Christmas came early this year for Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader who, domestically at least, seems to have it all. He already had a compliant press, an adoring population, and a long list of titles—including head of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the PRC—when the Leninist organization he leads gave him a new gift in October by slipping a shiny phrase, “Xi Jinping Thought,” into the latest revision of the country’s constitution. This effectively dubbed him the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, and has been accompanied—more gifts—by the establishment of some twenty academic centers devoted to studying his eponymous creed.
What more could Xi possibly want?
At the top of his wish list is expanded international legitimacy. He would like to see his governing concepts accepted not just locally but globally. And the sparkling endorsements, for this man and his plans, such as the “Belt and Road Initiative,” launched in 2013, just keep stacking up.
Perhaps the most striking piece of flattery came from Donald Trump, who, during his November visit to China, called Xi “a very special man,” congratulated him on a “recent and very successful 19th Party Congress,” and anticipated “an even stronger relationship between our two countries . . . and even closer friendships and relationships between the people of our countries”—all after years of denouncing China’s rise as an existential threat to the United States.
But Xi also found himself vindicated in less publicized ways. Early this month, for example, leading figures from Google and Facebook attended the Wuzhen World Internet Conference, helping to legitimate an event that was laughed off by global tech elites ahead of its inaugural edition four years ago, with its goal of normalizing the heavy-handed internet governance model of the Chinese Communist Party . The gift was topped with a shiny ribbon from Apple CEO Tim Cook, who told this year’s audience members that China’s notion of “a common future in cyberspace” was “a vision we at Apple share.”
And Trumplandia has hardly been alone in giving Xi reason to celebrate. David Cameron has also gotten into the act, signing on to help oversee a big budget project linked to the Belt and Road Initiative, which is being touted as a “win-win” effort to forge deeper economic and infrastructure ties between China and other countries. In explaining this move, a spokesman for the former PM said he was “very proud of his work launching the golden era between the UK and China with President Xi.”
We also should not forget the rhetorical trinkets offered by fans closer to home. Between the early December internet conference and the more recent news about Cameron, Xi was honored by Singapore’s Straits Times as “Asian of the Year.” Explaining its choice, the newspaper said Xi had displayed “the global statesmanship that the world needs.”
But what kind of statesman has Xi Jinping been? What exactly is his vision of our “common future in cyberspace”? Is he really the benevolent Confucian-ruler-meets-modernizing-globalizer that the Chinese official media portrays him to be, with an increasing number of foreign commentators echoing them?
This was not just a year of accolades for Xi but one when the history of modern China took another alarming turn. Despite all the talk of a “win-win” New Era beginning, there were many losers in Xi’s domestic and geopolitical shuffling, including a famous dissident and large number of ordinary residents of Beijing and Xinjiang. For all Xi’s talk of realizing the “China Dream,” many recent moves have been more nightmarish.
To balance the bounty of praise, we offer five especially low points of 2017:
1) Liu Xiaobo became the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate since the Nazi era to die while incarcerated. Yes, he was held in a heavily guarded hospital room rather than a prison cell in his final days, but his request to go abroad for treatment was denied. His wife, Liu Xia, subsequently vanished from public view for five weeks, in a manner that left her friends fearing for her safety. This was one of the many issues that Trump might have brought up publicly while in Beijing but did not. (Another of Trump’s generous gifts was to agree that reporters at a joint press conference during the President’s visit would ask no questions.)
2) In November rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong was sentenced to a two-year prison term for “inciting state subversion.” Jiang’s crime was to take on sensitive rights cases that tested the limits of the Party’s power, including representing victims of the 2008 poisoned milk scandal in which tens of thousands of babies were hospitalized. He was the twelfth rights lawyer to be sentenced in the past two years, in the midst of a crackdown that has targeted more than 300 attorneys. Late last month, in a show of dissent that has become exceptionally rare on Xi’s watch, scores of lawyers and law professors spoke out against a proposed new anti-corruption agency that would have sweeping supralegal powers.
3) Controls that were already intense have been ratcheted up still further in areas from online speech to religious freedom. A report from the Associated Press just last week revealed a broad campaign of fear and forced assimilation directed against the Uyghur Muslim minority population of Xinjiang, which has turned the territory’s southern region into “one of the most heavily policed places on earth.” China’s internet too has become a zone of intensified control, with a stringent new Cybersecurity Law taking effect in June that essentially mandates that everyone, from giant tech firms to lone internet users, be complicit with the Party’s controls and messaging. Back in September, an unfortunate construction supervisor was picked up by police and jailed after tapping an off-color joke (involving an alleged affair between a celebrity and a senior official) into a private chat group on his iPhone—a chilling illustration of just how vulnerable all Chinese potentially are to online spying.
4) Beijing has made a series of new moves to limit Hong Kong’s ability to function as a partly autonomous part of the PRC, which was supposed to be guaranteed until 2047. Recently, for example, it ruled that mainland officers would handle security at the Hong Kong station of a proposed fast train line that will connect the territory to the mainland, and that the city’s status as a Special Administrative Region would not exempt its residents from a newly passed law that makes showing disrespect for the national anthem punishable by up to three years in jail.
5) Last but far from least, while residents of urban villages and migrant workers eking out a living in Chinese cities have often been mistreated and bullied, a particularly brutal wave of evictions have been taking place in Beijing in the last few weeks. After a fire broke out in the densely packed tenements of a migrant neighborhood on the margins of the capital on November 18, killing nineteen people, city authorities announced a forty-day crackdown on “illegal structures.” In the ensuing weeks, actions justified in the name of safety and security became a full-fledged campaign of demolition, hustling tens of thousands of urban migrants—who drive China’s urban service economy—out of their homes as winter closed in.
Adding insult to injury, government documents and official state media referred to the evictees as the “low-end population,” a highly derogatory term, prompting a brief wave of public sympathy and outrage on social media. Authorities promptly responded by banning mention of the phrase, and the discussion was silenced. Consider that just weeks before these actions—taking place in the political heart of China—Xi Jinping was extolled as a champion of people-based development in a three-part documentary, ostensibly produced by an independent UK-based company, that aired on the Discovery Channel in thirty-seven Asian countries.
International journalists have reported on all five of the developments just described. Each has also been condemned in critical commentaries and harsh editorials in major newspapers. And yet, in a year that has seen headline space taken by, among many other things, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, crackdowns on dissent in many countries, and revelations about sexual predation by high-profile Americans, there have been limits to the attention any of them have gotten. Many who in less troubled times would have carved out a bit of mental space to worry about these disturbing trends in China are hard pressed to do so now.
It can be hard at times even for China specialists to focus on the nightmare side of Xi’s dream. As Liz Carter, a leading analyst of Chinese social media, put it to one of us as news about the Beijing evictions competed for headline space with reports on sexual harassment and the Republican tax plan, it can become difficult to pay much attention to suffering in China when “your own house is on fire.”
We do not mean to suggest that things are worse in China than they are anywhere else. Many things, though, are worse there than they were a decade ago, when under Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, the country was gearing up to host its first Olympics. Hu was not lavished with praise or given gifts of silence and consent of the sort Xi is regularly receiving. The international torch relay ahead of the Games was met with protests inspired by abuses in Tibet, and there were wider calls for a boycott . Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, very unlike his Silicon Valley counterparts today, pulled out of a planned collaboration for the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics over the Chinese government’s policy toward the conflict in Darfur.
While there are plenty of other places where worrisome things are happening, the countries in question are typically not being described as models for their peers to learn from. Their leaders may be described by officially controlled domestic news venues as great men, but publications in other places are not hailing them as models of “global statesmanship.”
Xi is getting the kind of over-the-top personal exaltation within the PRC that has been uncommon since Mao’s day. Without a doubt, this is a disturbing trend. But we find it at least as striking that in a year with such unwelcome developments in China, Xi is receiving such eager hurrahs from beyond the borders of the PRC.
When criticized for his role in legitimating the Chinese government’s censorous approach to the internet, Tim Cook responded: “My view is that you show up and you participate because nothing ever changes from the sidelines.”
This seemingly simple notion of engagement is often trotted out where China is concerned. But Cook and others who see engagement as the principled choice must at least have a clear-eyed view of the game in which they are participating. Where the internet is concerned, China’s game has potentially disruptive consequences for global freedom of speech.
Xi has made it clear that gaining access to the booming Chinese market means playing by his rules, and international power players are showing themselves increasingly ready to acquiesce—belying their commitment to the open public sphere that they often take as fundamental to their own societies. In their complicity, they help to burnish the luster of a decidedly autocratic leader, whose actions are far removed from both the Confucian and socialist values he claims to endorse. And that is more generosity than Xi deserves.
David Bandurski is Co-Director of the China Media Project and a Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy. Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and one of the editors of the China Channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books.