The degree of pomp that greeted the recent release of the nine foreign-language editions of "The Governance of China II" by Xi Jinping, China's president, may have set a new record in the West for the launch of any translation of a Chinese work.
In London, the unveiling ceremony was held in a grand Edwardian building just a few steps away from Parliament. It had the air of a coronation. An immaculately airbrushed image of Xi, displayed on stage, smiled down on the 300-odd guests. A procession of Chinese and British bigwigs took to the stage, trying to outbid one another in their proffers of praise for Xi's book. One of them was Queen Elizabeth's son, Prince Andrew, who called the work a "milestone."
China's ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, likened its release to that of the much slimmer "Communist Manifesto," which had been published in London 170 years earlier. As guests made their way out, each was given a free hardback copy of the pale beige-colored work wrapped in red cloth tied with gold brocade, together with a bookmark made of card with Xi's smiling portrait on it.
Xi's books have been distributed in greater quantity abroad than those of any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. More than 6.6 million copies were published globally of his first one, "The Governance of China," a collection of his speeches and essays from 2012, when he assumed power, until mid-2014.
Cambodia's ruler, Hun Sen, has urged compatriots to buy it. Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand's junta leader, has asked his cabinet to study it. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, has been quoted by Chinese media as saying that he has bought copies for colleagues to help them "understand socialism with Chinese characteristics." A copy was even photographed on Zuckerberg's desk. (Nonetheless, Facebook remains blocked in China.)
The sequel is a compilation of Xi's speeches and writings from August 2014 to September 2017, many of them previously unpublished in English. It has 17 chapters, each exploring a major theme in domestic or foreign policy. "Every single comment we've received from foreign readers has been overwhelmingly positive," said an employee from China International Publishing Group, the overseas distributor.
There may not be very many readers outside China. The publisher claims the second volume has a global circulation of 13 million. But, according to Scott Morton of Nielsen Bookscan, a data provider, fewer than 100 copies of the English-language version of the second volume have actually been sold in Britain since it was published in November.
Sales are slightly higher in Australia, at 124. The first volume has not performed much better: 588 copies in Britain and 430 in Australia. It is likely that freebies of both volumes hugely exceed the number of copies sold to individuals. Finding foreigners who have actually read Xi's magnum opus is about as easy as finding thigh-slapping jokes in it.
In China, many of the Communist Party's 90 million members have been given copies. The Central Committee has ordered members to read them. Soldiers have been urged to peruse it, too.
In parts, Volume II reads almost like a manifesto. He may have been studying Mao's little red book, which tells readers that "to link oneself with the masses, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses." Unless, that is, they demand a vote on who should lead them.