Most journalists like to think of themselves as skeptical of power and resistant to official narratives, particularly in this era of American politics. But American news networks, magazines, and newspapers have been spreading a pernicious piece of Chinese propaganda for years. It’s more subtle than Donald Trump’s bombast and, having gone mostly ignored, weakens American understanding of China. In their articles about the trade war, protests in Hong Kong, China’s human rights violations, and China’s global advances, every major American publication refers to Xi Jinping as China’s “president.”
That is bizarre—because China has no president.
Xi actually holds three key titles. The first two are a mouthful: Xi serves as the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party; the chairman of the Central Military Commission, the body that oversees the army; and the head of the People’s Republic of China. In Chinese, that third title translates as chairman of the country.
Official Chinese propaganda outlets often mistranslate the chairman in that third title as president, when writing for foreign audiences. But just like no one in the United States calls Trump the chairman of America, no one in China calls Xi president. A recent search for “Chairman Xi Jinping” in Chinese on Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, yields roughly 28.1 million hits; “General Secretary Xi Jinping,” roughly 29.2 million, while “President Xi Jinping” retrieves … a single webpage. (There is a Chinese word for president, used for leaders like Trump and France’s Emmanuel Macron.)
But in English on Google, the situation is reversed: Googling “President Xi Jinping” returns more than 7.7 million results, with “General Secretary Xi Jinping” yielding fewer than 75,000 results and “Chairman Xi Jinping” fewer than 25,000. The English language versions of China’s top propaganda outlets, People’s Daily and Xinhua, call Xi president, and so do the World Bank, the United Nations, the White House, and others. Trump nearly always uses the title. “President Xi and I will always be friends, no matter what happens with our dispute on trade,” he tweeted in April 2018, to take just one example. Even when criticizing his dictatorial tendencies, all major American news outlets refer to Xi as president. Admittedly, I’ve done it myself in most articles I’ve written about him. This must stop.
Why is this mistranslation pernicious and problematic? Because it allows Beijing to tell two radically different stories. In China, General Secretary Xi Jinping rules over a tightly controlled, illiberal system. But internationally, President Xi Jinping can advocate globalization, openness, and free trade.
It also obscures what is unique about China’s authoritarian political system. Dictators who call themselves president domestically—Russia’s Vladimir Putin, for instance—often at least go through the motions of democracy, holding national elections, tolerating some level of opposition. Although Putin’s Russia is no paradigm of good governance, Russia today is considerably more democratic than China. Moscow treats prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny horribly: It jailed him in late July for encouraging a protest and possibly poisoned him. Beijing doesn’t even allow for a single opposition leader.
So what should we call Xi instead? Because the Communist Party dominates China and its government, Xi’s most important title is general secretary. General secretary is the title Chinese media often use for domestic readers. As a 2018 article on translating Xi’s titles into English published in the Chinese news site Sohu explains, “In China, the post of Chairman of the Country is a symbolic one.” Xi wields the title of chairman when performing state functions, like meeting the president of the Ivory Coast or attending APEC. I prefer chairman because in English it recalls the Communist Party of Mao Zedong, rather than that of Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin or Leonid Brezhnev. But both titles are accurate, and far more honest than president. Government organizations: Update your handbooks. Newspaper copy editors: Time to change those style guides.
It may seem like a minor point of nomenclature, but understanding how Beijing actually describes its own officials provides crucial insights into how the Chinese government functions. Consider the case of Meng Hongwei, the former president of Interpol detained on a late September trip to China and accused of bribery. When Chinese state media discuss Meng, they refer to him by his two titles that matter: vice minister of public security and member of the Ministry of Public Security’s secretive party committee. Astonishingly, given that Meng was the only Chinese citizen to run an important international body, state media would sometimes write about Meng and not even mention his presidency of Interpol. The message was clear: Meng’s relationship with the ruling Communist Party trumps all.
Most respected American news outlets don’t legitimize Trump’s false claims about his inauguration crowd size. They don’t call the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, where upward of 1 million Muslims are in concentration camps by its official title, because “Xinjiang Autonomous Region” offends common decency. Nor do they parrot Beijing’s lies that Tibet—another nonautonomous “Autonomous Region”—is a paradise of ethnic harmony.
Don’t support legitimizing China’s autocratic political system? Believe that China’s political system deserves respect for what it actually is? Or just believe in accurately translating foreign words into English? Then stop calling Xi president. Call Xi chairman, a title he actually holds, and a title he deserves.