Ten years ago, when Xi Jinping rose to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), some called him China’s Mikhail Gorbachev. Many hoped that he would take forward the moderate policies of his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. From a Communist authoritarian dictatorship under Mao, the CPC had gradually transformed into a party with moderate views and a semblance of inner-party democracy and collective functioning under Xi’s predecessors.
Coming after four general secretaries trained under Deng Xiaoping’s liberal ideological wings, Xi Jinping was widely seen as someone who would further that agenda. Ten years later, when he rose before the National People’s Congress next month seeking approval for the extension of his tenure, many would see in him not a Gorbachev but a combination of Mao and Stalin.
In the last decade, Xi has not only meticulously dismantled Deng’s democratic moderation but also distanced himself from his father whose enormous goodwill was the main reason for Xi’s rise. Like many others in the CPC, Xi too is a princeling – a derogatory term used in China for leaders who rise up the ranks due to nepotism and cronyism.
There is one difference though. Unlike the fathers of other princelings, Xi Jinping’s illustrious father Xi Zhongxun is held in high esteem in China for his contributions during the revolution years and subsequently in building modern China. He was one of the key associates of Mao during the guerrilla struggles and served in many important positions after the revolution. Like Deng Xiaoping, Xi Zhongxun too held moderate views on the economy and faced the ire of Mao. He was purged from the party posts several times, imprisoned, and condemned to hard labour after 1965.
Zongxun returned to the party along with Deng after Mao’s death and became an important official in the National People’s Congress. Xi Jinping, his second son, owes his rise hugely to his father. It was the blessings of the Deng-era old guard that ensured his elevation to the party central committee in 2007 and subsequently to the post of general secretary.
Once in that position, Xi turned out to be the opposite of his father. Three decades after Mao’s death, Xi brought back memories of the dreadful three decades of Mao’s era. Mao built a party structure centred around his own personality. A coterie of sycophants controlled him. He whimsically ran the party affairs, often through hand-written slips sent to party meetings, that would seal the fate of many leaders. Deng put an end to this personality cult and authoritarianism when he became the supreme leader in 1978. He nurtured a new generation of leaders like Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – the four predecessors of Xi Jinping – who were committed to collective leadership and economic liberalism. Deng introduced limited democracy in the party in 1987 by allowing more candidates to run for the Congress than the number of posts. He also introduced the principle of two terms for the President.
While undoing that legacy, Xi has not only returned to Mao’s coterie authoritarianism but also resorted to Stalin’s ruthlessness. He has built a cruel surveillance state and purged tens of thousands of cadres at various levels on flimsy pretexts. The drive against corruption became a euphemism for neutralising Xi’s political rivals. Senior party leaders like Zhou Yongkang, a Standing Committee member, Sun Zhengcai and Bo Xilai and Politburo members were among the over 400 leaders who became victims of Xi’s campaign in the last decade. The hypocrisy of the campaign is glaring. Xi’s close friends, like Jia Qinglin, a Standing Committee member who was instrumental in Xi’s rise, remain untouched despite serious charges of corruption.
Xi pounced upon dissent and curbed internet freedom. Critics like Cai Xia, who once taught at the Central Party School in Beijing, had to leave China or languish in jails. Xi used dazzling propaganda to hide his failures on the economic and pandemic front. He successfully installed his confidantes in the Standing Committee, a key body that can make or mar his chances for another term. Even in the Chinese Army, Xi affected brutal purges of officers seen as less loyal to him and installed his own loyalists in key positions.
As he faces the Party Congress next month, Xi appears combat-ready and confident of winning another term. But a few gaps still exist between the cup and the lip. Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier and a contender for the top post, remains a challenger. Unlike his predecessors like Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao, who were always seen by the side of their leaders, Keqiang maintains a distance from his leader. His disagreements with his leader over the handling of the Covid crisis were known to the Chinese people. Last May, in a virtual address, he declared that the Chinese economy was in dire conditions, roiling Xi’s supporters.
Traditionally, the leadership of the Central Military Commission gave enormous power to the President. Xi appears to be facing some rough weather there. Reports surfaced that a recent promotion of Wang Qiang, commander of the PLA’s Northern Zone to a general by Xi Jinping, led to a minor revolt in the army.
Finally, there is growing resentment among the people over Xi’s handling of Covid lockdowns, which caused enormous suffering to citizens. Chinese social media is replete with dark humour. One of the most circulated posts during the peak of the pandemic called for an urgent CPC meeting so that the country can get rid of the leaders. Xi faced a barrage of criticism when Nancy Pelosi called his bluff by landing in Taipei last month.
But Xi seems to be in no mood to budge. Hyper-nationalism is his weapon. He took on America and proclaimed that China was “invincible”. He is raring for war with Taiwan, which could unleash forces that would either decimate his leadership or push the world into a horrendous conflict.
Either way, the world should brace itself for a Chinese winter that could heat up.
The writer is member, board of governors, India Foundation