Dec 2022

Xi the great: China’s modern-day emperor

In drawing parallels between China’s current leader and Mao Zedong, Richard Gregson warns of the perils of unfettered power

Communist parties, when in power, can often become a one-man battering ram, demolishing any opposition within the party, not to speak of the millions of citizens who fall prey to their whimsical and tyrannical policies. North Korea’s Kim dynasty and Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge, under the then Communist Party of Kampuchea General Secretary Pol Pot, might be extreme examples; but all that happened in China under Mao Zedong, and to a lesser extent in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, were no less horrendous.

Xi Jinping’s China could be heading towards another disaster. Will the common Chinese, including the rank-and-file communist party members, rise against Xi’s technological dictatorship, legitimised by the recent 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC)?

Xi’s rise as the all-powerful supreme leader not only threatens to brutally smash any dissent within China; but he also wants to make China ‘great again’, virtually imposing a Chinese world order. Harping on this medieval chauvinist theme, he calls on his countrymen to study China’s glorious past and restore its former greatness.

The 20th Congress literally handed over the party and the country to one man: Xi Jinping. The Congress upheld ‘Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole and establishing the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. This, in CPC parlance, is known as the ‘Two Establishes’.

Xi Jinping (left) and Chairman Mao
POOR RELATION: The ‘Two Establishes’ and ‘Two Safeguards’ make Xi much more powerful than Mao was

To further cement his supreme position, the ‘Two Safeguards’ have been promulgated: ‘We must resolutely uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Central Committee and safeguard the centralised authority of the Party’.The ‘Two Establishes’ and the ‘Two Safeguards’make Xi much more powerful than Mao ever was,both at home and abroad. Today’s highly developed China cannot be compared with the early decades of impoverished post-revolution China ruled by Mao, who would look more like Xi’s poor cousin.

Unlike Mao,who would go to any extreme to maintain his grip on power, Xi has been dexterous in dealing with his opponents. He worked beaver-like, systematically purging his detractors in the party– in the name of curbing the widespread corruption that has plagued the country since the opening up of the economy. He made modern history by getting electedas the supreme leader for a third term –Mao is the only leader to have held supreme power for longer – much to the chagrin of his top-level detractors, who mechanically joined the chorus of applause, hailing ‘the leader’.

The 20th Congress literally handed over the party and the country to one man

Xiis China’s President, General Secretary of the CPC and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. All the norms relating to collective leadership, orderly succession, a two-term limit for the General Secretary and aretirement age of 68 incorporated in the party constitution by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s had already been reversed by the National Party Congress in March 2018. Deng, himself a victim of Mao’s purges, had introduced these provisions to prevent the reoccurrence of tyrannical knee-jerk policies implemented by Mao.

Why did Xi not face any resistance from the various CPC factions? The governance structure in China is such that the power struggle is confined to the party, especially its higher echelons. The dissident leaders don’t draw their strength from the masses. They are a part of the corrupt Chinese elite and owe their existence to the party. The party’s top leadership enjoys immense powers and controls the security apparatus, the courts and the all-powerful central control commission.Since his ascent, Xi has gradually usurped all powers, making him the sole arbiter.

Over the last few years, Xi has been tightening his grip on society and the economy as well. Dissent, free expression and resistance that formerly existed in a limited way are no longer tolerated. Social media, the only avenue of popular expression, is heavily censored. The crackdown on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet is brutal and routine.

Dissent, free expression and resistance are no longer tolerated

Following Deng’s embracing of the market economy, China saw a partial reversal of the Maoist policy of state sector-led growth. China has been one of the biggest economic success stories in the world during the last two decades. Party leaders at different levels amassed huge wealth, making hay as the capitalist sun shone. Xi’s anti-graft campaign targeted corrupt officials, particularly those belonging to the major CPC factions. Those in his good books were not touched.

Another major threat Xi perceived was from home-grown business houses which have quickly grown into global behemoths. These businessmen enjoyed the patronage of sections of the party and were influential in society at large. The opening up of the economy had made millions prosperous and drastically reduced poverty, while making a number of smart entrepreneurs wildly rich. And Xi struck back. Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, disappeared for some time, before re-emerging as a ‘reformed’ man. He was not allowed to go ahead with the multi-billion-dollar initial public offering of his Ant Group in October 2020.

Alibaba founder Jack Ma mysteriously disappeared, before re-emerging as a ‘reformed’ man
Alibaba founder Jack Ma mysteriously disappeared, before re-emerging as a ‘reformed’ man

Many other businessmen have been cut to size, too. Chinese tech giants such as Tencent and Didi are facing the heat and the fledging private tuition portals have been banned. Aborted public offerings and tightening of regulations governing private Chinese companies listed overseas have resulted in the crash of their market valuation by an estimated $2 trillion. Any democratically-elected government would not have survived such a colossal financial crisis. But the CPC’stough ideological stance might be popular with a segment of common party members – the CPC claims to have a membership of 90 million– who may not be happy with the capitalist path being followed by the party. ‘Common Prosperity’ is another slogan coined by Xi which could reverberate positively among the common people in the wake of ugly displays of wealth by the rich, andever-increasing inequalities.  

On the foreign affairs front, Xi steered the country away from the low-key, generally peaceful policy followed by his post-Mao predecessors to an aggressive militarist policy, which has, of late, come to be known as ‘wolf warrior’diplomacy. The Belt-and-Road-Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, was a major geopolitical thrust, implemented in the name of supporting third world countries to build much needed infrastructure. It has, however, taken a lot of flak for being a debt trap for poor countries unable to pay back the high-interest debts.

The same year, China made a highly provocative move to extend its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) tothe disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. China began building militarised artificial islands in disputed waters in 2014. Neighbours Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and even Vietnam were alarmed. Today the South China Sea and East China Sea are theatres of naval rivalry between China and the US and its allies.

China is turning into a neo-Maoist dictatorship under Xi, wherein he has literally captured the party by dumping the concept of ‘collective leadership’. He has stepped up draconian mass surveillance and ruthless suppression of popular dissent. Xiis also trying to reverse the very market-friendly policies which have made China one of the most powerful nations on Earth.

Much like the growing isolation of China in the world, and the pushback by the West and China’s neighbours, Xi is likely to find himself more and more secluded within the party and among the people who are victims of his authoritarian rule.

The real estate crash has seen mortgage strikes, with duped buyers refusing to pay their bank instalments. There have been protests in Shanghai and other major cities against the draconian zero-Covid policy. Recently,manysocial media outlets carried videos of outbreaks of violence at the sprawling Foxconn plant in central China.Workers could be seen clashing with police at theiPhone manufacturing facility, which remains shut down.

Together with the economic downturn, these point to a storm brewing across Xi’s China, and the frightful consequences of an authoritarian state striking back. 

Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada