23 January 2014

"Chairman" Xi? Not so fast ...

In a recent piece for GlobalPost, Benjamin Carlson warns us away from employing what he calls "hazardous China clichés." Most I wouldn't argue with, but one in particular needs to be addressed for its less-than-deep grasp of China's political history and constitutional structure. He writes (emphasis added):

Pop quiz: What’s the most powerful political office in China?

If you guessed “president,” you’re wrong.
It’s the General Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. In China,"president" is a largely ceremonial title that is bestowed on whoever wins the office of general secretary — but it's the secretary position that counts.

There’s a good reason for the confusion over which name to use, however.

English-language media almost exclusively refers to Xi Jinping, the most powerful man in China, as “the president.” A recent Google News search for “President Xi Jinping” turned up nearly 6,000 results, while a search for “Chairman Xi Jinping” (the title by which he’s known in Chinese) turned up three hits.
Even Chinese state-run media call him “president” in English, while calling him “chairman” in Chinese.
The reason is obvious: Using the word “president” makes Xi sound equivalent to a democratically elected head of state. The reality is, in China Xi Jinping is called the same thing Mao Zedong was called: “chairman.” If we’re willing to say “Chairman Mao,” why not “Chairman Xi?”
There is indeed confusion,but in this case it's about how to translate 主席, which is both the "Chairman" in "Chairman Mao" and the "President" in "President Xi."

The title of 主席 has become so synonymous with Mao Zedong in no small part because he held so many different positions under that title and held them for so long. In 1943, Mao led the Chinese Communist Party as "chairman" of the Politburo. In 1945, he also took on the chairmanship of the CCP Central Committee, a post he held until his death in 1976.

After the founding of the PRC in 1949, Mao also headed the state as 主席 of the Central People's Government. When the first PRC constitution was enacted in 1954, Mao served as the first 中华人民共和国主席 (also known as 国家主席), the new position created to serve the function of "head of state." In 1959, Liu Shaoqi became head of state, while Mao continued to head the party. After Liu was arrested in 1968, the position of president was left unfilled. The post was abolished under the 1975 and 1978 constitutions, when supreme power of the state reverted to collective leadership under the National People's Congress.

In 1982, a new PRC constitution revived the post of 国家主席. The following year, the CCP constitution was amended, abolishing the position of "party chairman" (that is, chairman of the CCP Central Committee) and began referring to the party head as 总书记 ("general secretary"). These posts did not begin to be held by the same person until 1993, when then-General Secretary Jiang Zemin succeeded Yang Shangkun as 国家主席.

Yes, heading the CCP has generally been what "matters" most in China, politically speaking. But if you want to refer to Xi Jinping by his party title, you need to call him "General Secretary Xi," not "Chairman Xi." When Chinese refer to 习主席, they are inevitably referring to his "largely ceremonial" position as head of state, not his position within the party. (Of course, Xi is also 主席 of the Central Military Commission, but in most contexts he's being referred to as 国家主席.) 

One is of course free to translate 国家主席 almost any way one likes. But English versions of the Chinese constitution have been translating it as "president" for 60 years, and simply arguing that we should say "Chairman Xi" just because we said "Chairman Mao" is not compelling from a historical viewpoint.


  1. Has 主席 always been translated to "president" in the PRC, as the title for the office? I thought Carlson's point was that 1) since 毛主席 was "Chairman Xi," then 习主席 should be "Chairman Xi," not "President Xi", and 2) The term "President" has connotations of democracy and legitimacy, whereas "Chairman" (presumably) sounds more authoritarian , or even Maoish, and that we ought to default to the dictatorial connotations rather than the democratic ones. Perhaps that politicizes the matter overly. In any case, the Chinese have the term 总统 for "president." The question is: was the translation of 主席 to "president" a deliberate attempt to make it seem more legit in English? I believe that is what Carlson's beef is.

  2. The whole point of the above discussion is that translating 主席 depends on the context. I think if you consult English translations of the 1954 PRC Constitution, you'll find 中华人民共和国主席 translated as "president of the PRC."

    I didn't address the issue you re-raise about whether "president" carries certain connotations of democracy or legitimacy because I believe it's irrelevant to the question of how we should translate 习主席. There are many who have called themselves "president" whose democratic credentials were less-than stellar. Sometimes we ditch the title in favor of something else, other times we don't. President Putin? President Ahmadinejad? (As for 总统, Chiang Kai-shek was 总统 of the ROC for many decades, not one of them democratic.)

    Ultimately, we didn't refer to Mao as "chairman" as a way of signalling our disapproval of his dictatorial ways. If you want to convey the idea that you think Xi Jinping is an illegitimate leader, then I think there are better, more direct ways to do so than denying him a particular title.