May 11, 2021


The era of Xi Jinping

By Linda Jaivin
The era of Xi Jinping

President Xi Jinping. Photo by Todd Benson, CC BY-ND 2.0

On the China Dream and the guiding ideology of Xi Jinping

In 1980, when pushing to limit the state’s top leadership posts to two consecutive five-year terms, Deng Xiaoping stated that no one should be allowed to hold high office indefinitely. By 2012, there had been two unbroken leadership cycles of ten years each. Then, in 2018, the National People’s Congress, following the CCP’s instructions, abolished the two-term limit. Xi, like Mao before him, and emperors before that, could potentially rule for life; the hard-won system for orderly succession was broken. Censors scrambled to scrub comments such as “We’re back in the Qing dynasty” from the Chinese internet.

One of Xi’s first acts on becoming general secretary was to launch the most ambitious campaign against corruption in decades, sweeping up “tigers” (high officials) and “flies” (low-ranked officials) in its dragnet. It won wide public support. State media promoted Xi as approachable, egalitarian and down to earth, with breathless, frequent reports on “Daddy” (or Big Uncle) Xi, Xí Dàdà 习大大, going about daily life – having a “people’s breakfast” of inexpensive pork buns in an ordinary and crowded Beijing restaurant, for example.

Xi introduced the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation, in which a prosperous China would take its rightful place in the world. When early in 2013 a popular southern newspaper editorialised that the China Dream should also include constitutionalism – meaning that even the CCP was beholden to law – it was forced to replace the offending editorial with one titled “We Are Closer To Our Dream Than Ever”. The CCP forbade universities from teaching “Western values” such as civil society and universal rights, or “historical errors” such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Cultural Revolution, condemning crucial episodes in modern Chinese history to what Orwell called “memory holes”.

In 2016, the CCP declared Xi Jinping a “core leader”, an accolade previously given Mao, Deng and Jiang Zemin. It implies rightful dominance, making it hard for others to argue against his decisions. The CCP revised its constitution to adopt “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” as its “guiding ideology”. By then, Xi had accumulated so many official titles, including commander-in-chief of the PLA’s new Joint Operations Command Centre, that he earned the nickname “Chairman of Everything”. If this recalls Hongwu, the Ming emperor who insisted on centralising power into his own hands, Xi envisions himself ushering in a Golden Age like that of Qianlong – prosperous, culturally efflorescent and militarily powerful.

In 2020, the CCP claimed to have eliminated “absolute poverty” in China. Hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens, some 59 per cent of the population, fit the definition of middle class, with a net worth between US$10,000 and US$100,000. There were 799 US-dollar billionaires – 173 more than the United States – as well as 4.45 million millionaires. Inconceivable in Mao’s day, a number of these entrepreneurs were CCP members. The CCP membership had grown to 92 million. Representing 6.6 per cent of the population, party members were better educated, on average, than the general population, and they covered every profession and field. Some 80 per cent of them were born in the 1980s and 1990s. Mao would not recognise the party he helped found, with its new “party-masses service centres” offering exercise classes, karaoke and speed-dating alongside lectures on Xi Jinping Thought and bureaucratic services.

The China Dream is also of a world united by a PRC-led Community of Shared Destiny for Mankind. This concept, according to Geremie Barmé, provides “substance and diplomatic architecture” to the Qin-era notion of “all under heaven”, founded on “a belief that China can be a moral, political and economic great power”. The trillion-dollar global aid, infrastructure and investment program the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is Xi’s idea for knitting that larger “shared community” together, while referencing both the Silk Roads and the maritime voyages of Ming general Zheng He. It aims to boost the PRC’s soft power and global influence in a time of American decline through educational, scientific and cultural exchange. The foreign relations slogan of the Mao era was “we have friends all over the world”; that for the New Era could easily be “we have clients all over the world”. The BRI also promotes an alternative, authoritarian-friendly China Model, or Beijing Consensus, for development, prioritising prosperity and stability over political freedom and choice.

Mao had wanted to be the leader of the developing world. Deng Xiaoping insisted that, in the international arena, China should “hide its capabilities and bide its time”. Xi, by contrast, declared that China must “always be the builder of world peace, the contributor to global development and the defender of the international order”. When the international order doesn’t suit its interests, as in a 2016 Hague ruling against PRC claims to islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, Beijing simply refuses to abide by it. If China had “stood up”, zhànqǐlái 站起来, under Mao, and “prospered up”, fùqǐlái 富起来, under Deng, Xi proclaimed that under him, it would “power up”, qiángqǐlái 强起来.

The Rambo-esque 2017 action film Wolf Warrior II, about a rogue Chinese special ops soldier in Africa who defeats evil American mercenaries, modified the words of a Western Han general for its tagline: “We will execute whoever insults the mighty Han, no matter how far away they are” becomes “We will execute whoever insults our China, no matter how far away they are!”

There had been notable explosions of nationalistic anger during the Reform Era. Some were aimed at Japan over attempts to whitewash its invasion of China. In 1999, anti-US sentiment erupted over NATO’s bombing – which it claimed was accidental – of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during an air campaign against Yugoslav atrocities in Kosovo, which resulted in three Chinese deaths. Protesters besieged the US embassy in Beijing and attacked its consulates in Chengdu and Guangzhou. After four days, state media broadcast President Clinton’s apology and police halted the demonstrations. The CCP, typically, allowed patriotic demonstrators enough leeway to make their point before asserting control.

The Wolf Warriors of the New Era, seeped in the mood of resentment and exceptionalism fostered by decades of patriotic education, enjoy relative impunity in an otherwise controlled and censored space. Mainly operating online, they troll, dox and incite violence against anyone, Chinese or not, whom they believe has insulted “Our China”. “We have made no real progress,” mused the scholar of diplomatic history and retired member of the Chinese Academy of Social Science Zī Zhōngyún (b. 1930) in 2020. “Empress Dowager Cixi is still at the helm at the Court in Beijing; below her, the roiling masses of Boxer patriotic thugs thrive as ever.” As for “the men and women of conscience and rationality who strain to be heard,” she said, they “have repeatedly been censored, silenced and shut down”.

The CCP considers the Boxers heroes of anti-imperialism. In a widely read article published in 2006, historian Yuán Wěishí (b. 1931) lamented that students were being taught to venerate a violent and ignorant mob. He decried that while they were taught about the burning of the Yuanmingyuan, they weren’t told about the torture of members of the Anglo-French delegation that was the immediate motive for the devastation. The elimination of politically inconvenient aspects of history from textbooks, he argued, fosters an inflamed and irrational nationalism that damages China’s ability to act responsibly on the world stage. Officials accused Yuan of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people”. The publication was shuttered until it printed a retraction. In the New Era, it’s unlikely such a piece would see print in the first place. The self-reflexive spirit of May Fourth isn’t dead, but the CCP appears determined to bury it; May Fourth in the New Era is celebrated purely as a patriotic, anti-imperialist movement.

In a speech to CCP leaders in 2018, Xi addressed the problem of the “dynastic cycle”. In Yan’an, Mao had suggested to the journalist Huang Yanpei that it could be overcome through democracy – following this through in his own way. Xi said that what condemned dynasties was corruption and division; what was needed was discipline, unity and greater adherence to ideology.

In 2019, the CCP released an app, Xuéxí qiángguó 学习强国, which can mean either “study and strengthen the nation” or “study Xi and strengthen the nation”. A gamified, digital Little Red Book, political study session and pocket dang’an (personal file) in one, the app lets users earn points while mastering Xi Jinping Thought. The CCP required its members and many government workers to spend time on the app every day, with real-world consequences depending on how well they applied themselves.

The app, part of a broader digitalisation of propaganda, fits in with other social credit systems that follow Legalist principles of reward and punishment and are being rolled out in stages and across different platforms around the country. Approved behaviour such as donating to charity, caring for the elderly or volunteering to help in a harvest might be rewarded with a hotel upgrade, a better job or faster internet speeds. Failing to show up for a restaurant booking, not paying a debt, displaying tattoos or spreading political “rumours” could result, depending on the seriousness of the offence, in being banned from train or plane travel, or even being denied a good job or subjected to public shaming on giant digital billboards.

Social credit is part of a larger system of data collection and other forms of technological and human surveillance that, by 2020, made the PRC citizenry one of the most monitored on Earth. Some cities boast more than 100 CCTV cameras per 1000 residents. The PRC’s Skynet Project, tiānwǎng 天网, integrates big data, biodata, facial recognition and human systems of surveillance and control, and takes its name from a line in Laozi’s Dao De Jing: “Nothing escapes heaven’s vast net.”

In mid-2020, the net was cast even wider with the announcement of a new “rectification” campaign to purge the PRC’s legal and security apparatuses of corrupt and “disloyal” elements. The Ministry of Justice described it as a “self-revolution of scraping bones to rid the poison, and a cleansing”. The State Council, meanwhile, issued regulations banning government and party cadres from expressing any ideas that deviated from the party line, even in private conversation, or reading or viewing unauthorised materials in their free time, bringing to mind the Qin chancellor Li Si’s banning of old books and songs. Scholars were buried by other means. For example, Xǔ Zhāngrùn (b. 1962), professor of law at the prestigious Tsinghua University and one of Xi’s sharpest critics, lost his job, his pension fund and his freedom to publish, while being forbidden access to any form of financial support; others have been arrested, in a system that all but guarantees a prison sentence (99 per cent of those charged with a crime receive a guilty verdict in the PRC’s courts). Not since the Cultural Revolution has the CCP attempted such totalitarian control over people’s lives.

Xi has named the biggest threats to China as invasion, subversion and division. He also likes to quote a passage by the Song dynasty neo-Confucian official Su Shi (aka the poet Su Dongpo): “Of all the disasters under heaven, the most damaging is that of the appearance of social stability when elements of instability lurk beneath the surface. To passively observe such a disaster without acting to defeat it will let it develop to the point of no return.”


This is an edited extract from Linda Jaivin’s The Shortest History of China, published by Black Inc.

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

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