Foreign Affairs has let down Cai Xia in both its editing and its translation of her piece on Xi Jinping (English | Chinese). The English version is so thoroughly in the standard style of a Foreign Affairs piece that there can be no doubt that it is not simply a translation of something Cai Xia submitted in Chinese. Instead, it seems more likely that a Chinese text was translated into English and then thoroughly run through FA’s editorial meat grinder—and (as I shall show) not by editors who know much about China. The resulting piece was then back-translated into Chinese—but a very unnatural and stilted Chinese that reads almost like a machine translation. (I invite native Chinese speakers to take a look and comment on whether they agree or disagree.)
The piece goes badly right out of the gate by referring to Xi as “President”, a purely ceremonial and unimportant title, instead of as “General Secretary”, which is his Party title and the one that matters. It is hard to believe that Cai, who thoroughly understands the Chinese political system, would by default think of him as “President” and not “General Secretary”. My guess is that Foreign Affairs made that choice in the editorial process. And because President is an unimportant and ceremonial title, it’s a bad choice because it misleads the reader. For example, the first paragraph states that by doing away with presidential term limits, Xi freed himself to lead China for the rest of his life. This is just wrong. Xi leads China by virtue of being the General Secretary of the Party, and there were never any term limits on that position. If presidential term limits had not been removed, someone else could have served as president, with Xi staying on as Party leader. In that case, there is no doubt who would be supreme. Being president is certainly convenient for the Party leader when he goes abroad because it allows him to represent the Chinese state both formally as well as in fact. But it’s not necessary, as the careers of Mao and Deng both show.
The confusion between Party and state positions continues throughout the piece in a way that cannot possibly have been in Cai’s original draft. The English version of the article says that “opponents of Xi are focused on the one legal avenue for removing him: denying him a third presidential term at the upcoming National Congress.” This is simply wrong. The upcoming National Party Congress (the Chinese version makes clear that the meeting in question is the 20th Party Congress) cannot give him a third term as President. That is a state position formally conferred by the National People’s Congress. The Party Congress can (and very likely will) give him a third term as General Secretary. It is impossible to believe that Cai made this mistake; it must have been inserted into the text in the editorial process.
The English version goes on to say, “The most important constituency, of course, is his fellow Standing Committee members, who ultimately have the greatest say over whether he stays in office, in part because of their control over members of China’s legislature.” But this makes no sense. China’s legislature—the National People’s Congress—has nothing to do with what Cai is discussing here, which is Xi’s prospects for a third term as General Secretary of the Party. I can only think that if Cai proofread the Chinese translation, then she overlooked this part.
The confusion continues where the English text says, “the most likely outcome this fall is that Xi, having so rigged the process and intimidated his rivals, will get his third presidential term and, with it, the right to continue as head of the party and the military for another term.” Again, wrong. What is happening this fall is the Party Congress, where Xi will likely get a third term as General Secretary of the Party, not President. From that will follow succeeding terms as head of state (President) and head of the military (Chairman of the Central Military Commission). I have no doubt that Cai understands all this and cannot possibly have written what the English text has her saying. Fortunately, the Chinese text has not back-translated this mistake, but gets it right, and states that this fall Xi will get a third Party term, and because of that will be able to continue on as head of the state and head of the military.
In short, it is clear that Cai is talking in this piece about Xi’s Party position (General Secretary), and only very occasionally talking about his position as President. The English text evidences considerable confusion about these two positions and ends up saying things that are just not true, and makes Cai appear not to understand her own country’s political system.
Why did mistakes of this type happen? My guess is that the editors of Foreign Affairs, like virtually every other mainstream English-language newspaper and journal, have uncritically adopted the practice promoted by the Chinese English-language propaganda apparatus of calling Xi by his unimportant and ceremonial state title instead of his important and meaningful Party title. It’s clear why China does this: they want China to appear to be a normal country where the person at the top of the state apparatus is the boss, and that’s why they’re the boss. They would like people to forget that it’s still an old-style Leninist party-state, where even the military—not just in substance but even formally—belongs to and serves the Communist Party, not the state. It’s less clear why responsible English-language publications go along with this. I don’t think there’s a single journalist regularly reporting about China who doesn’t understand that it’s the General Secretary position that is important, but somehow everyone still keeps talking about “President” Xi.
Perhaps it’s because they are used to the idea of the person called “President” being the person in charge, and it’s one fewer word, four fewer syllables, and seven fewer letters than “General Secretary”. I have also been told by journalists that their editors prefer “President” even knowing its insignificance because they don’t want to go to the trouble of explaining to readers what a General Secretary is. In other words, they prefer to create a simulacrum of understanding instead of creating actual understanding.
Whatever the reason, it’s misinformation and it should stop. Its effects are not trivial; as we see here, even editors at Foreign Affairs who are not China specialists but are presumably bright people who read serious newspapers have been misled by the continued media titling of “President” Xi into thinking that that’s the position that counts.
As for Foreign Affairs, they should have an editor knowledgeable about China carefully review the piece, correct these mistakes and errors of emphasis, and apologize to Cai, who I am virtually certain is not responsible for them. (Of course, if I’m wrong about who’s responsible, I hereby apologize to the editors of Foreign Affairs.)
A final tangential comment: There is a minor debate in the China-watching community over whether “President” is an appropriate translation of 国家主席, Xi’s state position, or whether the more literal but less familiar “Chairman” should be used. Personally, I prefer “Chairman”, precisely because its unfamiliarity means it’s less likely to mislead readers into thinking that the position carries the powers that the position labeled “President” does in most states. But I don’t think it’s that important, and I don’t at all subscribe to the theory some have advanced that “President” is wrong because the term supposedly implies electoral legitimacy—the world is full of dictators who call themselves “President”. For me the problem is not whether we use “Chairman” or “President”. For me the problem lies in giving such prominence to Xi’s state position, regardless of how we translate it, in the first place.