Machiavelli: “Xi Jinping is the new world prince”

What would Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1529) think of Donald Trump, we asked ourselves. But the founder of political philosophy didn’t want to talk about Trump. “There’s only one leader in your times that interests me,’ he said. ‘Xi Jinping. If I were to write The Prince again, I would dedicate it to him.”

By Pieter Hilhorst and Michiel Zonneveld (with thanks to Ties Dams)

Santi di Tito — Niccolo Machiavelli’s portrait

Why do you find Xi Jinping so interesting?

“Because I know no other leader who has put the lessons from The Prince into practice as well as he has. For decades, China was ruled by a group of leaders. No one was allowed to stand out above the rest. But Xi Jinping has succeeded in accumulating enormous personal power. No Chinese leader has been able to achieve that since Mao Zedong. He controls the army, the Communist Party and every important Party committee. In recent years, he has eliminated all of his rivals, one after the other. In the meantime, China is increasingly becoming the dominant world power. Xi also fascinates me because I believe he still has much to learn. So far, his rise has looked a lot like a Greek drama. As you know, they usually end badly. Perhaps this one won’t, but one thing is certain — it’s going to be thrilling to watch.”

Why has he been so successful?

“Xi Jinping has learned of the power of Fortuna, of fate, from his own experience. He was nine years old when his father fell out of favour with Mao and ended up in prison. The red prince was suddenly a pariah. In The Prince, I compare Fortuna with a river that sometimes flows peacefully, but can also turn into a raging torrent and burst its banks. A leader has to tame Fortuna. For that, he needs Virtù. I don’t mean the Christian value of virtue. Good leaders have the ability to turn circumstances to their own advantage, or to take the necessary steps if things are going against them. Not by stemming the flow of the river, but by guiding its primal power in the right direction.”

How does Xi tame Fortuna?

“After his father was once again in favour with the Party leaders, he helped his son to acquire his first important positions. But because he knew from his own experience how unpredictable fate could be, Xi did not assume that everything would continue to go well. A good leader should not wait for danger to show its face, but be one step ahead of it. Xi Jinping has always been on the look out for anything that might undermine his position or that of the Party. One serious threat to the power of Communist Party was corruption. So he stamped down on that without mercy.”

What do you mean by ‘without mercy’?

“I wrote that a leader must eliminate his opponents in one blow when he comes to power. In his fight against corruption, Xi Jinping removed 300,000 people from their positions and a large number of them were sent to prison. I can appreciate that. He used this fight against decadence to destroy his rivals. And his fight against corruption also made him popular with the people. He manipulates the people exactly as I described in The Prince. Not by stealing from them, but by blaming local rulers for abuses of power.”

Does a leader then have to be ruthless?

“He must be able to be ruthless. As I wrote, a man who always wants to be good will necessarily fail amidst so many who are not good. And that certainly applies to any leader who wants to modernise his country. A man who tries to bring about change will find luke-warm support among those who will benefit from it, but fierce opposition among those who are set to lose by it. Xi Jinping understands that very well.”

To succeed politically, he could also choose not to modernise?

“Then he would not change the political system. But in other areas, he has no choice. Economic growth is essential for popular support for the Party. That’s why he wants to ensure that the losers in this process of change, those who see their living environment becoming seriously polluted, do not rise up in rebellion. He does things that I didn’t even describe in The Prince. For example, he is developing a ‘reputation score’ for ever person in China. The services you receive from the government will then depend on your score. Criticising the government will then become costly. If that had been possible in my time, I would certainly have devoted a chapter to it in The Prince.”

So you can learn from Xi Jinping?

“And he from me. Most of all, he should take note of my warning against being over-confident. His persistent anti-corruption purge has made him so many enemies that it is difficult for him to take a step back. If he relinquishes power, his enemies will seize their opportunity. But if he holds on to power and wishes to stay in office after 2022, there is a good chance of him overplaying his hand and facing a violent downfall. He could then come to a worse end than his father.”

(This autumn, Promotheus will publish a monograph on Xi Jinping by Ties Dams entitled De Nieuwe Keizer)

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