If Machiavelli were alive today, he would probably consider the current president of China as the epitome of the ideal ruler. As a matter of fact, in the first speech Xi Jinping pronounced in 2012 upon becoming China’s supreme leader, he used an expression that seemed suited to "Machiavelli’s The Prince." Referring to the need to eradicate corruption, he said that "to forge an iron, you need a strong hammer." Yet it is not because of the sternness of this statement that Machiavelli would like Xi Jinping. Contrary to popular opinion, the Florentine thinker did not just expect a leader to be unscrupulously forceful. His views of course reflected the Italian reality of his times but if we put them in a modern context, his ideal ruler, besides being iron-willed, should be a charismatic and intelligent figure devoted to the progress and well-being of his people. These are qualities that have allowed Xi Jinping to become one of the most consequential leaders in Chinese history.
Since assuming office, he wasted no time in getting a firm hold on power and outlining his vision. In that same speech, he laid a new course for his country aimed to achieve "the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation [that] has been the greatest dream of the Chinese people since the advent of modern times." In saying so he declared the end of Deng Xiaoping’s tiptoed policy of "hiding your strength and biding your time" which underlaid China’s historical shift to a market economy. During Xi’s first term, China has consolidated its role as a global power able to lead the world on economic, political and environmental issues. His anti-graft campaign has freed China from thousands of corrupt public servants and politicians, while raising the suspicion that he also used it to purge his rivals and their allies, even if there was no evidence of political antagonists able to challenge his leadership. Under Xi Jinping, China has extended its role in international affairs, establishing its first foreign military base in Djibouti and sponsoring the vast "One Belt One Road" intercontinental infrastructure project. The decline of the American ascendancy has come as a bonus.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Xi Jinping positioned himself as the champion of globalization, free trade and action on climate change. He said that "we should commit ourselves to growing an open global economy to share opportunities and interests through opening up and achieve win-win outcomes." Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group—the world’s largest organization concerned with political risk and security—suggested that the reaction to Xi’s speech by the Forum attendants was "success on all counts—miles away from any official Chinese speech before." The next day Xi spoke in Geneva and pledged China’s active participation in global governance and international and multinational bodies to build a "community of shared future for mankind." He added that "we should build a world of common security for all through joint efforts" and "stay committed to building a world of lasting through dialogue and consultation."
At the recent 19th congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as expected, he was confirmed in his role as party secretary and president of the nation. He gave a marathon speech that laid out a program so grand that it took over three and a half hours to delineate. Xi Jinping’s China is clearly stepping in to fill the gap left by the United States which, under Trump and his policy of "America first," appears to have abdicated its position at the helm of the global order it created after the Second World War and has since dominated. As the son of Xi Zhongxun, one of the Communist party's first-generation leaders, Xi Jinping seemed predestined to a prominent political career, but his ascent to power was all but an easy one. When he was a teenager his father was persecuted for not complying with party doctrine and lost touch with his family.
During the Cultural Revolution Xi Jinping was sent to a remote country village where he worked for six years as a manual labourer on an agricultural commune. In that period, he developed an especially good relationship with the local peasantry, which would sustain Xi’s eventual rise through the ranks of the CCP. An anecdote from a book about the story of his family recounts that when finally reuniting with his two sons, Xi’s father had been tortured so badly that he could hardly recognize them. Confused and disoriented after years of isolation and interrogation, the old man wept, and when Xi offered him a cigarette, he asked him: "How come you also smoke?'" Xi answered: "I’m depressed. We’ve also made it through tough times over these years." The father went quiet for a moment and said: "I grant you approval to smoke." An episode like this explains why being in a position of enormous power has not gone to his head. Interviewed by the Chinese Times long before becoming China’s supreme leader, he thus defined his approach to politics: "I look past the superficial things: the power and the flowers and the glory and the applause. I see the detention houses, the fickleness of human relationships. I understand politics on a deeper level."
Elenoire Laudieri di Biase is a Sinologist, Foreign Affairs Writer, Chief Analyst at Nato defense college Foundation, Editor in Chief at Segmento Magazine, Australia.