How to make sense of Xi Jinping, China’s enigmatic ruler

The Economist, 02.10.2022
Cherry Timbol
His plan to reinstate the Communist Party’s oppressive position will have negative effects on both China and the rest of the world

Xi Jinping arrived in Iowa in 1985 at the age of 31. At the time, he was a junior Communist Party official traveling for two weeks to study about livestock feed. Both he and his hosts had a good time. His two-night stay with families in the sleepy town of Muscatine was the highlight of his journey. Mr. Xi slept in a room that was adorned with “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” posters. He had never tried popcorn before. It appears that he cherished Iowa.

When Mr. Xi became China’s leader in 2012, embellished tales like these encouraged a lot of onlookers to remain optimistic. His father was a revolutionary who later supported economic reform and liberalization while serving as a provincial governor. Mr. Xi was raised as a “princeling,” a member of the party’s elite. Some predicted he would adopt his father’s practical approach to life. He has chosen a different route, though.

Mr. Xi does not see himself as a reformer but rather as a restorer—of the party and its central place in society as well as of China and its place in the global community. Since Mao Zedong, he has accumulated more power and used it more brutally than any other Chinese leader. His power has increased along with China’s aspirations. Mr. Xi will almost definitely be handed another term as supreme leader at the party’s five-yearly congress, which begins on October 16th, potentially establishing him as the head of state for life. It has never been more crucial to comprehend his background and philosophical views.

This week’s Briefing and our eight-part radio series “The Prince” both have that as their main objective. People who have observed Mr. Xi closely and from a distance have given us dozens of interviews where they have discussed his motivations. The end result is a portrayal of a mysterious guy whose ideas have unsettling ramifications for both China and the rest of the world.

The main goal of Mr. Xi’s strategy is to revive the Communist Party, which had mostly disappeared from people’s daily lives. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao upended society by organizing the Red Guards to assault academics and government figures who were judged to be too disloyal. Father of Mr. Xi suffered torture. His half-sister committed suicide. Mr. Xi was instructed to spend seven years working hard while residing in a cave in the countryside.

Party lore holds that Mr. Xi’s transformation from an entitled princeling to a man of the people was the result of the experience. According to a source cited in an American diplomatic cable, Mr. Xi managed to survive “by turning redder than red.” After Mao’s purges, he devoted himself to reviving the party rather than abandoning it. He believed that the party was the only institution that could stop such anarchy from happening again. When many believed the party had again lost its direction in 2012, it made sense for its leaders to turn to him. They felt that it required discipline and a fresh sense of purpose in order to be saved.

The president of China has lavishly given it that. His anti-corruption effort changed the landscape and served as a means of eliminating his opponents. Since then, he has brought the party back into every element of life. Party groups have been established in private businesses and revitalized in neighborhoods, where constituents assist in enforcing his “zero-covid” policy. Mr. Xi established party organizations with expanded authority to supervise government ministries. Government, the military, society, and educational institutions—in the east, west, south, north, and center—all follow the party, he asserts.

Also seeking to rehabilitate China is Mr. Xi. The president’s ideology was recently revealed, and it included ten guidelines for ambassadors to abide by. Maintaining the party’s authority came first on the list. “Realizing the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” came in second. Mao brought the nation together, Deng Xiaoping made it prosperous, but Mr. Xi believes he will be the one to restore its greatness. He claims that the West is deteriorating and that the world is going through “huge shifts not witnessed in a century.” The expression has its origins in the late Qing era, when foreign forces humiliated China. It’s been turned on its head by Mr. Xi.

The desire of a major country to have a significant influence on world affairs is not strange. However, China’s dictatorship seeks to rewrite the rules because it believes that the current global order is a Western invention. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the party’s formation, he declared last year that “the Chinese people would never allow any outside forces to bully, oppress, or enslave us.” Anyone who attempts to do so will have their skulls bloodily battered against the Great Wall of Steel, which was forged with the flesh and blood of over 1.4 billion Chinese people.

Nationalists, who admire Mr. Xi and despise international criticism, find that to be music to their ears. Numerous them think the West is racist and narrow-minded. Their arrogance, paranoia, and annoyance are a volatile combination. Nationalists demanded that Nancy Pelosi’s plane be shot down when she visited Taiwan in August as Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States. They contend that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was sparked by the United States and the expanding NATO alliance, which Mr. Xi implicitly supports as a threat to the West. Some Western diplomats compare contemporary China to Japan in the 1920s and 1930s.

The struggle between China and the West is primarily a philosophical one. Western governments contend that freedom of choice is the key to success. The ruling class in China has the view that people must give up their freedoms, privacy, and dignity in order to further the party’s larger goals. A maximalist version of this is advocated by Mr. Xi. It hasn’t been going well lately. He has reasserted state control over the economy and hindered some of China’s most prosperous companies under the hazy banner of “shared prosperity.” His attempt to control the real estate market has failed, and the economy is dangerously threatened by bad loans. His zero-covid policy is another serious issue. His zero-covid policy is another serious issue. Government officials execute harsh lockdowns on vast regions with minor infections in order to maintain the majority of China virus-free. That first saved many lives, but it has since turned into another another barrier to productivity. People have started breaking the rules because they are tired of them.


Restoration tragedy

China was moving quickly in 2012, the year Mr. Xi assumed power. Private businesses were prospering, the middle class was expanding, and people were interacting on social media. Perhaps a different leader would have seen these as chances. Mr. Xi only saw dangers. He is building a sophisticated system of pressure and rewards at home with the goal of regaining party control. He is presenting a challenge to the American-led order abroad, which the world ought to reject.

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