Modern China has developed a hybrid version of communism. This model retains elements of economic capitalism and retains a highly centralized government, in keeping with the spirit of communism. The country has progressed economically, but it suffers from a lack of freedoms and suppression of the various heterogeneous features of society. Xi’s rule in China has given a new meaning to nationalism. His unprecedent economic agenda, combined with his anti-corruption campaign, and his strongman approach to China’s disputed territories, Xi has consolidated his power. His efforts have ushered in a modern China – a economic power beset by state-led suppression.
China’s civilizational history is one of the most ancient in the world. It is an expansive country, with ancient roots that have been critical in shaping the world’s history. For instance, its Tang Dynasty birthed the ancient Silk Route that connected the world through trade and facilitated the exchange of culture and ideas. Despite economic connectivity, China developed as a relatively isolated country. It opened to the world relatively late, after resisting European forces.
The landmass of China cultivated cultural diversity. A singular centralized dynasty had to be highly effective to maintain peace and prosperity. Over the years, various East Asia territories – such as modern-day Japan, Korea, and others – faced periods of Chinese imperialism. By the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty was weakening, as its leadership was unable to handle internal revolts. External pressures from Western influence made matters worse. The two Opium Wars, waged between the Qing dynasty and Britain and France, would determine the modern fate of China (Derks, 2012).
The exchange of Western philosophies and the incapacitation of the 2,000-year-old traditional imperial rule paved the way for the 1911 Revolution. Nationalist revolutionary forces disbanded the monarchy by 1912. The anti-Qing group was led by ultra-nationalists called the Tongmenghui. They later formed the Nationalist Party of China (KMT). Following the revolution, they made populist pledges to modernize the country. There was a clear split of ideologies between the KMT and the Communist Party of China (CPC). This difference plunged the newly formed Republic of China into a civil war. The civil war lasted from 1927 until 1949. During the Second World War (WWII), the country also faced invasions by Japanese expansionist forces, which ultimately weakened the KMT (Rhoads, 1964).
In October 1949, the CPC proclaimed victory. Mao Zedong and other communist party leaders established the People’s Republic of China. The nationalist forces of the KMT retreated to Taiwan or isolated pockets of mainland China, although the latter eventually dissolved. The CPC’s victory hinged on populism and international dynamics. The CPC was extremally popular, as it promised land reforms. Generations of Chinese had spent centuries tilling on farms, taxed oppressively by the emperor. To these people, the idea of equal society was charming. The concept of no socio-economic distinctions greatly appealed to the common people. The cold war also allowed the CPC to secure Soviet backing, consolidating its grip on power (Rhoads, 1964).
Today, China ranks as one of the fastest developing countries in the world. The country has pulled millions of people out of poverty and improved living standards. Its “miraculous” progress is seen as an indicator of its global importance. However, the country has never transitioned to a democracy nor has it retained its purely communist features. China has developed its own hybrid model. The highly centralized Chinese government pushes the agendas of development and growth (Hang, 2017).
Populism has always been a key feature of the CPC. In less than a century, the party has undoubtably made the lives of the common Chinese person more comfortable. However, this prosperity has come at the cost of freedoms, which have been viciously suppressed. Freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of Internet access are scarce, and there is virtually no room for civil society in China. The state uses surveillance and coercion to maintain order (Human Rights Watch, 2020).
Mao, the first communist leader of China, was declared the country’s “leader for life.” During his regime, he experimented with communist economic ideas and nationalism. These ideals were spread throughout China. Mao’s charisma played a key role as his speeches were loaded with anti-class rhetoric (Lu, 2017). However, the economic and socio-cultural programs were a failure and did not help China address the “people’s” core issues. His legacy however is enshrined in the state’s curriculum and official narrative alike. He has been given a demigod-like status, making him the symbol of anti-classism (Lu, 2017).
During his 27 years in power, Mao’s regime repeatedly crushed opposition by otherizing them as the “bourgeoise” who had been exploiting “the people.” His methods were totalitarian. Millions lost their lives through starvation, imprisonment in labour camps, or mass executions (Lu, 2017).
After Mao, Deng Xiaoping became the de facto leader of China from 1977 to 1989. While following Mao’s autocratic traditions, he used a new kind of populism. Deng understood that the CPC needed to reform to survive. The grievances of the Mao era had to be heard. The “Beijing Spring” was the solution, which led to a brief degree of liberalization and openness. In addition, Deng implemented his “three steps” of economic development. The plan addressed the failed economic misadventures of the previous regime. Deng’s gradual opening up of the Chinese economy set the country on the path to prosperity, earning him the name the “Architect of Modern China” (Naughton, 1993).
While Deng set China on the right course, he also used populist themes of nationalism and reformism. He was not afraid to use power. His own actions led to Tiananmen Square, where brute force was used ensure conformity. His one-child policy is another example of his oppression. It was a policy “in the interest of the people and the nation,” yet it violated basic human rights (Kaplan, 2011).
From Deng to Hu Jintao, the CPC used a mix of suppression and the populist narrative of progress to maintain absolute control. Xi Jinping has brought a new dimension to the CPC’s populism. He has been a highly autocratic populist leader. Xi came to office in 2013, as a populist reformist. Despite his authoritarianism, he has addressed the country’s core economic issues. For instance, he promised to find way out of the debt crisis and the real estate bubble. Xi also addressed the long-standing issue of corruption within the CPC and that was a growing public concern (Babones, 2017). While China has grown exponentiality, the growth of billionaires from within the party was also very high, indicating widespread corruption.
Once elected, Xi’s tenure in office addressed these key issues. Corruption has drastically fallen, and his Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is helping the country to grow economically. His populism is not limited to growth and anti-corruption (Babones, 2017). Over the years, Xi has been able to present a “Chinese Dream.” Unlike Mao, this is not a class struggle-based dream. Xi’s dream addresses the concerns of 21st century China (Xinhuanet, 2021). Coupled with economic stability, Xi has been able to retain the country’s confidence by instilling national pride.
This jingoistic populist narrative is seen in his regime’s excessive focus on reclaiming China’s lost territories. This has triggered conflict in the South China Sea and places such as Hong Kong. With China’s diplomacy and economic might, Xi has also shown his muscle by challenging American hegemony across the world. Engaging in a full-on trade war with former President Trump, Xi has shown his commitment to China’s national pride – its people. All these actions ensure the people of the reality of the “Chinese Dream,” and China regaining its “lost” global status (Babones, 2017).
This populist narrative, along with delivering on his promises, has made Xi exceptionally powerful. His presence is deemed necessary for the country. In 2018, the CPC removed a clause from the constitution which limited the president’s term in office. With this amendment, the President is no longer limited to two five-year terms, allowing Xi to rule for life, if he so chooses (BBC, 2018).
With absolute power, Xi is allowed to curb anyone that he deems a “threat.” Due to such actions, the country ranks very low on rankings of freedom in media and of the internet (Cook & Truong, 2019). The conditions of internet freedoms are especially precarious. People are not allowed to use search engines such as Google, or social media apps such as WhatsApp. China is currently experimenting with digital surveillance where citizens are ranked for “good behaviour” and rewarded or discouraged (Mitchell & Dimond, 2018).
Like his predecessors, Xi has an ideology rooted in communism and nationalism. His vision also discredits heterogeneous communities that have survived previous regimes. The latest example of this is the harsh treatment of Uyghur Muslims. Ethnically and religiously different from Han Chinese culture, Uyghurs have been forcefully “integrated.” Xi’s regime has launched a series of re-education measures, destroying the cultural fabric of the Uyghurs; many Uyghurs have been placed in internment camps and subjected to human rights violations (Landale, 2021).
Under this highly centralized and state-controlled environment, Xi has been able to cultivate an image that seems immune from criticism within China. The recent events of COVID-19 make it clear that Xi has the power to turn a disaster into his favour. It is widely speculated that China mishandled the COVID-19 virus in its early stages, causing it spread in Wuhan. However, it was effectively managed in later stages, but not before it had been allowed to escape China and become a global pandemic. Xi has remained a popular leader throughout. He has positioned China as a “victor” of the pandemic and has effectively shifted the blame to the US allegedly spreading the virus to China (The Washington Post, 2020).
In less than a decade, Xi has become a modern-day Mao. He has become the hope of a nation seeking its lost glory. Unlike Mao, Xi’s reforms and ambitions are modern and seek Chinese hegemony over the world. Like his predecessors, Xi has used oppressive measures to curb any opposition. His actions are hidden behind the populist rhetoric of nationalism, reformism, anti-corruption, and economic prosperity. His time in office is changing the identity of the Chinese regime. For many in the country, Xi’s presence assures that the CPC will remain in power for indefinite future.
February 19, 2021
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