January 8, 2018

China’s Xi Jinping is a president who reads books


If it wasn’t clear already, Donald Trump is not a reader. We’ve written about this here and here — suffice it to say that between sexually harassing a bigly number of women, surviving scalp surgery, and enduring a handful of marriages, Trump hasn’t found the time to read many—if any—good books.

With a functional illiterate in the Oval Office, the mantle of most well-read world leader may now be held by China’s Xi Jinping. Xi has touted his love of reading and boasts an impressive array of favorite writers. At the DiplomatDavid Volodzko has chronicled some of Xi’s literary pronouncements. “I read a lot of Russian writers, such as Krylov, Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Nekrasov, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Sholokhov,” he told a Russian interviewer just before the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Speaking in France the next month, he cited a slew of that nation’s writers, including VoltaireBalzac, and Maupassant. In Beijing recently, he concluded a speech before Secretary of State John Kerry with a quote from Marianne Moore.

In the South China Morning Post last year, Ting Yan mentioned a recent story in Chinese state media about how Xi had as a teenager once walked nearly ten miles through the mountains to get his hands on a copy of Goethe’s Faust. He lists both The Federalist Papers and The Old Man and the Sea among his favorite books. A few years back, he was even regaling audiences with the story of how he had stopped by Hemingway’s favorite bar in Cuba to enjoy a Mojito in homage.

A leader’s reading habits can offer insight into their thinking. During his annual New Year’s Eve address, Xi sits in front of his bookshelf, offering curious onlookers the world over a glimpse at what he’s been reading. James Vincent at The Verge explains:

Chinese netizens don’t just pay attention to his words; they also scour the bookshelves behind Xi, analyzing the titles and authors found there to try and gain some insight into his mind. And the big additions this year? Well, two new texts on artificial intelligence — a topic of huge interest for the Chinese government.

The two books in question, The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos and Augmented by Brett Kingboth argue that AI will change everything. It’s safe to guess Xi agrees, since it was recently announced that his government is building a $2.1-billion-dollar AI development facility. This could be a sign of what’s to come or an acknowledgment that China is already at the forefront of the technology. Last year, the Economist covered a White House report that found Chinese scientists had published more scholarly articles on deep learning, a major topic in AI, than their American counterparts.

The hastily-assembled Mr. Potatohead that is our President has proposed a budget that will drastically slash research funding. While Xi is reading up on AI, Trump appears to have nothing on his mind at all.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.