(Illustration by Michael Daley)
When Xi Jinping became head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012, one fawning article in the heavily-controlled Chinese press ran a dated photograph of the new leader respectfully pushing his wheelchair-bound father; the article was titled, “Xi Jinping: Loving son, husband, father.” Xi (pronounced “she”) later acquired the moniker “Dada”, or “Uncle”, favourably comparing him to his anodyne and unloved predecessor. The point, it was clear, was to give Chinese Communism a friendly face.
Just a few years later, Xi’s smiling visage has begun to shade into a cult of personality. Statements by government officials and the press have begun to refer to him as the “core” of the party, a rarely-used term first introduced by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping; at other times, the front pages of newspapers have been filled with articles highlighting Xi’s strength, wisdom, and energy. Foreign leaders, as well, have welcomed Xi’s active governance, approvingly referring to his plans for domestic reform and his role on the international stage. He is on track to become the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Tse-Tung himself.
Yet Xi Jinping is likely to be remembered as the man who presided over the beginning of the end of Communist China. The bloom is off the rose of China’s economic miracle. Growth is steadily slowing, while the country’s debt problem grows. A number of experts believe that the economy may already have stagnated, and certainly is not growing at the near 7 per cent claimed by the government. Despite his rhetoric, Xi’s reform policy has done nothing to strengthen the economy, and has failed in particular to reduce the power of state-owned enterprises. This slowdown has already caused economic distress in south-east Asia, Japan, Africa and beyond.
While his economy sputters, Xi is also turning into the most repressive Chinese leader since those who perpetrated the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The West has long hoped that, as China modernised, it would eventually liberalise, adopting the rule of law, civil rights, and possibly even democracy. In actual fact, China’s authoritarian leaders have become more worried about their long-term control over the population the wealthier the country has become.
Xi has taken this control to a new level. In February, he demanded “absolute loyalty” from the Chinese media. His so-called anti-corruption campaign largely focused on eliminating potential opposition within the leadership. His crackdown on China’s weak and heavily-monitored civil society has sent a chill through the country. Lawyers and activists have been rounded up and arrested, while non-governmental organisations have been harassed and closed down. Oppression of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang and of Tibetans has intensified, while Beijing ordered that the Hong Kong government renege on its basic promise to hold free elections for the region’s chief executive, a promise stemming from the 1984 agreement between Great Britain and China that paved the way for the handover of the colony in 1997.
Visitors from China tell their friends abroad that people are more afraid now than at any time in a quarter of a century. Most dangerous of all, Xi may destroy China’s collective leadership model, which has kept peace among the senior power holders since Mao’s death in 1976; this could lead to destabilising competition at the very apex of government. If China was on any type of path toward moderate liberalisation, Xi has reversed course and is creating a more repressed and resentful society.
Nor is modernisation transforming China into a responsible actor abroad. Asia is drifting closer to conflict, and China deserves much of the blame. Even as he presides over a slowing economy, Xi has harnessed Chinese nationalism to push an assertive and dangerous foreign policy. He continues his predecessors’ policy of increasing defence spending, this year at a hefty 7.6 per cent. China now has a military far larger and more threatening than any of its neighbours. Worse, Xi has used that military to intimidate and bully. Instead of settling territorial disputes, he has exacerbated them, by building new islands in the South China Sea, and militarising both them and other Chinese possessions that are claimed by neighbouring countries. Xi has made war more likely between China and Vietnam, and also between China and Japan, over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. He has done nothing to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes. Borrowing a page from fellow autocrat Vladimir Putin, his government kidnapped a British passport-holder from Hong Kong who had published books critical of him.
Xi Jinping has been fêted around the world as a charismatic and powerful leader. In truth, he has locked China into a set of self-defeating policies. His public persona may project the aura of a competent, effective, even benevolent leader; the reality is a man unequal to the challenges he faces, and who will probably leave his country worse off than he found it.