Xi Jinping and China's new era of glory

Under Xi, China could become a model for digitally driven authoritarianism around the world.

Xi Jinping and China's new era of glory

Two weeks after taking China’s top office in November 2012, Xi Jinping took part in what seemed like a throwaway photo op. He gathered his top lieutenants at the newly renovated National Museum of China, a vast hall stuffed with relics of China’s glorious past: terra-cotta soldiers from Xi’an, glazed statues from the Tang dynasty and rare bronzes from the distant Shang dynasty.

But Xi chose as his backdrop a darker exhibition: “The Road of Rejuvenation.” It tells the story of how China was laid low by foreign countries in the 19th and 20th centuries but is now on the path back to glory. There, in front of images of China’s subjugation, Xi announced that his dream was to complete this sacred task. This soon became the “China Dream” and has shaped his rule ever since.

With Xi about to be reappointed to another five-year term in a Communist Party conference that begins on Wednesday, it’s worth remembering this visit. Many of Xi’s accomplishments and his likely plans for the future are underpinned by an idealistic view that China’s 200-year eclipse is ending now, and it is his mission to lead a rigidly controlled China back to the centre of the world stage.

For foreigners, this means getting used to a China that is stronger and more assertive — but possibly more brittle — than in the past. If Xi is successful, his China could become a model for digitally driven authoritarianism around the world, while failure could force a reconsideration of the wisdom of trying to force-march a country to modernity.

China’s new role is hard to miss in foreign affairs. Beijing has moved aggressively to enforce historically dubious claims to international waters and islands far from its shores, building reefs into islands and making the bizarre assertion that the economic zones around them are Chinese waters — arguments contrary to any independent interpretation of international law.

China has also begun pulling small countries on its periphery into its orbit through a lavish infrastructure plan called the Belt and Road Initiative, in the process propping up regimes that are sliding away from democracy in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.

These ambitious policies to dominate the region are paralleled by tough measures at home. For five years, Xi has led a fierce campaign against corruption, which arguably was the biggest threat to the party’s long-term ability to rule. But he’s also leveraged this crackdown to sideline political rivals, admitting as much last year when he said that high-ranking officials arrested for corruption had been engaging in “political conspiracies.”

A sophisticated programme of domestic surveillance is part of this strategy. The government has encouraged provinces to experiment with a system of “social credit” that rates people on how they behave — from financial delinquency to being too critical online — and then limiting the freedom of offenders, for example by restricting their ability to get promoted or travel on trains or planes, something German political scientist Sebastian Heilmann calls “digital Leninism.”

Nationally, this new policy of refined coercion has eradicated public dissent. Previous leaders disliked alternative viewpoints, but small bookstores, regional newspapers, think tanks and, for a while, social media allowed some space for differing views. Now, these channels are all but closed.

Not all of this started with Xi. China’s military expansion — its two new aircraft carriers, for example — is backed by decades of patient modernisation. The shutting down of social media accounts also began before Xi took office. And then there’s the broader issue of China being a wealthier and more powerful country; under any leader, Beijing was going to shake off its reticence.

But Xi has upped the ante. He’s been far more successful than his predecessors in realising the Communist Party’s vision of ideological uniformity, rendering his administration as more than a straight-line continuation of past leaders. Having a modernised military is one thing, but using it is another; likewise, the severity of the crackdown on dissent — think of the decision to let Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo die in prison in July — reflects a far harsher approach.

One key reason for Xi’s brusque self-confidence is his family history. Xi’s father was one of the founders of the People’s Republic, and Xi grew up in the privileged world of China’s red nobility. That gives him unimaginably more social capital than his two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, both of whom came from relatively pedestrian backgrounds.

These informal networks come on top of Xi’s formal positions, the most important of which is general secretary of the Communist Party, a title he will get for another five years at the party congress.

This combination of formal and informal power has led Xi to make decisions unimaginable under his predecessors. Like Xi, for example, other leaders recognised that China’s naked capitalism left many people living unhappily in a spiritual vacuum. And they, too, recognised that traditional beliefs and culture had a role to play in providing people with a system of values. But Xi has embraced traditionalism like no leader since China’s last emperor abdicated in 1912 — so long as it serves the party.

Rewriting rules

Xi’s positioning himself as a saviour of Chinese culture has been accompanied by increasingly odd statements. According to Xi’s propagandists, he has rewritten the rules of diplomacy; is personally popular among all leaders around the world; and of course is humble and modest. This might be normal for a Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un but is atypical of recent Chinese leaders.

Xi’s new tack is riskier. Unlike any leader since Mao, he has made almost every area of governing his personal area of responsibility. Xi is not a Mao — the comparison has been made but is forced. There is no real personality cult, for example, and he has not embarked on insane economic plans like the Great Leap Forward. But like Mao he is popular, charismatic and supremely self-confident, dangerous traits in a system with no checks and balances.

At home, at least, this centralisation of power has shown few successes. Economic reforms have languished, and the stagnation feels even more pronounced in politics. Perhaps most striking has been the arrest of human rights lawyers. Once a vibrant movement that simply aimed to hold the government accountable to its own laws, human rights advocates have been effectively silenced.

Seen more broadly, Chinese institutions are in danger of decay. In the past, the understanding was that power would transfer smoothly from one leader to the next, if not through elec-
tions then through some sort of tacit agreement.

For a couple of decades, party congresses like the coming one were showcases for this, with one dull leader following the other, sometimes with daggers in their backs, but still in some sort of predictable pattern. This congress, for example, was supposed to anoint Xi’s successor, who would take control in five years. Now this is unlikely, casting doubt on who will succeed Xi.

All of this makes one wonder how Xi’s rule will end: with his taking an unprecedented third five-year term or perhaps staying on in some ceremonial capacity and pulling the strings from behind a curtain? Xi’s predecessor, Hu, is said to be practising Chinese medicine, and to have withdrawn from politics.

The idea of the 64-year-old Xi retiring quietly in five years seems remote. Instead, he and the country as a whole seem likely to keep pushing for their place in the sun.

International New York Times

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