Ian Johnson: Xi Jinping and China's New Era of Glory
China's President Xi Jinping attends a welcoming ceremony
outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China
BEIJING — Two weeks after taking China's top office in November 2012, Xi Jinping took part in what seemed like a throwaway photo op. He took his top lieutenants to 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 center 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 Mr. 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. For decades, Washington has been urging China to get more involved in the world. Usually this meant asking China to help solve international crises — to become a “stakeholder,” in foreign policy jargon. But to many people's surprise, after years of playing a mostly passive role in world affairs, China has taken a forceful approach.
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 “One Belt, One 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, Mr. 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 program 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 the 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.
For the past five years, for example, I've been conducting a series of question-and-answer sessions with dozens of Chinese intellectuals — not dissidents but people trying to change the system in some way. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that almost all of these people have been silenced in the public sphere. Few have been arrested, but the government has turned them into non-persons by blocking their access to any sort of media outlet.
Not all of this started with Mr. Xi. China's military expansion — its two new aircraft carriers, for example — is backed by decades of patient modernization. The shutting down of social media accounts also began before Mr. Xi took office, as did the creation of “stability-maintenance” bureaus that have aided the crackdown. And then there's the broader issue of China's being a wealthier and more powerful country; under any leader, Beijing was going to shake off its reticence.
But Mr. Xi has upped the ante. He's been far more successful than his predecessors in realizing the Communist Party's vision of ideological uniformity, rendering his administration as more than a straight-line continuation of past leaders. Having a modernized military is one thing, but using it is another; likewise, the severity of the crackdown on dissent — think of the decision to let the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo die in prison in July — reflects a far harsher approach. Before, China had undercurrents of reform; now these are drying up.
One key reason for Mr. Xi's brusque self-confidence is his family history. Mr. Xi's father was one of the founders of the People's Republic, and Mr. 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. Mr. Xi is able to influence the scores of other members of the “hongerdai,” or “red second generation,” who pull many of the strings behind the scenes.
These informal networks come on top of Mr. 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 Mr. Xi to make decisions unimaginable under his predecessors. Like Mr. Xi, for example, other leaders recognized that China's naked capitalism left many people living unhappily in a spiritual vacuum. And they, too, recognized that traditional beliefs and culture had a role to play in providing people with a system of values.
But Mr. Xi has embraced traditionalism like no leader since China's last emperor abdicated in 1912. Even Chiang Kai-shek, the conservative who led the country before the Communist takeover in 1949, backed laws to limit China's traditional religions. Mr. Xi's administration, by contrast, has endorsed almost all manner of tradition — so long as it serves the party.
Mr. Xi's positioning himself as a savior of Chinese culture has been accompanied by increasingly odd statements. According to Mr. 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. Since the debacle of Mao's rule ended in 1976, the people running China have positioned themselves as modest, behind-the-scenes brokers. And perhaps it was no coincidence that this period of dull managers coincided with China's first successes in a century. With competent, low-key technocrats in charge of a stable country in a relatively peaceful world, China took off.
Mr. Xi's new tack is riskier. Unlike any leader since Mao, he has made almost every area of governing his personal area of responsibility, including economics, which usually was left to the premier or trained specialists. Mr. 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 centralization of power has showed few successes. Economic reforms have languished. State-owned enterprises still suck capital away from more efficient sectors of the economy, while financial markets remain opaque and unstable. And the country still relies on gargantuan projects to bolster an economy that's clearly slowing.
Politically, the stagnation feels more pronounced. Even an issue like feminism, which the Communist Party used to claim as part of its legacy, is too edgy for Mr. Xi's China. Instead, it has become a kind of dissent, exemplified by the arrest in 2015 of the “Feminist Five ” — five young women who wanted to point out the rampant sexism in Chinese society.
Perhaps even more 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 elections 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 Mr. Xi's successor, who would take control in five years. Now this is unlikely, casting doubt on who will succeed Mr. Xi.
All of this makes one wonder how Mr. 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? Mr. Xi's predecessor, Mr. Hu, is said to be practicing Chinese medicine, and to have withdrawn from politics.
The idea of the 64-year-old Mr. 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.
Ian Johnson, a reporter in Beijing for The New York Times, is the author of “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.” Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.
This commentary was originally published by The New York Times, 10/13/2017.
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