The following article also appeared in The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
The early reviews are in. As the government unveiled its next generation of leaders at 11:55 a.m. during a November 15 press conference in Beijing, Chinese Web users reached quick consensus that the line-up was, as anticipated, light on would-be reformists. Liberal users on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, quickly commenced hand-wringing about China’s future.
But there was one silver lining: The now seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), which essentially runs China, is to be headed by Xi Jinping, who provided brief remarks and introduced his new colleagues. After ten years of the willfully stoic Hu Jintao, web users appeared to like the proverbial cut of Xi’s jib.
Xi said nothing revelatory or controversial, although he did implicitly apologize for the new PSC’s showing up late to its own introductory press conference. But his manner of speaking, in contrast to his tin-eared Hu-bot predecessor, struck a sweet note with netizens. Web user @白云峰, the Chairman of a Chinese energy company, tweeted: “Self-confident, young, active, [speaks] Putonghua [ie, standard Chinese].”
Wait a minute. How could China’s new President impress his countrymen with the mere ability to speak standard Chinese? In fact, China is a country of such great linguistic diversity that, for example, the native Beijing dialect and the native Shanghai dialect are mutually incomprehensible. Chinese television shows and adverts sport subtitles so that viewers of all linguistic persuasions can follow them. Regional differentiation is so great that a refined ear can even distinguish between two Chinese accents from neighboring towns.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that China’s past presidents have often failed to fully master Putonghua, which literally means “common speak.” China’s original reformist leader, Deng Xiaoping, spoke with a thick Sichuanese dialect that some found difficult to follow. Outgoing leader Hu’s Putonghua is certainly more standard than that, but online consensus holds that it cannot measure up to Xi’s.
It’s hard to blame Xi’s predecessors, given that Putonghua is in some ways an invented language. The term is often used interchangeably with “Mandarin,” although the latter literally refers to the dialects of Chinese officials–that is, the mandarins. Putonghua, on the other hand, generally refers to Modern Standard Chinese. Adopted in 1956, Putonhua is the latest government-led incarnation of a longstanding attempt to establish a standard that can be used throughout China. The inability of some in its top leadership to master the language has thus been a persistent irony.
China’s youth, however, have grown up in a country far more connected via television, Internet, and the freedom and means to travel. For many younger Chinese, especially the richer and more educated cohort that comprise Web users, standard Putonghua comes easily. Xi’s relatively faultless Mandarin thus implicitly signaled an end to China’s long-standing gerontocratic rule. One young Weibot seemingly nodded as he wrote, “hmm hmm indeed indeed–[as a] ‘Post-90s’ [Chinese person born after 1990], [let me] say I don’t feel a generational divide while listening to this.”
Xi not only debuted speaking what one user called “really not bad” Mandarin–er, Putonghua–he managed not to sound like an insufferable bureaucrat in the process. That alone is not a towering achievement, but surely provides some relief for Chinese accustomed to a decade of Hu’s soporific speech. It was also apt fodder for an information-starved Chinese commentariat searching for any clues about how Xi might govern. Just yesterday, thousands of netizens speculated about what Xi and his colleagues’ astrological signs might portend. This may be why some users perhaps read too deeply into the import of Xi’s inflection, with one writing: ”I was really excited to hear this. Xi’s really charming, he wasn’t bureaucratic and stiff; it gives people hope for China’s future! The [ruling Communist] Party has hope! Really!”
Continuing with this strain of over-analysis, another user compared Xi to recently-reelected U.S. President Barack Obama, writing: “He’s not exactly Obama, but maybe a bit more kindly than ‘Little O’ [小奥]. His Mandarin is good; [he's] not quite as dignified as Little O but seems approachable enough. … although his expression is serious, it’s not the kind that makes someone suddenly want to kneel down.”
While many users could not contain their glee at a man they instantly declared “worth the wait,” others advocated caution. Given that palace-watchers have declared the makeup of the Chinese leadership a disappointment to reform advocates, the influence of one man, no matter how powerful, can only go so far in a country ruled by multiple interest groups. One Weibo user cautioned, “It’s already hard for us to have trust in a single person. We can certainly listen to what he has to say, but we care more about what he does after this day!” Another wrote, “It’s not very dependable to put all of our hopes in one person, we can no longer believe that one or two people can turn things around.”
This leeriness is likely appropriate. Some netizens felt compelled to remind their compatriots that “ten years ago, we also had great expectations” for Hu Jintao, a hoped-for closet reformer who turned out to be more receptive to hard-liners. Perhaps for now, Chinese should set their sites a bit lower, at least until Xi can prove his mettle through actions, not just smartly-delivered prose. @封新城, a journalist, perhaps said it best when he wrote to his 2.4 million-plus Weibo followers: “He speaks rather normally. This country’s goal is now nothing more than that: Become normal.”