‘Why I believe China has created a new Mao’

Clout: The Economist has called Xi Jinping “the most powerful man in the world”. © Getty
by Jamil Anderlini

The Asia Editor of the Financial Times, Anderlini was Beijing Bureau Chief at the paper before moving to Hong Kong, where he welcomed the “cleaner air and lack of censorship”.

Is China sleepwalking back into its autocratic past? Tomorrow the ruling Communist Party meets for its annual congress with many outside observers labelling Xi Jinping a dictator.

This year, a Chinese court sentenced a man to two years in prison for the crime of referring to President Xi Jinping as “steamed bun Xi” in private messages he sent to friends using online chat apps.

The sobriquet has been censored in China since 2013, when online ridicule erupted at Mr Xi’s attempt to portray himself as a man of the people by visiting a steamed bun restaurant.

Wang Jiangfeng was found guilty of sending messages to friends through the WeChat and QQ messaging apps that caused “negative thoughts about the Chinese Communist party, the socialist system and the people’s democratic dictatorship, causing psychological confusion and public disorder of a serious nature and particularly egregious kind”. In recent weeks, judicial authorities disbarred the lawyer who defended Mr Wang.

The biggest change under his watch has been the complete rejection of democracy and other Western values

This is how dictatorships behave and China looks more like one than at any time in several decades.

Tomorrow the leaders of the ruling Communist Party will meet to anoint Mr Xi for his second five-year term as the chairman of everything. In the past five years, he has consolidated power, purged rivals and encouraged a personality cult to a degree not seen since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

Observers will be watching closely for signs Mr Xi intends to break recent precedent and stay in power past 2022, when he would normally be expected to step aside.

But in reality we know almost as little about the inner workings of China’s leadership as we do about North Korea’s. What we do know is what Mr Xi tells us, in his speeches and political slogans. His own words reveal that the biggest and most important change under his watch has been the complete rejection of democracy and other “Western values” such as free speech, judicial independence and human rights.

Ever since Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 1970s, China has moved inexorably, if haltingly, towards more personal and even political freedom.

In numerous private conversations over the years senior party cadres would tell me that Western-style democracy was the goal for China, but the transition must be gradual and carefully sequenced so as not to unleash chaos. Nobody is saying that now.

Mr Xi offers only a vague notion of “great rejuvenation” that borrows heavily from the premodern era of godlike emperors who ruled “all under heaven”. There is no suggestion that China is moving towards letting its people have more say in how they are governed.

The rejection of “Western” political systems has been made easier by what the Chinese see as the ludicrous buffoonery of Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, the self-inflicted damage of Brexit and EU infighting.

Given the perceived failings of liberal democracy, many, perhaps most, Chinese are quite willing to accept creeping dictatorship and political persecution of individuals as long as they continue to see their livelihoods improve.

Outside China many in the West will shrug and ask what all this has to do with them. But they should be aware that Mr Xi’s other big shift has been to jettison the foreign policy mantra of non-interference.

Mr Xi has ordered the party and state apparatus to be far more active abroad in defending China’s interests — as defined by the autocratic party and the people who run it.

It is already a sad reality that many people outside China with links to the country — journalists, academics, diplomats, expats — would think twice about using a Chinese-owned app like WeChat to send a private message mocking China’s leader.

This is an extract of a longer piece, reprinted with kind permission. For the full essay please see the link in Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Is Xi Jinping the most powerful person in the world?


  1. Design a timeline of the progress of democracy and human rights in China over the last 100 years.

Word Watch

China banned Winnie the Pooh after people compared the bear’s rotund face and nose to President Xi Jinping.
WeChat and QQ
Encrypted messaging services used in China.
Deng Xiaoping
The leader of the Chinese Communist Party and the de facto leader of China from 1978 until 1990. Deng was viewed as a practical politician due to his willingness to open China up to the free market after the death of Chairman Mao.
Foreign policy mantra of non-interference
As Anderlini writes, “Deng famously said China should ‘hide its light and bide its time’ on the world stage and steadfastly refrain from meddling in other countries.”

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