Xi and a Closed China

China has undergone profound changes during the past ten years. The time is gone when the “world’s factory” was preparing for the 2008 Olympics and its appearance as a new major global power on the international stage. The period of relaxation, lively interchange with the outside world and double-digit growth in GDP has been followed by a period of disengagement, suspicion and economic slowing.

Respect for Deng Xiaoping’s historic slogan – “hide your strength, bide your time” – has given way to a more assertive attitude. China’s admiration of the United States has turned into contempt, and pride has grown, for having created a new model, one that is different and alternative to that of the West. 

Several domestic and international factors led to these changes, but they all took place under the leadership of just one man: Xi Jin ping. He is destined to remain in power at has been in power since 2012 and at least until 2027. Nobody foresaw that China would carry out such a radical process of  transformation in such a short time. To understand why the world was caught unprepared it would be useful to consider the main events in the life of the man who The Economist, back in 2017, called “the most powerful man in the world”.

Xi’s Trajectory: Realizing the Chinese Dream

Xi Jinping was born in June 1953 and was a “little prince” – an epithet reserved for the descendants of the heroes who fought with Mao Zedong. Indeed, his father was Xi Zhongxun, a general who took part in the Long March alongside the Great Helmsman, between 1934 and 1936. 

Thanks to this unusual background, the young Xi Jinping spent his first years in Beijing, in the exclusive compounds reserved for party elites, playing with the other sons and daughters of heroes of that epic period in communist history. In the 1960s, however, his father fell victim to Mao’s political purges and was imprisoned.

The life of the teenaged Xi, like those of hundreds of millions of other youngsters, was soon turned upside down by the Cultural Revolution. He was banished for seven years to the rural town of Liangjiahe, in Shaanxi Province, and forced to mix with peasants, the sole guardians of revolutionary values, according to Mao.

On his return to Beijing, despite his years in the countryside and even though his father was still in prison, he decided to become “redder than red” and to join the political system which had persecuted him and his family.

After ten attempts he was admitted to the Communist Party of China, thus starting the long apprenticeship that would lead him to become the country’s supreme leader. As administrator of Hebei Province, one of the country’s poorest, he gained experience of market policies and allowed peasants to use the lands to raise livestock rather than to grow grain crops for the state.

In 1985 he moved to the southern province of Fujian, one of the most corrupt in the country, but also one of the most economically vigorous. There, he proved very skillful in managing his image: at meetings with foreign investors he exchanged his army trousers for Western-style suits. Lastly, he moved to Zhejiang, the wealthiest province, where he promoted private business and local enterprises (including Alibaba, the then fledgling e-commerce giant founded by Jack Ma), increasing the area’s exports by 33% in just five years.

It was thanks to that improvement and his network of relationships and connections (guanxi), that he became secretary of the CCP and head of the armed forces, at the 18th Communist Party Congress, in November 2012. On March 14, 2013 he was made president of the People’s Republic of China. International expectations of him were very high.

He was widely regarded as a reformer, guided by the aim of granting greater scope to market forces. It did not take long to discover that Xi had a very different idea of China in mind.

In his first public speech – and it was no coincidence that it was made at the National Museum in Beijing, at the time of the exhibition entitled “The Road to Rebirth” – he spoke about “the Chinese dream”. This was the cornerstone of what would later be defined as “Xi’s Thought” and was introduced into the Constitution in November 2017, at the 19th Party Congress, flanking the ideological contributions of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Realizing the Chinese dream is Xi’s rallying call. From the outset, it was an ambitious political project, which envisaged achieving the domestic goal of  a “moderately prosperous” society by 2021, the centenary of the foundation of the CCP. The international goal is to complete the process of a rebirth that would enable China once more to play a leading global role by 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic.

The crucial importance attached to the SXXS concept of fùxing – “rebirth” or “rejuvenation” – is a historic turning point inasmuch as it changes the Dragon’s strategic position.

Mao gave China a chiefly domestic political and identity structure; Deng gave it an economic policy that raised hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, giving the country stability and gradually introducing it to international capitalism; Xi  embraced a geopolitical vision on a worldwide scale.

The New Silk Road Project, now known as the Belt and Road Initiative – defined as “globalization with Chinese characteristics” – is marked by exceptionally vigorous economic and political influence on five continents. The technological and commercial competition with the United States, the growing assertiveness with regard to Hong Kong and Taiwan and activities in the South and East China Seas are all ingredients of China’s new ambition, highlighting its desire to once again become a global power, at the center of the world. 

The Brain Behind the Throne

How was China to achieve the stability needed to reach this goal? With a strong Communist Party and a  strong leader. 

Indeed, as soon as he came to power, Xi Jinping strengthened the party’s role through a campaign dubbed “Catching Tigers and Flies”. The huge anti-corruption operation has targeted more than a million officials and bureaucrats over the years, eliminating many of Xi’s direct adversaries and– particularly at the beginning –guaranteeing him a significant level of popularity at home. At the same time, he led a centralization of power unprecedented since the days of Mao and that, by 2018, ended America’s and Eu rope’s attitude of cautious confidence in him.

The removal from the Constitution of the limit to two presidential terms, unanimously approved by the National People’s Congress in March 2018, opened the way to what might well become a job for life. The West regarded that step as a betrayal, and generally abandoned its hopes of a more democratic China. 

The foreign media started nicknaming Xi Jinping “the new Mao”, describing him as very ambitious and the sole person in charge. This, however, has proved to be an error and overly simple. Analysts now agree that following the financial crisis of 2008 the CCP leadership realized that a strong figure coupled with party unity and solidity were essential preconditions for facing a future marked by momentous changes and great unknowns.

So Xi is the result of a process of growing awareness on the part of China’s leadership.

He is of less importance as an individual, but is part of the system and tradition of the CCP; he exists to serve a collective purpose: to build a wealthy  and strong country. He finds himself in that position thanks to the decisions made and the results achieved by his predecessors. It is enough to consider that the theoretician of the CCP’s main policies in recent decades has remained the same: Wang Huning, “the brain behind the throne”, as commentators often call him, a member of the Party’s Standing Committee. It was he who devised Jiang Zemin’s “Theory of Three Representations” and Xi Jin ping’s “Chinese dream”.

This continuity in the CCP’s view of leadership is crucial to an understanding of the New Helmsman. In his latest book – Xi, a Study in Power – British sinologist Kerry Brown explains this concept very clearly: “The Communist Party of China is an atheist organization. This does not mean that it has no faith. Belief in the semi-mystical entity of ‘China’, with its spiritual significance, its cultural wealth and its vast population, is the general faith that has prevailed since 1949. The key mission is to make China powerful again, as strong and central to world affairs as it was in the past. […] The nature of Xi Jinping’s leadership must be interpreted in relation to this objective. He is an autocrat because he serves autocratic objectives: it is the autocratic cause that creates the style of leadership, not vice versa.” 

The Chinese president has reduced the role of the economy to set pure politics and ideology back at center stage.

He has made the teaching of “Xi’s Thought” obligatory from primary school, has put a squeeze on academic environments and generally censors all fields in which the public can sometimes find expression (the media and the internet).

He has strengthened propaganda to reconnect the Communist Party to Chinese history, emphasizing the narrative of the end of the “century of humiliations” and of a China ready to win back its proper position in the world. He has focused on nationalism and pride for the sake of a Chinese model superior to the Western one. He has continually stressed that the voice of the People’s Republic must now be heeded in connection with international issues, and he has repeatedly reaffirmed the end of the era of us hegemony, theorizing a historic transition to a multipolar world.

All these elements seek to create a unity of intent between citizens and state, as the country faces increasingly complex domestic and international challenges. This, too, at a time when, because of the economic slowing, rifts are appearing in the unwritten contract between the party and the population, which has remained sacrosanct since 1989: the CCP will guarantee citizens’ economic welfare, but in return citizens will forgo certain personal freedoms and involvement in certain political matters.

The CCP and the Mandate of Heaven

At a time of so many unknowns, Xi must also keep a firm grip and remain worthy of the “Mandate of Heaven”. Contrary to what we think, the CCP is fully aware that its authority cannot be taken for granted and is not unlimited. This became starkly clear most recently, when popular protests broke out against the  “zero covid” policy. The government could not ignore or repress them entirely, and ended up relaxing some of the strict restrictions.

The Mandarin word for “power” is quánlì. One of the original meanings of the first character quán indicates a simple object: “the calibration weight that slides back and forth on a set of scales to find the point of balance.” So it is not something that stands still. It is provisional and changeable, just like the sliding weight on a set of scales; its position changes all the time to achieve a balance.

In Chinese political tradition, it is indeed the “Mandate of Heaven” (Tianmìng) that grants legitimacy to the emperor’s authority.

“Heaven sees through the eyes of its people; Heaven hears through the ears of its people. It is through its people that Heaven expresses its mandate,” according to the philosopher Mencius (372-289 BC), the greatest  interpreter of Confucian philosophy. So Tianmìng is expressed through the people’s consensus and is not at all irrevocable. The moment the emperor and the dynasty show themselves no longer able to administer and to “avoid chaos”, they will be considered morally flawed and the people can justifiably “revoke the mandate”.

This mechanism still survives. If the Communist Party can be considered the latest dynasty of the Chinese Empire, then floods, earthquakes and droughts, pollution and food scandals, housing, energy and population crises, high youth unemployment, the management of the pandemic, economic slowing, and foreign policy decisions can all be interpreted as threats to the  preservation of the Mandate of Heaven.

Strength and Fragility

The country is seeing the emergence of new phenomena such as the “lying flat” movement of young people born in the 1990s and 2000s, who want to escape the exhausting and competitive Chinese social system: they no longer want to buy a house or a new car, they do not get married, they do not want children and they try to spend as little  money as possible.

The dissatisfaction of the population– and particularly  of the middle classes in the major cities who, as a result of the “zero covid” policy, have been forced to stay at home with neither water nor food and who  are still not free to travel and to enjoy life as they used to until a few months  ago –is making itself felt. 

During the mid-2022 lockdown in Shanghai, a new word went viral – rùnxué – or “how to escape and go abroad”.

This became a codeword that expressed the desire to leave the People’s Republic and emigrate. The economic slowdown is so serious that observers, for the first time in decades, are starting to suggest that it is no longer certain that China will overtake the United States and become the world’s foremost economic power. China is increasingly isolated abroad because of its decision to keep its borders closed for almost three years.

The tensions with the United States and Europe are growing as a result of its ambiguous opposition (ideologically close to Russia’s) to the US-led liberal order, serious human rights violations against the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang Province, the growing threat of a military escalation in Taiwan (though nobody now really wants the situation to deteriorate) and its attempt to put itself forward as a factor of stability and an alternative leadership to America’s in the part of the world that China defines as “forgotten by the West”.

Over the years Xi has identified himself with the Party and the Party with the nation, with the very aim of preserving the Mandate of Heaven.

He also continues to pursue the “rejuvenation of the nation”. He has demobilized the CCP’s collective leadership to appropriate its powers to himself, and at the same time has maintained a competent bureaucratic apparatus, capable of resolving many problems and therefore useful to preserving the CCP’s legitimacy and guaranteeing the country’s stability.

For this very reason, Xi’s great strength may even prove to be a weakness and a source of risk to the People’s Republic. In a recent interview, Yuen Yuen Ang, a political scientist at the University of Michigan and author of several books about China, told the Sinica podcast: “China’s future is now extremely sensitive to whatever concerns Xi: his health, his ideas, his decisions, his whims. Everything is now entirely monopolized by him and by his likes and dislikes, what he does, thinks or says.” 

It is hard to say what the future holds, but one certainty is that the impact of Xi’s decisions will not be confined to China. The Chinese leader remains a great interpreter of the phase through which the Celestial Empire is passing on the global scene, with all its ambitions and incongruities, its strength and its fragility. Today, Xi Jinping faces the most delicate moment of his career. The consequences of a rushed and disorganized relaxation of the years-long “zero covid” measures are unknown and worrisome: they may well prove the ultimate test of his leadership. 

This article was published by Aspenia in printed issue 97-98, 2022.

Giada Messetti

is a China specialist who spent several years in Beijing, contributing to a number of Italian newspapers. Mondadori has published two of her recent essays, Nella testa del Dragone and La Cina è già qui.

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