Xi and Wen do battle on the bookshelves

BEIJING - Retired Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji and Li Peng did battle on the bestsellers list when their books hit the shelves earlier this year.

Giving them a run for their money are President Xi Jinping and retired premier Wen Jiabao, whose books were launched in recent weeks.

The latest releases, besides highlighting a thriving trade in books by Chinese political leaders, also sparked speculation about their political significance since they came out not long before a four-day key meeting of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) kicked off last Saturday.

Mr Xi's book consists of a collection of speeches he made when he was party boss of coastal Zhejiang province from 2002 to 2007, though the publisher said it has some new material.

Mr Wen's book carries a selection of his speeches, letters and conversations on education from 1996 to February this year before he retired as premier.

Analyst Steve Tsang of the University of Nottingham believes that Mr Xi's book is a way for the Chinese leader to assert himself as the head of the CCP.

It is "an authorised publication designed to present a public image of Xi as Xi would have liked", he told The Straits Times.

"Unlike his two immediate predecessors, particularly Hu Jintao, Xi is keen to assert himself as leader of the party, not just as the head of a collective leadership," he added.

Renmin University political analyst Zhang Ming said having a new book would give Mr Wen an opportunity to make a public appearance, which he can use "to stop talk that his family is being investigated". This arose after The New York Times ran an expose about the Wen family's wealth last year.

Mr Wang Xiaodong, vice-president of the China Booksellers and Publishers Association, however, thinks it would be easy to read too much into the book launches.

He pointed out that as many political meetings are held every year, like the annual legislative and political advisory meetings in March, a book could be launched just before a certain key event.

"There's no necessary link," Mr Wang said.

Books by Chinese leaders usually sell very well in China even though they are not memoirs.

Instead, they often contain their speeches, peppered with slogans such as "moderately prosperous society", and are usually shorn of controversial content because these publications are subject to much more stringent checks.

At an average retail price of about 60 yuan (S$12), they also cost twice as much as an average book.

Still, sales are high because there is a ready market of party cadres who look on the leaders as their role models, said Mr Wang.

For instance, the four-volume Zhu Rongji On The Record: The Road To Reform 1991-1997, sold 1.3 million copies in China and was the best-selling non-fiction title in 2011.

A book containing Mr Xi's key speeches since he became party chief last November has sold 500,000 copies since it was released in August.

His latest book, titled Gan Zai Shi Chu, Zou Zai Qian Lie (roughly translated as Take Real Action, Be In The Lead), will be of interest to those hoping to find clues to his policy preferences.

The speeches in the 557-page book cover topics from culture to improving the lives of migrant workers.

Besides speeches, the book also includes reports by the Central Party School Publishing House.

All these should be seen more as "learning materials" for party cadres, said Mr Wang.

Mr Wen is the first among those who retired last November from the apex Politburo Standing Committee to release a book.

Titled Wen Jiabao On Education, the 591-page book contains many letters to students and nuggets about his childhood: his parents lived with him and his two siblings in a small house of 9 sq m. His father had to sell his watch for money to treat the young Wen who had a throat infection.

"I feel a lot for teachers. My grandfather, father and mother were all teachers," Mr Wen said in remarks quoted in the book.

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