Xi Jinping’s rise to power was no surprise—he had been designated Hu Jintao’s heir apparent several years before. The same cannot be said of what has followed his ascent to the dual posts of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in November 2012, and President of the People’s Republic of China, the following March. In fact, he has accumulated so many additional titles—recently “Commander-in-Chief”—that China scholar Geremie Barmé puckishly suggests that we simply call him “Chairman of Everything.”
This nickname, while amusing, underscores something significant. Xi is much more of a go-it-alone strongman leader than the bland consensus-builder, Hu Jintao. Xi has developed something closer to a full-blown cult of personality than China has seen in decades, and piles of works by and about him are now often the first thing you see upon entering a mainland bookstore.
What won’t surprise anyone familiar with past periods of strongman rule in China—or its recent rise in many other parts of the world like India and Turkey—is that Xi’s ascent has been bad for civil society—for journalists, human rights lawyers, labor activists, feminists, and any writers and artists critical of the government. A decade or so ago, it could be risky to be part of progressive struggles, but it seemed that, with some crucial exceptions, room for expressing dissent was very slowly expanding. Brutal repression of all forms of protest remained the rule in Tibet and Xinjiang, as it did with any broader challenge to the political system as a whole. But speaking out about specific issues, as long as they were confined to local settings, was gradually becoming tolerated. Today, this is no longer true.
Overall, conditions for civil society are worse in China today than they have been for more than two decades. Things are bleaker than at any point since the early 1990s, when the fierce repressive surge that began with the June 1989 massacres in Beijing and Chengdu tapered off. The swing back toward repression, which began around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was fueled by the curious and combustible mix of elite self-confidence (bolstered, for example, by the country’s recovery from the global financial crisis) and elite skittishness (triggered by fears of a “color revolution” or Arab Spring, as if any tide of democratization might somehow make its way into China). It has picked up steam under the Chairman of Everything’s rule.
Initially, observers expected Xi to behave a lot like Hu, not like one of China’s past autocrats. He had given few public statements or interviews, so it was hard to figure out what kind of stamp he would put on the system when he took control. He was, however, a product of the Chinese political establishment, so it seemed safe to assume that he would simply maintain the status quo.
The main alternative to this view came from optimistic Western commentators, across the political spectrum. On the right, for example, Terry Branstad, the long-serving Republican governor of Iowa who has dined with Xi on both sides of the Pacific (and awaits confirmation as Donald Trump’s Ambassador to China, as of press time), predicted that Xi would be a liberalizing figure. He told journalists in 2012 and early 2013 that he knew his “friend” Xi to be a “progressive” figure devoted to making China a more “open” place. Liberal journalist Nicholas Kristof, who held similar views, asserted in an early 2013 column that, under Xi, stalled economic reforms would be revived and that there would “probably” be some “political easing,” too. His hopes for Xi were based not on his own interactions with the man himself, but on knowledge that the leader’s father, a member of an earlier generation of the CCP elite, had spoken out against the “massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1989.” The son was bound to be a “reformer,” Kristof wrote, because it was “in his genes.” I was among those who expressed skepticism about this sort of view, but none of us, as far as I know, took the further step of saying we expected Xi to create a decidedly more repressive climate than he inherited.
Flash forward four years, and the debates about Xi are quite different. One is over whether he will give up power when, according to the recently established pattern, his ten years are up and he is supposed to move on. He might, some speculate, take a page from Putin’s playbook and try to stay on longer, retaining at least one or two of his many titles. Another is whether it is apt or overblown to present his efforts to impose ideological conformity on universities and limit the flow of foreign ideas into China as reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. The question now is not whether or not he will be a liberalizer but how far his illiberal tendencies will go.
In spite of ratcheted up forms of control—manifesting itself in everything from new laws aimed at limiting what NGOS can do, to persecution of lawyers, to the detention of the Feminist Five in 2015, to televised broadcasts of coerced “confessions” by human rights activists—protests continue. Slowing growth and other economic factors, for example, are triggering increases in worker unrest. The China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based organization, claimed that some 1,300 strikes and related actions took place in 2014. Then, that number more than doubled the following year, with an average of more than an incident a day in 2015 in Guangdong, a southern province known as a manufacturing center. Environmental protests, often with a not-in-my-backyard angle, and rural unrest triggered by anger over land grabs by venal officials are other common forms of contention.
In the face of ramped-up censorship and new regulations allowing prosecution of those accused of “spreading rumors,” a nebulous category open to abuse by the authorities, some critical intellectuals and artists have been driven into exile or gone silent. A small number continue to speak out boldly. The novelist Murong Xuecun, for example, has become a vocal critic of censorship and self-censorship—something he admits to having succumbed to himself in the past. And members of a daring group of artists recently put cotton masks on statues in the western city of Chengdu to suggest that even inanimate objects aren’t safe from China’s foul air. The action led to their arrest and to riot police sealing off the center of the metropolis.
China’s elite continues to find itself in a curious position. On the one hand, it has ever more reasons to feel self-confident, as its rising economic clout and America’s declining international prestige make possible things like the Chairman of Everything’s star turn at Davos. On the other, its skittishness remains, thanks to expressions of discontent at home and fear of revolutionary influences from abroad. A sense of the system’s fragility remains, even though there is no organized opposition, and no movement since 1989 has emerged to link people with the most commonly shared grievances, which now include old ones such as disgust with corruption, as well as newer ones such as anxiety about their children growing up breathing toxic fumes.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and a member of the Dissent editorial board. He is editor of The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China (Oxford University Press, 2016).