two is more like a brochure from a company’s PR department, introducing and celebrating a brand. Xi expresses a commitment to expanding China’s reach into new parts of the world, while remaining determined to do so in a respectful manner. For instance, by not asking foreign partners to remake themselves in China’s image, but allowing them to operate in whatever distinctive manner suits them. Some of the speeches explain what Xi’s administration has done lately, while others focus on what he is determined to accomplish in the coming years.

Both volumes emphasize one central theme: China is poised to regain its stature as a great country. To do this, page after page implies or states: it needs stability, unity, and a strong leader in control.

The book’s publisher was surely aware that The Big White Book would generally be flipped through rather than read cover to cover. The set of colour images that begin Volume One, as well as the photographic inserts in Volume Two, should therefore be treated as integral parts of the text. The former show Xi as, among other things, a studious youth, a devoted husband, a caring father, a good son, down to Earth (he is photographed kicking a football), and empathetic (he is shown contributing to a disaster relief effort and listening to the concerns of villagers). The illustrations from the Volume Two present him as comfortably in charge of China (doing things such as reviewing troops) and respected abroad (striding with top world leaders at summits).

The Big White Book is hardly a page-turner. And a very large percentage of the millions of copies in circulation seem to have been given away. Still, this work needs to be taken seriously. China recently amended its constitution so that Presidents are no longer limited to two five-year terms. This raises the possibility that Xi could rule for life. The current pair of thick volumes of The Big White Book could end up being joined by enough sequels to fill a very long bookshelf.

Featured image credit: Mao Zedong by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 via Pixabay.

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