4 min read.Updated: 29 Nov 2021, 01:00 AM ISTSandipan Deb
He looks set to pursue an aggressive path that may change both China and the world before his exit
Earlier this month, the Chinese Communist Party’s top leadership passed a resolution that allows President Xi Jinping to stay in power for as long as he pleases. Though this should not have come as a surprise, since Xi had got the two-term limit on the presidency waived three years ago, this formal stamp of approval removes any doubt anyone may have had about his intentions.
Since coming to power in 2013, Xi—he now heads all branches of the party, the government and the military—has transformed China as much as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping did. Even two decades ago, not many could have imagined the position that China enjoys in the world today—global superpower, technology leader, relentless hegemon whose tentacles stretch across the world from Africa to the Asia-Pacific.
In the last two years, Xi has moved at warp speed. China’s social credit system is up and running, where citizens are watched 24/7 and rewarded or punished based on their conduct, from paying loans on time to walking a dog without a leash. Xi then turned his attention to sweeping structural changes in Chinese economy and society.
First came the crackdown on Chinese tech barons who had been given a long rope and were becoming laws unto themselves. They were shown their place. The huge initial public offering of billionaire Jack Ma’s financial technology company Ant Group was summarily suspended. Ant’s flagship Alibaba was fined $2.8 billion in an anti-monopoly probe. The once-high-profile Ma now rarely appears in public. China’s largest ride-hailing firm Didi was forced to stop registering new users days before the stock’s US listing.
Anti-monopoly legislation targeted the ‘platform economy’ on the internet and tough new rules on data security and protection were decreed. Then China’s largest real estate player Evergrande, creaking under unsustainable debt in what was the world’s most overheated property market, got pushed to the brink of collapse. Xi seems to be trying a ‘controlled demolition’ of the sector to curb speculation and reduce prices.
Meanwhile, purges began in the culture space. In August, billionaire film star Zhao Wei was ‘unpersoned’. Her films and TV shows were removed from streaming services and her social media presence erased. Apparently, she was leading young people astray and away from the ideals of the Communist Party. Some other stars were charged with crimes like tax evasion.
A few hugely popular reality talent shows were shut down and broadcasters were ordered not to promote “abnormal aesthetics" such as “sissy" men, “showing off wealth and enjoyment" and performers with “lapsed morals". “Xi Jinping Thought", which preaches discipline, hard work and love for the country, the party and the man himself, is now taught mandatorily from primary school up to the university level. And in one stunning stroke, tuitions were banned for schoolchildren.
The clampdown on democratic and human rights in Hong Kong has grown tighter. The brutal subjugation of the Uighur people in Xinjiang continues. Chinese fighter jets are carrying out daily sorties that often veer into Taiwan’s defence space, and Xi has not bothered to hide his objective—wage war on the island nation and bring it under Beijing’s rule.
The situation on the Line of Actual control (LAC) with India is well known. China has been testing its long-range strategic stealth bomber, the H-20, which can carry heavy payloads including nuclear missiles, near the LAC. In August, it tested a first-of-its-kind nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the globe in low-orbital space before heading for its target. A Pentagon study warns that it could quadruple its nuclear arsenal by 2030.
Of course, Xi is the master of Communist Party doublespeak. His speeches brim with calls for “global peace" (which means peace dictated on China’s terms) and a “harmonious world" (harmony as defined by China). Last week, at the Association of South-East Asian Nations summit, he declared: “China resolutely opposes hegemonism, wishes to maintain friendly relations with its neighbours and jointly nurture lasting peace in the region and absolutely will not seek hegemony or bully the small." This, while his naval ships continue to flout the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which governs sovereign rights over maritime zones, and a 2016 International Court of Justice ruling that rejected China’s South China Sea claims.
Having achieved absolute power, Xi apparently aims to remake China and its people economically, socially and morally. As for the world, he will want it to increasingly abide by Beijing’s wishes. He sees the West and the larger democratic consensus as weak-willed, hedonistic, captive to short-term thinking and ever-willing to sell out their beliefs and values for lucre. This worldview is fundamentally aggressive and laced with a certain disdain.
Yet, his steely authoritarianism may also mask some unease. He has not travelled outside China since November 2019, when the first covid cases surfaced at Wuhan. He is now 68 years old and will surely be looking to rule for at least 10 more years. This means that second-rung party officials can kiss their personal ambitions goodbye. Resentment could fester and sycophancy will grow. The party’s internal politics may grow murkier. But whatever way the future unfolds, it is certain that by the time Xi exits, he would have changed both his country and some of the world.
Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines
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