In our recently published book, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy, Todd Pittinsky and I argued that a leader who lusts for power is China’s president, Xi Jinping. We define lust as a psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object, or to secure a circumstance. When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily.
One of the stories we told is Xi’s. He is not only an irresistible example of a leader who lusts for power, but an important one. In fact, I would argue that knowing this about Xi, understanding it about Xi, is of paramount importance specifically to Americans. It is of paramount importance if the United States does not want to end in a state of perpetual conflict or even crisis with China.
Evidence of Xi’s lust for power is amply provided in the book. Moreover, since Leaders Who Lust went to press the evidence has only grown.
China’s creeping crackdown on Hong Kong has accelerated to a full gallop. Five months ago, China imposed an oppressive national security law on Hong Kong. Since then have been increasingly intrusive measures, to the degree that just last week four pro-democracy lawmakers were ousted from what is effectively the city’s parliament. They were followed by some 15 other elected officials, well known members of the opposition, who resigned in gestures of solidarity and protest. All this in consequence of the authorities in China bestowing on the authorities in Hong Kong the power to remove “unpatriotic” politicians without going through the courts.
At the same time, President Xi’s longstanding dispute with Jack Ma came to a head – with Xi, of course, coming out on top. Ma is a corporate titan of international repute, co-founder and former executive chairman of Alibaba Group, a technology conglomerate that is China’s best-known corporate entity. Ma is immensely wealthy, widely influential, and famously philanthropic. Unlike Xi, a staunch communist, Ma has also developed a reputation for being, relatively at least, a capitalist, specifically he has been a vocal proponent of globalization and open markets.
Ma has long been a thorn in Xi’s side – Ma being a man who, notwithstanding his diminutive stature, has grown in Xi’s view far too big for his britches. Comes along Alibaba’s Ant Group, a financial unit slated to be an offshoot, and just about to be a $37 billion initial public offering (IPO) on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. It was all a bit much for Xi, a bit too rich for Xi, who just days before the Ant Group’s slated debut made the decision to put it on hold. The IPO was held up by the Chinese government, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently. It was in any case Xi’s decision to do so. Though he almost certainly sought some sort of consensus for a decision so major, and a cutdown of Ma so complete, some sources close to the process confirmed that only the Chinese president could have made the decision. “Nobody else would have the authority to do so.”
Xi? A lust for power? The evidence is clear and with every passing year the more compelling. Moreover, as the definition of lust itself makes apparent, his appetite only grows with eating.
This said, it is, as already implied, the job of American policy makers to grasp this without simultaneously demonizing the the leader of some 1.35 billion Chinese people. It will do the United States no good to reduce to its lowest, simplest level a relationship that should be treated for what it is: complex and nuanced as opposed to, necessarily, adversarial to the point of ineluctably hostile.