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Chun Han Wong’s ‘Party of One’ offers a glimpse of China under Xi Jinping but limited insight into the man himself

getty images; globe staff photo illustration/Photographer: FLORENCE LO/AFP

When Chinese President Xi Jinping first came to power in 2013, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times predicted that he would be a liberal reformer, and “in the coming 10 years of Xi’s reign, China will come alive again.”

Kristof could hardly have been more mistaken. During that decade, Xi would instead crack down on dissent, dramatically amplify the scope and power of China’s internal security apparatus, and pour funding into the military. He would ruthlessly purge his rivals. A pliant Communist Party would write him into China’s Constitution and abolish term limits, setting him up as a potential president-for-life. As Chun Han Wong writes in the aptly titled “Party of One,” Xi Jinping now wields greater power in China than any individual since Mao Zedong.


As absurd as Kristof’s prediction may appear in hindsight, it was not unreasonable at the time — and that is the point. Xi was deliberately unknowable when he came to power, having played his cards closely throughout his career. It was a fair assumption that he would continue on the path of his reformist predecessors. His past — as much as it was known — seems to have done little to chart the course of his future.

“Party of One” is not (as this reviewer had hoped) a biography of this elusive leader. The author simply does not have enough material to discuss Xi Jinping’s inner life in any detail, other than some of the early parts. So motives are scarce: We see what he has done, but not always why.

Nevertheless, for readers who have not been following the news from China closely in recent years, this is an excellent primer on how life in the PRC has transformed under his rule. Wong cobbles together authorized accounts of Xi’s life with a mass of reporting by foreign journalists and scholars, along with some of his own reporting as a Wall Street Journal correspondent (before he was denied a visa in 2019 and expelled from the country), giving us a single volume to capture the essence of Xi’s stunning impact on the vast country he governs.


If there is any childhood Rosebud moment for Xi Jinping that set the course for his adult career, it came during the political convulsions of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. Xi’s father, a revolutionary hero and former vice premier, was purged. Xi himself was persecuted by Red Guards. His own mother denounced him. He suffered with the other “sent-down” youth in the countryside. But during that bitter period, something clicked. He decided that the only way to ensure his own safety was to get inside the Party and, in the words of a friend, become “redder than the red.” So he started embracing the hardships of the countryside. He made friends with peasants and local Party cadres. He applied repeatedly to the Communist Youth League and got in after eight tries. After 10 applications, he became a Communist Party member. He worked his way industriously into the Party’s good graces in spite of the dead weight of his father’s disgraced status. When his father was finally rehabilitated in 1978, the effect on his career was like that of a slingshot being released.

As Wong points out, Xi Jinping has no authority or accomplishments outside of the Chinese Communist Party. He owes everything to it. Mao, by contrast, built the Red Army, led the revolution, and won the civil war. He founded the People’s Republic. Xi did nothing except to ingratiate himself within the existing Party, bide his time, and move his way strategically through its bureaucracy with uncanny skill. He is an insider, not a revolutionary, who now has reached the pinnacle of what the Party can offer him.


The question, of course, is: What now? Wong’s book charts many of the ways in which Xi has established Party control over China’s society. Cities are blanketed with paramilitary police and facial-recognition cameras that track everywhere a person goes, tied to databases that know everything they have written on the Internet. The Party exerts an iron grip on the telling of China’s history and has forced minority ethnic groups to subsume themselves into the majority-Han culture. Xi has built a navy to rival that of the United States. But now that he has done all this, the world wants to know what he, himself, wants. Behind the claims of restoring China’s historical greatness, once the work of consolidation is done, what comes next?

The author, unfortunately, largely avoids this question. Although the book’s subtitle promises “China’s superpower future,” Wong does not end with a chapter on the potential future under Xi Jinping. Instead, he skips ahead to speculate about what might happen if Xi dies without naming an heir. That seems a secondary concern when Xi shows no signs of departing the stage anytime soon. So the question remains unanswered — though to be fair, a compelling prediction would require far greater insight into the workings of Xi’s mind than he has allowed the public (or any foreign journalist) to gain. Just as it was impossible in 2013 to foresee the dramatic changes that would come under his first decade in power, so may it be impossible to divine what comes next for China and the world, now that Xi’s unification of control seems complete. This book is timely and informative, but it is not a book to ease one’s fears about the future.


PARTY OF ONE: The Rise of Xi Jinping and China’s Superpower Future

By Chun Han Wong

Avid Reader, 416 pages, $30

Stephen R. Platt, a professor of Chinese history at UMass Amherst, is the author of “Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age.”