The news headlines on China today are full of references to the duelling addresses delivered yesterday to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) by Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. As many have noted, the contrasts could hardly be more profound. On the one side was Trump’s unstatesmanlike emphasis on “America first,” his clear attack on China, and his stubborn denial of the US record on the COVID-19 pandemic and the environment. On the other side was Xi Jinping’s “We humans” rhetoric of shared values in a short speech projecting Chinese leadership on multilateralism, global health, development and the environment – and, tactfully, not mentioning the United States.

On a rhetorical level, Xi Jinping might seem the steady champion of free trade and world peace, and Trump the selfish and impossible partner, an enemy of shared global values. “Let us join hands to uphold the values of peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom shared by all of us,” said Xi, “and build a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind. Together, we can make the world a better place for everyone.”  

The convenient international gloss presented by China against the backdrop of Trumpian arrogance easily falls away, however, when we look at Xi Jinping’s power-hungry hubris at home. Even as Xi spoke yesterday of “justice, democracy and freedom,” former real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang, who dared to criticize the CCP General Secretary this year for his unprecedented consolidation of power and exacerbation of the coronavirus epidemic by limiting speech freedoms, was sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges of corruption. Ren’s case is only the most recent reminder of the true nature of China under Xi’s leadership.

Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power, and his abandonment of collective decision-making in favor of a political culture of fawning obedience, are at the root of global concerns over a range of issues, including trade, human rights, aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, the status of Hong Kong and so on. But in fact we do not have to leave the context of the UN to appreciate China’s aggrandizement of Xi.

What some may not realize, given the dominant coverage of the duelling Trump and Xi speeches yesterday, is that Xi in fact made two speeches at the UN this week – both trumpeted in China’s state media as “important speeches.” On Monday, Xi, identified at the UN as “His Excellency Xi Jinping,” delivered a pre-recorded speech to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary. This was followed by the shorter address yesterday during the General Debate session of the General Assembly.

For a reason as yet unknown, Xi Jinping was identified for the General Debate session on the webpage of the Journal of the United Nations as “His Highness Xi Jinping,” while others, including Trump, were identified (with the exception of a king and a sheikh from Jordan and Qatar respectively) as “His Excellency.”

The reference to Xi as “His Highness” was likely a mistake, but if so this was an oddly insightful error – coming, not least, on the very day of the sentencing of Ren Zhiqiang, who in his essay called Xi “a clown stripped naked and insisting on being emperor.” Beyond the nice-sounding rhetoric, the aggrandizing of Xi is the most crucial fact to understand about China as a global power. We need not delve into the content of either speech, both full of tired rhetoric about China as the world’s largest developing country, not seeking hegemony but committed to peace and to “cooperative and common development.” The key question is not what Xi Jinping said but why BOTH speeches were delivered by Xi Jinping himself.

China, lest readers have forgotten, also has a premier, the formal head of the PRC’s government. But anyone might be forgiven for forgetting. Li Keqiang, after all, has been effectively side-lined by Xi. It might have made sense for Premier Le Keqiang to deliver at least one of this week’s UN addresses, most probably the address to the General Assembly, while Xi addressed the Monday event for the 75th anniversary. Instead, we had double servings of the CCP’s General Secretary as China’s “head of state.”  

Li Keqiang has been repeatedly side-lined in recent months in China. As we showed last month, coverage of Li’s mud-stained trip to flood-stricken areas in Chongqing was completely eclipsed by coverage of an immaculate Xi visiting Anhui province. In today’s edition of the official People’s Daily, we see the same pattern. The first three pages of the newspaper are dominated entirely by coverage of Xi Jinping alone, including the full-text of his address yesterday to the UN General Assembly.

No other members of the Politburo Standing Committee appear until page four of the paper, when at last there is mention of Premier Li and his inspection visit to Shanghai. Vice Premier Hu Chunhua is mentioned in an article just below Li’s. The rest of the newspaper is otherwise virtually silent on the top leadership – unless, of course, the focus is on Xi Jinping.

Reporting on Xi’s second UN speech, the top headline on the front page of today’s edition of the Global Times newspaper, published by the People’s Daily, reads: “Major Countries Should Act Like Major Countries” (大国应该有大的样子).

In my translation of this headline, I am deferring to CGTN’s English translation of Xi’s speech, in which the line from which this headline derives is rendered: “In particular, major countries should act like major countries.” The operative word in the Chinese original, however, is not the verb “act,” but the more ambiguous word yangzi (样子) referring to an “appearance,” “manner” or “model” — or even to a “face,” as in the English phrase, “to put on a brave face.”

I would submit that an at least equally valid translation of this phrase, and certainly of the Global Times headline, would be: “A major power must have a major face.”

We don’t have to guess whose face this must be.