Will Xi Jinping Bring a Positive New Day to China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Chinese President Xi Jinping, just over a year in office, recently made a rare appearance in public in a Beijing restaurant, buying a cheap lunch and paying for it himself. Shortly thereafter, President Xi delivered a brief televised New Year message from what appeared to be his office, wishing Chinese workers and their families well. Both acts prompted lots of discussion among China-watchers. Freelance writer Paul Mooney, lived and worked in China for 18 years. Last November, his application to work for Reuters in Beijing was denied.  Mooney's response, part of a private email exchange, is reprinted with his permission.


It’s come to my attention that some in China-watching circles are exercising wishful thinking about the ruling Chinese Communist Party and its new leader, Xi Jinping. The only wishful thinking I engage in is the hope that the Communist Party will abide by its own Constitution. But I have to admit, there’s absolutely no chance of that happening because if the Party did that, it would have trouble surviving for very long. This is why Xi has actively arrested so many proponents of the New Citizens' Movement.

I can’t imagine any ordinary Chinese thinking this is the dawn of a positive new day. If they do, it’s likely because they’re are not able to jump over the Great Firewall, and so have no idea of the problems Xi has caused over the past year, or else they’re people with close connections to the Party. If they made a minimal effort to learn the truth about Xi’s policies, they would not be confident at all. I can only imagine that this confidence in Xi is based on ignorance. If people are tricked by Xi showing up at one of China’s cheapest restaurants to order baozi, then they’re not well aware of the current situation in China. These publicity stunts have long been used by politicians all over the world. No one really takes them seriously.

But it is certainly the dawn of a new day of stepped up oppression. I would go as far as to say that the situation regarding freedom of speech and personal liberty (as guaranteed by China’s Constitution) is at it’s worst since 1989, when I was in Beijing to cover the brutal suppression of the student movement.

To recap some of the things I’ve been posting for the past few months, what strikes me the most about Xi’s first year in office is how he’s taken the country so far backwards. I, for one, miss the good old days under former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. Even President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were not as bad as Xi.

We’ve seen an unprecedented attempt to crack down harder on the Internet. This includes the arrest of Chinese bloggers, and things such as the passage of a law to stop “[false] rumors” from being spread, which led to the detention of a 16-year-old boy recently for allegedly spreading “rumors". We’ve seen prominent Chinese blogger Charles Xue, who had 12 million followers, make a public confessions on national TV, even before he had the right to a trial. This was allegedly for being caught with a prostitute, but in his TV confession, he alluded to mistakes he’d made on his microblog, which hints at the real reason for his arrest. And we saw Chen Yongzhou, a Chinese journalist, paraded in front of national TV to do the same. This is in violation of Chinese law, which does not allow journalists access to prisoners until a court has handed down a sentence.

The effect has been chilling. The major microbloggers are all laying low now and the microblogs are now silenced except for grass roots citizens who maintain a presence there. But the devastation of the microblogs is troubling.

We’ve also seen some 300 rights lawyers and activists arrested in recent months, and in many cases, their lawyers have been prevented from seeing them. Rule of law has suffered greatly under the new administration. The names include very prominent Chinese lawyers and activists, such as Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi, Guo Feixiong, Song Ze, Wang  Bingquan, Liu Ping, Zhao Changqing, etc. The arrests are related to calls for respect for the Constitution or for public officials, such as Xi Jinping, to reveal their personal wealth.

And finally, look at the situation of the Chinese media. The most talented and respected Chinese journalists have been hounded into silence, have been fired, or like Chen Yougzhou, have been arrested. And some have even left China in frustration. I’ve not seen the local media so muzzled since 1989.

The treatment of the foreign media is the worst it’s been in the more than eighteen years that I worked in China. There are a dozen or so foreign correspondents waiting outside China for more than a year for journalist visas that may never come. I myself was refused a visa, and it's quite rare for this to happen.

But far more serious, some two dozen journalists working for the New York Times and Bloomberg News were in danger of not getting their visas renewed, which would have meant they would be kicked out of China at the end of last year and that their bureaus would have trouble functioning. And although it looks like all but one of these people will get their visas, we still have people like Phil Pan and Chris Buckley, and a handful of Bloomberg journalists, waiting outside China for more than a year for their visas. And expect the harassment of foreign journalists to be stepped up this coming year, as has been happening each year since 2009.

Then we have the case of more than 128 people setting fire to themselves in Tibet, an increase in violence in Xinjaing, and growing numbers of protests by rural citizens, migrant workers and factory workers, and a worsening environmental situation. I don’t see any serious effort to rectify any of these problems. I don’t see any examples of Xi taking steps to deal with these issues.

Finally, it seems that over the past year, China has also had more conflicts with neighbors in Asia than it has had in recent years. I’m admittedly not very knowledgable about international trends, but my impression is that things have worsened in this area too.

I just completed a 3,000 word article for the Nieman Foundation magazine and I interviewed about a dozen prominent Chinese intellectuals, journalists, bloggers, etc., and none them shared the optimism I've heard spoken of. My conversations with these people, who are close to the ground in China, only served to confirm my belief that things are worse than they have been for a very long while.

“Reading Xi’s mind”

“They call us the Red Nobility.  Considering how hard we worked to get where we are, I find that insulting.  But there’s a grain of truth in it.  Our fathers and grandfathers fought to put us where we are.  Sure, mistakes were made.  But nobody suffered more than we did.  We survived and we put things back together; nobody thanks us for that.  We are smarter, tougher, and better connected than the rest.  No one else could manage this fractious country.  We’ve done more: we’ve made a success of it.  We’re the only ones who understand how the system works.  That’s why we are in charge.  So what if we enjoy some personal privileges along the way?  We deserve it.  

But it’s not the private rewards that motivate us, it’s the fact that we, and only we, can make China great.  We have our disagreements among ourselves.  Sometimes a cousin or two has to be sacrificed for the sake of appearances. But we all agree that nobody but us can rule.  Lots of enemies would like to see us fail.  Our own jealous eunuch-intellectuals natter and complain,  Small minded people cavil about the sacrifices they have to make for the country’s historical advance.  The most dangerous are our enemies in the West.  Their diplomats and financiers have smiles on their faces but contempt in their hearts—contempt for our history, our culture, our system, and our race.  Now they are starting to fear us too, and that makes them even more anxious to see us fail.  But we won’t—not as long as we keep our grip on power.  That’s number one—we must see all opposition for what it is—an effort to undermine us and weaken the country—and cut it off decisively no matter how cleverly it dresses itself up in slogans of law, justice, rights, or the tide of history.  History goes to the strong.  We are strong and we intend to keep it that way.”

It is difficult to read Paul Mooney’s comprehensive list and not agree with him that in a certain fundamental way—perhaps it would be more accurate to say principled way—many of the actions taken by Xi Jinping are wrong. It is almost unthinkable that anyone who has been steeped in enlightenment values might feel anything but uneasiness about Xi’s increasing attacks against such things as the press (both domestic and foreign), the Internet, constitutional rights, freedom of assembly, and academic freedom, nevermind the animosity Chinese maritime policies have created among China’s neighbors and the United States. There is an undeniably unenlightened, retrograde character to many of the actions Xi has taken over the past year, and from an enlightenment perspective they suggest more of a sunset than a new dawn.

However, such an assessment of Xi’s policies is compelling only if launched from the perspective of a humanistic frame of reference. And thus, it is unlikely to gain much purchase in China, especially among its leaders. As Andrew Nathan so bluntly points out in his mock apologia pro vita sua, what matters foremost to Xi, and many others in China, is not so much the protection of such humanistic values, but the protection of the wealth, power, stability and unity of China as a state. (This is not to say that no one in China cares about democracy and human rights, but simply to say that these are not the currency of statecraft in China’s current leaders’ trade). The currency of these realms is completely different. What Xi Jinping seemed to have set as his Pole Star, is not the example of Thomas Jefferson, John Locke or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or even Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel, but Deng Xiaoping. Here was a Chinese leader whose concern for the betterment of the Chinese people was real, but this concern also permitted him to be a strongman who, when necessary, felt fully entitled to act unilaterally—even to fire on “the people” to save them from themselves—when he feared inaction would endanger national unity. In 1989, for instance, the question of individual rights certainly took a back seat those of the state. Then, the Chinese Communist Party, with Deng as its supreme leader, felt fully empowered to do whatever he felt was necessary to maintain stability…even if those actions violated the country’s own constitution which, because China has no constitutional court, was, and is, little more than a toothless institution anyway.

So, how can all this ever be construed to represent a “new dawn?”

Well, if one’s definition of a “rejuvenation” (fù xīng, 復興), or a new beginning, is measured by the abundance of patriotism, national unity, prosperity, military strength, state solidarity, and global influence (in the sense that other countries now fear China enough to want to do its bidding), then China can be said to be enjoying a something of a “renaissance.” Everyone from diplomats and businessmen to journalists and foundations are trimming their jibs to be in the China race. Theirs may not be a cultural, political or spiritual renaissance a la Europe 600 years ago, but it is a revival of a different set of attributes which have long-mattered to Chinese and which help assure that it will not be hectored, bullied and pushed around by superior powers. It does not, however, guarantee that China, enjoying its new power, may not from time to time be tempted to engage in a little hectoring, bullying and pushing around itself. We’ll see.

China may still be a long way from winning the full respect of the rest of the world, but its growing prowess has, at very least, won it a grudging admiration. If it is not loved, which it rarely is, it must at least be genuflected to.

Since this kind of recrudescence of wealth and power, denied China for so long, was always important to the CCP, and the Nationalists before them, attainment now does represent a new and important landfall, and no small accomplishment. However, China’s century-long experiment at self-reinvention, is still far from complete. It would be foolish not to remember that after every dawn, there is always another day…and another dusk and another night. We may sometimes lament how China got where it is today, and even the direction in which Xi Jinping now seems to be navigating his new ship of state. But we would be naïve not to acknowledge that it has actually arrived on a shore that a century ago seemed utterly unreachable. So, as Andrew Nathan suggests, from a certain point of view that is actually quite widely shared among Chinese, Xi’s advent as a new strong man in Beijing—especially after the inconclusive rule of Hu Jintao—does represent a threshold of a possible new era. It may not be a very humanistic, democratic or even (to westerners) a very likeable era, but Xi does represent a new leadership that is seeking to define a new era, that will probably be much more hard-line and pugnacious than past leaderships.

Of course, as for most governments that have ruled China since 1912, the proof will be not so much in what set of principles and values these new leaders espouse, but whether they can continue to promote a stronger, more prosperous and more respected (feared?) China.

Most analysts who live in democracies underestimate the global popularity of the C.C.P. dictatorship, and not just in Pakistan, where China is far and away the favorite country. All over the developing world, people who identify with a post-colonial discourse imagine China as on their side in countering a supposed neo-colonial impact of Europe and America. These people welcomed China’s breaking the nuclear monopoly of the Cold War powers in 1964. They celebrated the P.R.C. taking the China seat on the U.N. Security Council in 1971. They publicly rejected the post-June 4, 1989 Beijing massacre O.E.C.D. sanctions on the Deng Xiaoping regime. They see China as on their side and they wish Xi Jinping well. Their leaders experience an increase in prestige whenever they are visited by the P.R.C. leader.

Many Chinese, and not only in the ruling party and the military, hope President Xi will bring a new day to China, one which contains corruption and promotes fairness. The picture of Xi eating simple buns in an ordinary restaurant was meant to promote an image of Xi as precisely the leader these Chinese all want.

But this trajectory, which may well persist and triumph, will take China in an ever more repressive, militaristic and populist right authoritarian direction (some call it neo-fascist). Such polities, however harshly they treat opponents and potential opponents, can be very popular with patriots, as was the case in Central Europe in the interwar period.

This trajectory makes it ever more likely that the P.R.C.’s international disputes will be militarized. These military clashes need not lead to all-out war. But the highest likelihood seems to be that Xi will act on an agenda of showing, at home and abroad, that the C.C.P. regime is tough and will prove to others that it is tough. While the source of these tough measures, at home and abroad, lies inside of Chinese politics, it would be wrong to imagine that post-colonial governments will suddenly abandon their identification with China as a positive force in the world and suddenly see the C.C.P.'s single-party dictatorship as a bad government.

After all, the Chinese economy already adds more new wealth to the world each year than does the U.S.A. C.C.P.-backed foreign direct investment (FDI), imports and loans have stimulated more rapid growth in sub-Saharan Africa. Most governments, not just those of the least developed countries (LDCs), will oppose policies which could lose them the imagined benefits of deep involvement with an economically dynamic China. Therefore, Chinese supporters of Xi’s agenda will find much evidence that Xi is leading the Chinese people toward a brighter future.

This is a stimulating thread, and most of what needs to be said has already been said.  I would simply observe, by way of summary, and perhaps in distillation of what Orville has written, that the question of whether Xi’s first year augurs for some sort of positive New Beginning may depend on what one looks at—and what one is looking for.  The itemized list of retrograde developments provided in the opening essay is a crystallization, a presentation in purest and most undiluted form, of what I find and (I assume) most ChinaFile readers will find to be disappointing, repellent, and alarming.  It is “true,” if you will.  But it still remains, as Orville points out early in his commentary, a list from a particular standpoint—a standpoint that most Americans recognize and respect, but still, in the end, a single standpoint.

We should be asking, as well, however, what the first year of Xi’s administration might be signifying for “the Chinese,” or, to be more politic, “the man/woman in the street,” or some other defined subset of the population besides those Chinese whose maltreatment figures so prominently in the opening essay.  To write off whatever “any ordinary Chinese” may think on the grounds that he/she has not “made a minimal effort to learn the truth,” or that any confidence in Xi Jinping among such “ordinary Chinese” is “based on ignorance” strikes me as presuming to a higher knowledge of what people in China think than I, for one, am comfortable in asserting.

It is no secret to any of us that finding out “what the Chinese people really think” is a complex process, bounded by many controls on speech, assembly, and so forth with which we are all drearily familiar. But precisely because it is such a complex process, I think we're running a risk of unintentionally misleading ourselves if we simply conclude, to our friendly ChinaFile audience, that if there’s anyone in China who doesn't agree with our particular depiction of reality there, that person must be lazy, deluded, or tricked or repressed by the worst elements of an unrelievedly repressive regime.

Perhaps this discussion could be balanced, and broadened, by the participation of one or more contributors who focus on the Chinese economy, and certainly on the Reform program first outlined in the Third Plenum a year ago and now in the process of elaboration and implementation.  If those reform efforts are making real progress already, that is relevant to the question posed here.  If they are not yet making real progress, but appear to be heading in the direction of short- to medium-term implementation, that too should balance our discussion.  If, on the other hand, they are all turning out badly, or failing to materialize, or proving to be hollow and cynical shams, then so be it; that would at least add weight to what has already appeared in this thread.  Let’s at least try to have a look.

One other editorial point for the future:  quotation marks, in the absence of any explanation of what else they might be intended to mean, signify that someone else’s words are being reproduced verbatim.  In the second contribution to this thread, unsuspecting readers may be scratching their heads as to who is being quoted.  Actually, it seems that no one is really being quoted, and that the “quoted” passages are satirical, designed to display what the contributor imagines is in the mind of members of the CCP elite—the “red nobility,” as the author writes. 

I know lots of journalists these days write “open letters,” or letters purporting to be by someone famous (Dear Sis—A shame about Uncle Jang, but when he kept the clam harvest money for himself I simply had to get rid of him.  Ever yours (for now, anyway), Jung-un), but in a context like this thread on this wonderful web site, with NO indication of satirical intent except the quotation marks themselves, I find use of fake quotes pretty unfortunate.