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How the Russian president became China’s ultimate self-help muse

How the Russian president became China’s ultimate self-help muse
Putin-themed self-help books in a Chinese book store. Images courtesy of the author

In China, one foreign leader overshadows all others on the country’s bookshelves: Russian President Vladimir Putin. While some tomes are dedicated to government policy and international relations, many more are self-help bibles, portraying the Russian leader as a role model for masculinity. But as Ed Pulford discovers, these books say far more about modern China than they do about Russia today.

17 May 2021

Beijing Books Building evokes much of contemporary China’s Soviet-inflected inheritance. A short walk west of the Communist Party compound at Zhongnanhai, this imposing tiled cuboid faces onto Chang’an Avenue, a ten-lane traffic artery whose kilometre-long city blocks and hulking horizontal government buildings dwarf any visitor to the heart of the socialist capital, much like Moscow’s broad avenues and Stalinist skyscrapers.

Yet the biography section inside the building’s five-storey Xinhua Bookstore exhibits a distinctly post-Soviet link to the Russian capital. Its shelves may be filled with an array of books on world leaders past and present, but one man overshadows them all with reams of dedicated, researched material: Russian President Vladimir Putin. These lavish tomes range from quotation collections to Putin-themed Russian-language textbooks and guides to the secrets of global diplomacy. But the most common genre by some distance is self-help: manuals in which Putin is presented as a model for Chinese men seeking to boost their masculinity. The Russian leader grins and glowers out from the covers of evocative titles including Hardman Putin, Putin: The Perfect Man in the Eyes of All Women and Putin’s Guide to Being a Man.

“Why do Russians passionately love this unremarkable-looking, short man?” asks the blurb to Hardman Putin

“Why do Russians passionately love this unremarkable-looking, short man?” asks the blurb to Hardman Putin, promising both hard-to-find answers, and a window into another – Russian – world. But these books say much more about China than they do about Russia. As the macho overseer of an erstwhile socialist “brother” country situated literally and symbolically between China and “the West”, the Russian president — known in Chinese as Pujing — is a sympathetic figure in the party-approved Chinese context. More intriguingly, however, his persona sheds light on China’s complex relations with Russia and the world, and the entanglement of these with shifting ideas around individualism and gender.

In the political realm, the volumes link Pujing’s status as “the most ardent, most magnanimous, most good-natured and most determined” of world figures with his notional role as the leader of a post-Soviet Russian revival. We learn that by emulating his idols Josef Stalin, Peter the Great, and Pyotr Stolypin, Putin has pursued a heroic dream to restore the Great Russian Empire, saving it from ruin during the 2000s before staging a triumphant “return of the Tsar” in 2012 after his presidential “castling” with Dmitri Medvedev.

This revivalist imagery chimes with the curated image of current Chinese president Xi Jinping, officially the architect of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” since he took power in 2012. Befitting their heroism, each leader has recently seen their terms in office extended almost indefinitely. A March 2018 vote in the National People’s Congress removed presidential term limits from China’s Constitution, while in summer 2020, similar Russian amendments were made via a national referendum.

One example from a multitude of Putin-themed self-help books

One example from a multitude of Putin-themed self-help books

The now seemingly-endless Xi-Putin era has also been one of blossoming Moscow-Beijing relations. As noted by Natasha Kuhrt, an expert on Russia’s relations with East Asia at King’s College London, warming ties have their roots in the late Soviet 1980s, but Putin inherited a promising legacy after thorny issues around border disputes, arms sales, and Russian regional discontent were already resolved when he embarked on his own political projects.

“Since Putin fused the Kremlin’s objectives with oligarchs’ business interests, Russia and China have had to interact more,” says Kuhrt, pointing to the increasingly regular summits which have accompanied deeper trade and resource-based ties in recent years. “It’s a strong relationship now because Russia and China have a lot of joint arrangements that they have to keep going.”

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At a ceremony in June 2018, Xi conferred on Putin China’s Order of Friendship, an atmospheric echo of the vaunted 1950s Sino-Soviet Friendship when the early People’s Republic of China (PRC) drew as many lessons in state-building and industry from the USSR as it did in urban planning.

But Putin’s Chinese persona bespeaks more than authoritarian rapprochement or socialist nostalgia. As shown by the books’ lengthy dissections of his unparalleled strength, charm, imagination, reliability, and humour, he embodies a host of traits which reflect the concerns of individual Chinese people in a distinctly postsocialist global age. The audience for these books is thus less likely to see him as an alternative idol to Xi than as a foreign-yet-familiar figure on which to project everyday virtues.

Putin’s widely documented efforts to cultivate an assertive global image are not lost on Chinese readers interested in asserting their own robust individuality. As Hardman Putin emphasises, Pujing embodies resoluteness, self-belief, authenticity, pragmatism and competitiveness, traits exemplified by his leather-clad theatrics atop Harley Davidsons and his willingness to take personal responsibility for Russia’s guided missile programme. In pointing to these, the books offer a didactic list of “principles” for Chinese men to emulate: “he who does not take risks is not a man,” Putin’s Guide to Being a Man states categorically.

Chinese interest in self-improvement through emulation of – often male – exemplars has a long history. In his book Creating the New Man” historian Yinghong Cheng traces the roots of this back to Confucian and Daoist devotion to respected scholars, linking such practices to the later idealisation of exemplary “new socialist people” such as the youthful do-gooding soldier Lei Feng and female tractor driver Liang Jun. These also had Soviet analogues in the Stakhanovite and model worker movements.

The Putin-themed self-help book, Return of the Tsar

The Putin-themed self-help book, Return of the Tsar

But even if the Chinese Communist Party still governs a nation of Soviet-style cities, today’s globalised consumerist China demands new models. This is no longer an arena for the “new socialist person”, but for the confident manager, urban flaneur or tech innovator, characters better suited to a ruthlessly competitive market society. Some exemplars of such figures are homegrown. Indeed, Putin: The Perfect Man in the Eyes of All Women spends a lengthy introduction drawing parallels between the Russian leader’s can-do spirit and that of Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Elsewhere, Putin is compared to tennis champion Li Na, whose confident and humorous post-match persona exemplify her bold and forthright character.

All of this points to Pujing’s embodiment of a kind of self-possessed individualism which is often idealised in contemporary China. As anthropologist Yunxiang Yan has documented, new ideas around choice and self-worth have underlain a wider “individualisation of Chinese society” in the post-Mao, post-collectivist era. Willfulness, poise and ability to “dance on a knife edge” has, A Biography of Putin tells us, been evident in the leader since his early years managing the Kursk and Beslan disasters. The breathless pace of life in today’s urban PRC forces much of the potential audience for these books into their own perilous daily dance, negotiating the social and financial pressures of family expectations and a constant sense of rush around educational and professional opportunities.

Even if the Chinese Communist Party still governs a nation of Soviet-style cities, today’s globalised consumerist China demands new models. This is no longer an arena for the “new socialist person”, but for the confident manager, urban flaneur, or tech innovator

Combined with his national “saviour” role, the Chinese Putin’s composure under pressure also makes him an individual metonym for the kind of confidence which powerful states should exhibit on the world stage. As Hardman Putin emphasises, his ability to “keep his enemies close” emerged particularly in dealings with American presidents such as Barack Obama. This is telling, for as Natasha Kuhrt notes, “there was a stress in the Russian media during the Obama years on Obama being a wimp and Putin being a strongman.” Unlike the patrician former US president, Pujing thus boasts a rugged individualism which China at large could adopt in its interactions with geopolitical adversaries.

As with nationalism of any stripe, there is also a clear gendered dimension to this celebration of rugged individualism. In the bruising realms of domestic Russian politics and global geopolitics, Pujing’s “hardman” characteristics are evident in his swashbuckling, action-man lifestyle. Whether flying into the heart of a Chechen warzone or hunting, fishing, swimming and snowmobiling, he is constantly on the move, demonstrating fearlessness, ability to get the job done and refusal ever to be fully satisfied. “A man must be brave,” and “A man must be resolute at key moments,” declares Putin: The Perfect Man in the Eyes of All Women.

The Russian president peers out of the cover of Putin: The Perfect Man in the Eyes of All Women

The Russian president peers out of the cover of Putin: The Perfect Man in the Eyes of All Women

As a sub-category of the self-possessing individual, the active macho male is also an important aspirational character in Chinese views of self and the world. As noted by Geng Song, a scholar of masculinity at Hong Kong University, “the performance of Chinese masculinity is increasingly an individual performance in recent times.”

China’s early post-Mao decades witnessed what some saw as a “crisis of masculinity” as intellectuals sought out redemptive male heroes amid a sense that radical campaigns had emasculated the country’s men. Men had been powerless to prevent the untold damage on society wrought by the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, while socialist ideas around female liberation, it was thought, had also elevated women at men’s expense. Encounters since then with shifting contours of global masculinities, from brash American individualism to the softer aesthetics of Korean and Japanese male idols, have magnified this sense of crisis in some quarters. According to Song, conservative sections of society – including the government – now emphasise assertive manhood as “part of promoting a more masculine image for Chinese men on the international stage.” Indeed, a controversial December 2020 statement saw China’s Ministry of Education condemn the purported “feminisation” of young Chinese men, recommending more sport in schools as an antidote.

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Yet this report drew strong criticism – particularly from China’s younger online public – showing that assertiveness and physical strength are far from the only desirable male attributes in today’s China. Correspondingly, while the Chinese Putin’s macho image may suggest a more conservative intended audience for these books, he is not without a tender side. This may allow his image to appeal to those with a more multifaceted idea of masculinity.

When not riding a horse topless, Pujing is a magnanimous and tolerant figure like the traditional Chinese gentleman junzi, displaying good humour (joking about not wanting US-imposed “Iraq-style democracy”), humility (allowing a Japanese girl to throw him to the ground during a judo match), and cultivation (hanging out with sophisticated figures such as Leonardo di Caprio). In many respects therefore, the Chinese Putin floats appealingly between multiple global currents of idealised masculinity, a rugged individualist committed to his country, and an archetypal gentleman unafraid to stand firm on the world stage, particularly vis-à-vis the West.

Attesting to one bygone facet of Sino-Russian connection, the Xinhua store in Beijing Book Building has a section appealingly translated “Books for Communists”. But today’s Chinese readership encounter Russia and the Kremlin in circumstances very different from the Soviet 20th century. The Chinese Putin’s dual role as robust man of action and sentimental individual reflects this, demonstrating both assertive and anxious Chinese responses to the contested masculinities and nationalist geopolitics of a global post-socialist age.