The Xi Era

The Xi Era

The seismic shifts in the global world order during Xi’s rule call for new tools for understanding China and the varied lives and views of its inhabitants.

Cover art by Tabitha Arnold

It is always worth trying to get as rounded a sense as possible of the many parts of the world that are flattened by soundbite-driven coverage. In some cases, the need to get beyond simplistic stereotypes takes on a special urgency. The People’s Republic of China is such a place. In spite of how often the PRC has made global headlines in recent years, many people still have only a superficial sense of the varied lives and views of its inhabitants. Similarly, there is often little understanding (including on the left) of the Chinese Communist Party, a complex organization whose centenary was marked with great pomp and circumstance last year in Beijing. The CCP, which has been in power for more than seventy years, remains one of the biggest political organizations in the world, and more than ever before, its policies have planet-wide ripple effects. It is crucial to figure out how to make sense of that organization and its leader, Xi Jinping, who has a long list of titles but still derives his power most of all from the one he acquired in November 2012: General Secretary of the CCP.

Nine years ago, an issue of Dissent on “China’s 99%” offered a bottom-up view of the people of the People’s Republic through articles on feminism, labor struggles, youth viewpoints, and varieties of nationalism. At that point, there were only beginning signs of the sort of strongman nationalist leader that Xi would become. And in the ensuing years, the broader international political and economic order has experienced seismic shifts, especially after two years of a global pandemic. As a result, this new special section engages with a broad spectrum of issues, many of them global in nature, and many to do with the politics of the Xi era. The goal of the section is not just to give readers updates on issues of perennial interest but also analytical tools to think about a PRC that is more complex than it is often portrayed. They also show that, while Xi may be ratcheting up mechanisms of control, many continue, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, to find cracks through which light can get in.    

The section begins with an article by Sebastian Veg, a cultural historian based in Paris, whose important study of grassroots intellectuals in China was published last year. In this essay, Veg argues that even in this moment of ever-tightening controls on universities and other traditional settings for debate, the long Chinese tradition of intellectuals expressing dissent has not disappeared, and that these thinkers and artists deserve our continued attention.

Veg’s article is followed by an exchange between Eli Friedman, a scholar of Chinese labor activism, and Ching Kwan Lee, whose last book was a study of China’s state-driven investments in African projects. Their conversation, which moves around the world—Lee has done ethnographic work in multiple parts of the Chinese mainland as well as in Hong Kong and Zambia—focuses on how the concept of “global China” can help connect the CCP’s drive to maintain stability in contentious regions within the PRC’s borders to efforts to extend the country’s international reach.

A variety of forms of disquiet over a culture of overwork at Chinese internet companies have emerged in recent years. JS Tan, a writer and organizer in the tech sector, examines resistance to the alienating impact of the intense demands on white-collar workers in many mainland business settings.

In 2009, Lü Pin, a pioneering feminist activist, founded the media outlet Feminist Voices, which was shut down by the government in 2018. In a commentary translated by Anne Henochowicz and introduced by Leta Hong Fincher, Lü praises the bravery of tennis star Peng Shuai and analyzes the repercussions she faced after writing a #MeToo social media post critical of a powerful figure within the CCP.

The next pair of contributions shift our attention to two high-profile men whose fates in recent years could not be more different. Journalist Han Zhang provides a critical profile of Eric Li, an ideologically flexible entrepreneur who is at home in the worlds of both the international business elite and the CCP. In the following piece, the focus is on Ilham Tohti, an economist who is now the most prominent Uyghur political prisoner in China. His commentary, “The Need to Mount Long-term Resistance to Totalitarianism and Ethnonationalist Chauvinism,” published in this issue, was written in Uyghur in 2006 and translated for a new volume of his work by Yaxue Cao, Cindy Carter, and Matthew Robertson. Anthropologist Darren Byler, a leading scholar of Uyghur culture, Xinjiang, and the vast network of extrajudicial camps that now dot that region, introduces Tohti’s work and describes the shock of his arrest almost a decade ago.

This section ends with a wide-ranging set of responses to the question of whether the United States and China are engaged in a new Cold War. The contributors—Tobita Chow, Patrick Iber, Yangyang Cheng, Brian Hioe, Rebecca E. Karl, and Ted Fertik—are diverse in their training and perspectives, and they stake out strongly argued and urgent positions on how the PRC, its place in the world, and its government’s relationships to other countries are shifting in ways both reminiscent of and radically unlike the ideological conflicts of the twentieth century. They all offer a distinctive twist on the query; some reject its premises as misguided and misleading.

The section was first planned late in 2021, and all the contributors completed their drafts before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February. A “hot war” is now in progress—a reminder, among other things, of the many other hot wars of the Cold War era (though it is by no means the first hot war of post–Cold War times). Without referring to the Ukraine crisis specifically, the forum raises many issues that prove relevant to the current anxious moment.

The contributors to this section do not have a single position to promote or stance to defend. Taken together, however, they offer up a nuanced collective view of an increasingly powerful PRC that is both shaping and being shaped by a world that ricochets from crisis to crisis.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020).

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