As the People’s Republic of China celebrated its 70th anniversary last year, the outlook towards the future was a predominantly positive one.
For President Xi Jinping, the start of the new decade represented opportunity. Since the beginning of his time as paramount leader in 2012, Xi has distinguished himself with his limitless ambition and relentless drive towards achieving his goals. For him, 2020 should have been a year of numerous achievements.
It also should have been a year for China to further strengthen its diplomatic relations and consolidate its central position on the global stage.
“We have friends in every corner of the world,” Xi proudly stated during his 2020 New Year Speech. He added then, with much optimism, that “2020 will be a year of milestone significance. We will finish building a moderately prosperous society in all respects.”
However, seven months after the address, these projections have fallen short.
To describe the year 2020 as eventful would be an understatement. From heightened international conflicts to increased domestic issues, China has had to address a wide variety of important matters—all amidst a global rise in anti-Chinese sentiments and a pandemic that originated in the country.
For almost a decade, President Xi Jinping has taken advantage of the political-economic foundations provided to him by his predecessors, and led China in its 21st century pursuit of excellence and expansive global dominance. Xi’s guidance has contributed to the formation of China’s current status as a superpower and second largest global economy, but his current actions could potentially put his country in a vulnerable position in the future, and undo years’ worth of efforts to propel China to where it is now.
Xi’s thirst for even more centralized power—as seen recently in his increasingly more confrontational domestic and foreign policies, as well as bold leadership style—are driving China dangerously towards despotism. This not only risks alienating China from the international community, but also feeds growing dissatisfaction within government and Chinese Communist Party ranks. Soon, Xi might find himself fighting a war on two fronts.
However, Xi is neither weak nor reckless. Though his current decisions will likely have repercussions for China in the long-run, they also provide Xi opportunities to further consolidate his power with his domestic base. Xi does not act without purpose. His firm disposition and sharp political acumen have even left a lasting impression on countless influential figures, including Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, who once stated that “[Xi] has iron in his soul…. I would put him in Nelson Mandela’s class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgement. In a word, he is impressive.”
Since 2012, Xi has been the paramount leader of China and the most powerful individual in the country. He is—among other titles—General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Chair of the Central Military Commission. Armed with such centralized authority, the ambitious Xi made it clear from the beginning that his tenure would be transformative for the whole nation.
In an interview with The Politic, Yuhua Wang—an associate professor at Harvard University’s Department of Government—said that from the start, “Xi [has been] trying to send a very significant message to the Chinese people and the international audience about the rejuvenation of Chinese civilization…under the leadership of the Communist Party of China,” and by extension, his own.
Wang stated that “for a long time, China was the dominant economy and political power in the world. Until the eighteenth century, it was also one of the strongest nations…[but fell behind] in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries…. Xi’s message [when he first began his presidency] was that under the leadership of the Communist Party, China would now return to the international stage as a superpower.”
This is true. With roots going back more than three millennia, China was one of the world’s leading civilizations for centuries, boasting great stability and prosperity, as well as regional dominance. It was a major trade center and a significant military power. Yet internal conflicts like the Taiping Rebellion—coupled with the overwhelming force of Western imperialism—reversed China’s fortunes, leaving it extremely vulnerable. By around 1900, the country had lost much of its political-economic autonomy and was being partitioned in a state of guafen kuangchao; it was being “carved up like a melon” by foreign imperial powers. Though Japan was among them, the major empires who sought to establish spheres of influence in China were primarily Western ones such as that of Germany, Russia, France and Great Britain.
However, this would soon change. Rana Mitter—Director of the University of Oxford China Centre and professor of history and politics of modern China—told The Politic that in the 20th century, “China moved from being a country that is essentially victimized to one that is able to have agency and make its own decisions.”
“The period when that changes [in the 20th century] is not immensely clear,” Mitter said, stating that it often differs slightly depending on the expert perspective. But in his opinion, the shift occurred “in the mid-twentieth century, particularly with the period of the Second World War…. At the beginning of the War, China was still semi-colonized…but by 1945, at the end of the War, China was in the Allied side. It was in a difficult situation because it was being attacked, but it was able to regain sovereignty…. Ever since then, China’s governments, both that of the Kuomintang nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party, have sought to create a China that is able to make its own decisions…unencumbered or influenced [by other nations].”
Yet the bitter and humiliating time China spent at the mercy of Western imperialism has not been forgotten by citizens. Xi certainly hasn’t forgotten. His vision for China, which many Western media sources often misconstrue, is not necessarily that of deliberately hostile expansion at the expense of other nations’ wellbeing, but rather of true national rejuvenation, of the re-establishment of a global order that had long been part of human history.
To revitalize China, Xi created a new ethos: the Chinese Dream. This concept centers itself around national prosperity, collective effort, and patriotism, as well as the improvement of citizens’ quality of living. Xi believes that China should regain its rightful place at the top—and that this is possible if every member of society works towards that goal. In a speech he gave at a dinner for the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, he affirmed that “the Chinese dream is, after all, a dream of the people. We can fulfill the Chinese dream only when we link it with our people’s yearning for a better life.”
“Xi Jinping is the most ideological leader China has had since Mao Zedong,” Mitter said.
“Xi [has been] really strong on nationalism and ideology,” Wang agreed, “with the main purpose of providing an ideological foundation to hold the country together and incentivizing [the Chinese people]…to make the country great again.”
Xi’s political persona is extraordinarily complex. On the one hand, Xi promotes himself as a populist—a relatable and easy-to-connect-with ‘man of the people.’ On the other hand, he thrives off of what has now practically become a cult of personality centered around him. These two seemingly contradictory—but actually complementary—sides of Xi are clearly reflected in his policies and decisions.
This began at home. One of Xi’s most significant domestic policies has been his anti-corruption campaign, which has led to the indictment of more than 100,000 government figures—ranging from low-ranking officials to senior executives—with charges related to corruption and illegal activities. Such campaigns have not been uncommon, and were even prominently carried out by Chairman Mao to eliminate his political rivals in the mid-twentieth century. Xi’s own father, a revolutionary veteran and well-known Communist Party official, was purged during the Cultural Revolution. Yet the scale at which Xi has launched his is unprecedented.
“[The anti-corruption campaign] is the single most important political move that Xi has made,” Wang stated. “[It has] provided the pre-conditions for his own consolidation of power.”
The anti-corruption campaign has been critical for three main reasons. Firstly, it reinforces Xi’s image of being a strongman concerned with the people and their wellbeing. Citizens believe that Xi is determined to promote true justice and progress. The campaign appeals greatly to the general populace, as it is seen as an initiative by Xi to better connect those in power with those they are meant to serve. Secondly, it tackles what has genuinely been a major issue within the Communist Party, and addresses a culture of impunity tightly-entrenched within the government. The campaign has effectively punished more than one million officials found guilty of crimes such as bribery and abuses of power. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the anti-corruption campaign promotes the idea of unity. Under a pleasant facade, Xi has been able to ruthlessly eliminate dissenters, exercise his authority, and create an environment of political cohesion—or alternatively, political obedience.
Another policy area that has been a key focus of Xi’s has been technology. The Great Firewall of China began in 2003 as part of the Golden Shield Project, and is currently the world’s most sophisticated national censorship and surveillance operation. Under Xi, China has continued strengthening this Firewall—especially to remove any trace of criticism against the paramount leader or the Party.
Recently, the Chinese government has released its most restrictive Internet-related regulation to date: the “Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem.” Approved in December 2019 and implemented in March 2020, the Provisions outline in a more comprehensive manner, ways to limit online speech and activity, emphasizing the government’s intentions to ‘wage war’ against perceived negative content. Of course, ‘negative’ can be broadly defined in many ways, something which questions the integrity of China’s projects and decisions.
China’s system of government is very hybrid, but it is evident that since 2012, China has been deviating from democracy and moving towards authoritarianism, especially through restrictions on citizens’ freedoms and human rights. This is beneficial for Xi, as it allows him to be even more audacious with his domestic plans, but it has also raised concerns nationally and overseas. There are those who would even give Xi another title: ‘emperor.’
In 2018, Xi was not only reappointed for a second presidential term, but also managed to abolish presidential term limits all together in a move that would potentially allow him to rule indefinitely. Despite the controversiality of the decision, it was approved almost unanimously in the National People’s Congress with 2,958 votes in favor, two opposed and three abstentions. The constitutional amendment reflects Xi’s desire to not only reach Chairman Mao’s levels of power and notoriety—but perhaps even to surpass them.
That same year, to further immortalize Xi’s political influence, the National People’s Congress voted unanimously to integrate Xi’s political beliefs—collectively called Xi Jinping Thought—into the country’s constitution as a guiding ideology. This honor is one that has only been bestowed to two other people: Deng Xiaoping, who played a major role in positively transforming modern China’s political-economic landscape, and Chairman Mao.
Susan Shirk, former U.S. deputy assistant Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, expressed that “what is going on…is that Xi Jinping is setting himself up to rule China as a strongman, a personalistic leader—I have no problem calling it a dictator—for life.”
Despite overt shows of support and the near-unanimous decision regarding term limits, Xi still faces potential threats to his authority in his country. Though information about inner party activity is very limited, there have been reports of power struggles against Xi in the past few years, as well as alleged attempted coups from prominent Chinese politicians such as Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua, Xu Caihou, Guo Boxiong and Sun Zhengcai. Recently, Li Keqiang, the current Premier, has become more vocal about disagreements with the current administration, particularly regarding the government’s effectiveness in addressing the country’s socioeconomic inequality problem.
However, it is clear that Xi still enjoys widespread popularity in China. Xi’s ability to effectively use all possible legal, political and cultural mediums in his favor has contributed to the creation of a cult of personality. Xi seems approachable, yet nobody would really dare to approach him. He seems humble, yet also heroic and worthy of admiration. Adulation towards Xi is encouraged in every fact of Chinese society, and has even been seen in mobile games.
Though difficult to find, there is also statistical data that affirms that most Chinese citizens have a favorable view of their leader. For example, a survey made by the Harvard Kennedy School in 2014 asked Chinese citizens about the confidence they had in their president when it came to handling domestic and international affairs; Xi received high scores of 94.8 percent in the former category and a 93.8 percent in the latter one.
Xi’s most serious threats to his authority come from abroad, where his image has been quickly deteriorating, especially among fellow world leaders.
This is not a recent phenomenon. Under Xi, China has become more outspoken and assertive regarding its interests. This has been praised at home as a manifestation of modern China’s strength and influence, but it has been seen as threatening by others. In 2019, the country was involved in many international feuds such as the continuation of a trade war with the United States and allegations of illicit cyber activity performed in cooperation with multinational technology company Huawei, which have led to problems with the British government.
Foreign tensions with countries both in the West and the East have continued and intensified in 2020, especially in the context of COVID-19. China’s initial mismanagement of—and attempts to withhold information about—the coronavirus pandemic, which now has more than 14 million confirmed cases globally, has led to much resentment and animosity from many countries.
“There is no doubt that we can’t have business as usual after this crisis, and we will have to ask the hard questions about how [COVID-19] came about and how it couldn’t have been stopped earlier,” said Dominic Raab, the United Kingdom’s First Secretary of State, hinting the need to inflict future punishment on China.
In Asia, China has sought to establish what seems to be absolute control, reminiscent of how the country had been the region’s dominant power in the past, especially at the peak of its Qing dynasty, which ruled an empire with over a third of the world’s population.
Since May of 2020, China has been in a territorial dispute with India, resulting in several military standoffs between troops along the Sino-Indian border. An area that is particularly fought over is the Kashmir region, which has parts that are controlled by both China and India. China has also had conflicts with other Asian countries—including Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, and Malaysia—due to its expanded territorial claims over the South China Sea and its vast resources. China has antagonized neighboring nations through its increasing militarization of land along the Sea, as well as the creation of artificial islands.
Most notably, China has sought to reassert its authority in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Recently, China enacted a stringent national security law in Hong Kong, which gives the mainland government new and increased powers to oversee many aspects of the special administrative region’s society, including education, social activism and media. It also allows China to be more efficient—and ruthless—in ‘disciplining’ Hong Kong, which has had massive pro-democracy protests since last year. In regards to Taiwan, China has become increasingly more aggressive and militaristic with its claims over the island nation, raising concerns about a forced annexation in the near future.
For China, the year 2020 will be one of the most decisive in its modern history. For its president, 2020 will be one of the most important of his political career. Xi’s decisions this year will be critical in ensuring the wellbeing and longevity of his nation. Making sure China perseveres until next year is particularly important for Xi; after all, 2021 is a key year, marking the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
In his most recent New Year Speech, Xi expressed that “human history, like a river, runs forever, witnessing both peaceful moments and great disturbances. [China is] not afraid of storms and dangers and barriers.”
Xi’s ambitious domestic reforms and assertive foreign policy have undoubtedly made China stronger. They have also earned him domestic praise, and solidified his status as a strongman unsatisfied with complacency. Yet Xi’s increasingly dictatorial behavior is a threat to global freedom and human rights. By antagonizing the international community, China and its leader also demonstrate lethal arrogance. Xi’s actions fuel anti-Chinese sentiments abroad, damage the nation’s reputation, and negatively impact the country’s future political, economic and diplomatic prospects. With no friends in its corner, even Xi’s China, more confident than ever, will not be able to weather the hurricane that is to come.