Ryan Mitchell in The LA Review of Books:
SOME WORLD LEADERS take off their shirts and ride horses in their spare time. Others shoot hoops or play golf. Chairman Xi Jinping reads. And he wants you to know all about it. As he explained in an interview with a Russian television station in 2014, his “favorite hobby is reading,” and books have, for him, “become a way of life.”
In the same interview, he casually recited a continuous string of 11 polysyllabic Russian authors whose works he had enjoyed during his sent-down youth in the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, wherever he travels on his globetrotting state visits, he makes a point of announcing before his hosts these canons of local literary figures that have earned his hard-won critical approval. In France, he praised a long list of writer-cum-penseurs from Montaigne through Voltaire and on to Jean-Paul Sartre. In the United States, he lauded Whitman, Thoreau, Hemingway, and Jack London. In Germany, the more “theory”-heavy pantheon included Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Heidegger, and Marcuse alongside Schiller, Heine, and Goethe. The lists go on — at times it seems as though Xi is subtly signaling his desire for an honorary comparative literature degree, perhaps (judging by the continental philosophers) one from a progressive bastion like Berkeley or The New School. But his Tsinghua law PhD has gotten him this far; there’s little reason to be dissatisfied.
What, then, is the point of all the high-profile name-dropping? While a few commentators have connected the practice to diplomatic flattery, and others see Xi simply trying to portray himself as an intellectual, these explanations fail to account for either the prominence or sheer frequency of his literary commentary. Nor would these motivations explain the parallel trend whereby Xi and others in his administration are noticeably raising the status of China’s own cultural traditions. Confucius and his intellectual followers have been the main beneficiaries of this rediscovery of the past, but internal critics such as, among others, the Legalists Shang Yang and Han Fei have also come in for legitimating praise. Official citations in Party documents and propaganda efforts lend such thinkers authority to influence, if not shape, future policies and debates. To a seldom appreciated extent, Xi’s comments abroad also tend to carefully hew to the overall Party ideological line.
Indeed, both Xi’s comments on foreign literature and his cultural revivalism at home should be looked at in connection with the broader slate of initiatives his administration has undertaken in the sphere of culture.