Book Reviews

Julie O'Yang's Little Yellow Book

The Wisdom of Mao - Lite


‘We have yellow skin and black hair. We are called the descendants of the dragon,’ Xi Jinping told Donald Trump during the American president’s 2017 visit to Beijing. A Westerner might have trouble deciding whether Xi’s remark was intended as profound or just amusing, but hesitation in the reader’s judgement is part of the ride through this 160-page collection of quotes and excerpts from the mind of China’s current leader.


The release of The Little Yellow Book: Quotations from Chairman Xi Dada, edited by Julie O’Yang, couldn’t have been timed better. While Americans fear the possibility of China’s ascendancy, the Chinese themselves grow anxious about the slowing economy and the increasing dominance of the Communist Party over their lives. The Chairman says, ‘I want to press the like button for our great Chinese people.’ Some might find this one-liner unsettling in era when old-fashioned propaganda and censorship meet Wi-Fi.  


The book opens with an explanation of the title. ‘Dada’ is a colloquial way of saying ‘Father’ in Northwest China, Xi Jinping’s birthplace. The Communist Party has used the expression to describe its leader since 2012. O’Yang exposes an ongoing attempt to establish a cult of personality around Xi, which includes a quiz show about the leader’s life. We even get a sense of his personal likes and dislikes. The promotion of Xi as the nation’s father figure, one who’s tough but with a tender heart would, naturally, give him more legitimacy in defining the country’s values and goals.    


The Little Yellow Book is organized by areas of interest such as the economy, international relations, human rights, culture, the media and corruption. The tone ranges from bureaucratic to fortune cookie and is at times peculiar. About the Communist Party, Xi tells us, 


‘Our ideals and principles are like “calcium” for every Communist Party member.  If we cease to have our ideas and principals, if they are not firm, it will cause spiritual “calcium deficiency” and we will be ill.’


It might, however, be the pithier quotes that most concern people both outside and inside the PRC:


‘We must dare to rule, dare to be in charge and dare to dazzle the enemy’s eye with our sword.’ 


Xi Jinping frequently reminds the people that the state’s official ideology is ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ This suggests that Marx and Lenin share the podium with Mao and Deng. In a departure from Mao Zedong, they also need to make room for Confucius. But ‘Chinese characteristics’ is not clearly defined until the section on the economy and industry. Xi seeks to reverse some of the liberalisation that took place under Deng. He plans to expand state-owned enterprises and to ‘establish Party organization in small enterprises and even private enterprises.’  Xi regards the collapse of the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union as a warning for China, and he’s determined to maintain Party control over the military.  


There are, on the other hand, times when Dada is telling us what we want to hear. Xi’s stated commitment to the environment is intended to give us hope. He proclaims, ‘We would rather give up on money than give in to pollution,’ and he insists that a people must ‘protect one’s environment just like protecting one’s eyes!’ The Chairman also, for obvious reasons, wants to end the trade war with the United States. He goes further by denouncing any ‘Cold War mentality’ and rejecting the argument that China pursues hegemony. Instead, China will work toward ‘a new model of win-win and cooperation.’  


It’s up to the reader to judge whether this collection provides insight into China’s future or focuses mostly on an understanding of Xi’s personality. In the end, one might interpret attempts to depict Chairman Xi as Mao-like as a sign of the leadership’s insecurity. An analyst working in The White House should have highlighter in hand when reading this book, especially at the part when Xi describes Putin as his ‘best, most intimate friend.’ Don’t expect The Little Yellow Book to have the same influence that Mao’s Little Red Book had on American universities in the 1960s. But people can take some comfort in knowing that they’re not reading the words of a mass murderer. On a personal note, I agree with the Chairman’s assertion that a wise nation must be willing to ‘fight tigers as well as flies.’ Who would argue with that?    

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