China: Xi Can’t Do It Alone

By Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director at Amnesty International

“To forge iron, one first needs to get strong” - Chinese President Xi Jinping’s homespun maxim, casually uttered during his first public appearance when he ascended to power in 2012, looks in retrospect as having been the very core of his programme.

Will Xi's contempt for human rights ultimately unleash the very kind of social instability that the government wants to avoid at all cost? The signs are not good, and they are mostly of Xi’s making.
Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director at Amnesty International

In the five years since, Xi has never deviated from this objective, embarking on an unprecedented drive to consolidate his personal power, skillfully using a popular anti-corruption campaign to methodically take down every rival faction and interest group within the vast Chinese bureaucracy. From the princelings to the army, from the “oil gang” to the state-owned enterprises, from the Communist Party Youth League to wayward provincial leaders, every potential source of internal resistance was dealt heavy blows through arrests, demotions and secret detentions for “violating Party discipline”.

Crackdown

Xi also struck preemptively at China’s nascent civil society, unleashing the powerful national security apparatus on every dissident, critic, lawyer, writer, NGO or critical voice whose loyalty to the Party could not be counted on. It was a crackdown that harked back to the darkest days of post-Tiananmen China and culminated with the grotesque staging of the death of the Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo in a heavily guarded hospital in North Eastern China.

While eliminating any source of opposition, Xi has also been attentive to building popular support domestically, through a radical change in propaganda methods and what the Party stills refers to as “thought work”: a combination of heightened ideological controls over the media (“whose surnames should be ‘Communist Party’” he famously quipped), over universities (instructed to “combat pernicious ideas such a so-called judicial independence and universal values”) and unmatched censorship of the internet (which Chinese netizens now deride as having become a “Chinese intranet”). 

A powerful narrative of “national rejuvenation”, delivered in a slick and modern form to rival the most engaging ad campaign in the West, and a quasi personality cult centred on a benevolent yet firm “Uncle Xi” presiding over the great Chinese family, has yielded effective results and has given Xi something none of his colleagues in the Politburo have: a measure of genuine popularity.

Power grab

The 19th Party Congress opening on Wednesday will without doubt consecrate Xi as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping — perhaps even more powerful than Deng himself, who had to contend with other revolutionary elders and a hardliner faction that opposed his liberalization program.

But is this enough to start “forging iron” as Xi promised? Will this unprecedented power grab deliver the kind of economic and social reforms that will address, rather than entrench, the myriad of problems threatening the sustainability of the “Chinese model”? Or will Xi's contempt for human rights ultimately unleash the very kind of social instability that the government wants to avoid at all cost? The signs are not good, and they are mostly of Xi’s making.

The first roadblock Xi created for himself is the enormous national security architecture that he has put in place: six  new pieces of legislation, ranging from cybersecurity to counter-terrorism, give essentially unfettered power to a secretive security apparatus that largely operates outside of legal constraints and wields virtually limitless powers over individuals and institutions, including foreign companies. Although efficient at crushing dissent, it is turning into an unaccountable state-within-the-state that is on the path to derailing decades of efforts to build a reasonably fair legal system that citizens and economic actors can trust.

Censorship

The chokehold on information and freedom of expression is now the “new normal” in Xi’s China. There seems to be no end to the appetite of the censorship machine.

The second barrier is the chokehold on information and freedom of expression that is now the “new normal” in Xi’s China. From jailing a blogger who aggregated public information about strikes and protests, to pressuring Cambridge University Press into pulling out scientific publications on “sensitive” topics, to barring Justin Bieber from performing in China, there seems to be no end to the appetite of the censorship machine — often to a degree of pointlessness.

In doing this, not only does China turn its back on the international obligations it has contracted as a member of the United Nations and a party to multiple international treaties in the field of human rights and elsewhere, it also acts as a bad actor in the global information age. The short gains made in airbrushing facts and opinions that could embarrass the government are vastly outweighed by the long-term consequences of a distorted information landscape and the silencing of diverse viewpoints. 

While headlines touting record-breaking investments at home and abroad continue to make many foreign leaders giddy about the potential of cooperating with the new “can-do China” under the firm hand of President Xi, the reality is that he has dangerously imperiled a key achievement of the Opening and Reform era. Namely, granting citizens a modicum of rights that recognized the limits of the reach of the state, fostered the kind of entrepreneurship that lifted the country’s economy and brought China closer to being a trusted member of the international community.

The real question about the 19th Party Congress is not whether it will reflect a consolidation of Xi’s power —it will —   but whether ordinary Chinese people will benefit from it.  Based on the last five years, the answer is no.

A version of this article was also published on China File