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China's Putin: How Xi Jinping brought totalitarianism and the cult of personality back to the PRC

March 20 marked the start of a three-day visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two dictators are in search of common ground, and they are likely to find it, as Putin and Xi share many similarities – not just because Xi has adopted an aggressive foreign policy, but also because his rule has been marked by multiple internal crackdowns. Xi has purged disloyal voices in the state apparatus, arrested and forced public repentance of uncontrolled bloggers, and gutted the country’s media. Censorship has also intensified in the sciences, whose main purpose is now to find China's unique place in the world and to prepare the PRC for confrontation with other ideologies. The PRC has also seen a resurgence of the cult of personality: universities, for example, have already established institutes for the study of Xi Jinping's thought. For participating in workers' unions – and even in Maoist circles – one can go to jail or go missing. China’s Uyghur population has had it the worst, with thousands going through “re-education camps,” where they have faced torture, humiliation and sexual assault. Contrary to popular belief, the country’s recent “anti-COVID” protests have not been a sign of a political thaw – totalitarianism has continued to consolidate.

  • From Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping

  • “New openness” as new dictatorship

  • “Deliberative democracy” instead of real democracy

  • TV and internet censorship

  • Guidelines for science and education

  • Persecution of students and workers

  • Re-education camps

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From Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping

China has never been a democracy, but even though it is a one-party state, elements of pluralism, competition and the transition of power were nevertheless part of its governance system for a relatively short time. Those achievements were the result of Deng Xiaoping’s rule, whose “policy of reform and opening up,” which began in 1978, included not only the return of a market economy and a shift towards a more open foreign policy, but structural changes to the party apparatus designed to prevent the possibility of one-man rule.

Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997)
Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997)

Although the regime remained formally authoritarian and under the control of one party, the reforms carried out by Deng can be nonethtless considered radical. A two-term limit for the Chinese president was introduced into the country’s constitution – something that certainly could not have been contemplated before Deng. Single-party rule ran counter to the idea of term limits, and, to overcome that, Deng began to promote, or rather cultivate, a model of “parties within the party” – independent and antagonistic informal cliques within the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). He also initiated a tradition of active counterbalances in the country's leadership positions: since Deng’s departure, the secretaries-general of the CCP and premiers of the CCP State Council have been appointed by opposing cliques and forced to deal with their rivals. This environment created an informal system of checks and balances – one fundamentally different from the Western model, where institutions perform the role of counterweights, but nonetheless workable.

Deng Xiaoping saw the main purpose of the reforms as preventing the establishment of monarchy in China

The traditions and rules established by Deng Xiaoping did not make China a democracy, but they effectively ensured the stable functioning of the authoritarian system and successfully prevented the return of totalitarian leaders and autocracy for several decades – until Xi Jinping.

“New openness” as new dictatorship

Like Deng Xiaoping, Xi has simultaneously embarked on both domestic and foreign policy reforms – albeit in the opposite direction. Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has reversed much of the liberal reforms of the preceding decades. One of Xi's first acts in his new post was to initiate a major anti-corruption campaign. Corruption has indeed been and remains a serious problem in China, except that the “anti-corruption campaign” has for some reason mainly affected Xi's political opponents.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping

Xi quickly built his own group of supporters, refusing to align himself with either of the two dominant inner-party factions. The group soon emerged as the party’s leading force, and is now the only de facto unchallenged master force: one of the cliques, the Tuanpai (Youth League Faction), is likely no longer in existence, while the other, the Shanghai clique, has lost nearly all influence. As a result, the vast majority of party and state positions have been filled by people loyal to Xi, and there is no political – or ideological – competition to him within the party.

The vast majority of party and state positions are filled by people loyal to Xi

Parallel to the domestic reforms, Xi has begun a U-turn from China's policy of opening up to the world. He has consistently built up and maintained an anti-Western stance, rejecting “Western values” and “Western liberalism” both at the diplomatic level, such as by openly criticising the US, and at the cultural level by singling out and supporting anti-Western ideologues.

“Deliberative democracy” instead of real democracy

The consolidation of autocracy in China has been gradual and calculated. While Xi’s reforms were blatantly anti-democratic and totalitarian in nature, there was an understanding that democratic elements – or an imitation of them – were needed to build and maintain the necessary level of popular support. For this, Xi turned to the concept of deliberative (or consultative) democracy (协商民主). The “consultative” element was an important part of China's authoritarian apparatus even before Xi, but it has now been given a special role.

Xi needs democratic elements – or an imitation of them – to build and sustain the necessary level of popular support

The emphasis on “deliberative democracy” in policy documents and public speeches began in 2013, peaking in 2015 when the CCP Central Committee issued special directives to “strengthen socialist consultative democracy.” In practice, this means that citizens have access to a system of petitions and applications, local authorities periodically conduct “consultative polls” on policy decisions, and establish “public discussion centers” and other forums. Some scholars have noted that in some cases, these institutions cease to be imitative and actually influence decision-making through imperfect but generally democratic procedures. In short, these processes and institutions are meant to create a democratic vector that could sometimes clash with centralised party control. But in reality, these institutions are nothing more than a façade, merely reinforcing the legitimacy of the Chinese dictatorship and helping mobilise political support for Xi and control the local agenda by mimicking grassroots initiatives.

“Deliberative democracy” in China is maintained through a huge, purpose-built bureaucratic machine

TV and internet censorship

As early as 2013, Xi Jinping was already busy mopping up disloyal voices outside the state apparatus. The first and most visible measure was the introduction of mass censorship – starting with the internet. The censorship campaign began with the harassment, arrests and public humiliation of popular and dissenting bloggers. In 2013, popular Sina Weibo microblogger Charles Xue, better known by his alias Xue Manzi, was arrested in a raid on suspicion of sociliting a prostitute. The arrest was followed by a television appearance, where Charles apologised to his fellow citizens for “irresponsible posts.” The blogger's fate was echoed by his other colleagues: in the same year, Qin Hoho was arrested for “lawlessness.” A campaign against Pan Shiyi, a prominent businessman and founder of commercial developer SOHO China, and one of the country’s biggest bloggers, began in parallel to the case against Charles Xue. According to some reports, the government was pressuring his company – others claimed he was subjected to rumors, publicly humiliated, and forced, like Xue, to make a self-deprecating speech on television.

The censorship campaign began with the harassment, arrests and public humiliation of popular opposition bloggers

The government began to strictly regulate online content in parallel to the crackdown on popular bloggers. It introduced criminal liability with up to three years in prison for spreading “rumors” – Russia's equivalent of “fake news.” In the first four months of the censorship campaign, more than a hundred thousand users of Weibo, China's largest social network, were removed or restricted by the government.

In 2018, as part of a restructuring of state agencies – mainly to concentrate their control under Xi – the censorship system and its institutions also underwent changes aimed at even tighter control. The country’s three biggest TV channels were reformed into one information network, which, unlike individual TV channels, is directly under the control of China’s central propaganda department. This makes it easier to control the production of content and its consistency with censorship and propaganda norms. In addition to the TV channels themselves, the entire film industry in China, including financing and filmmaking, falls under the propaganda department’s control.

Guidelines for science and education

Censorship has also affected education and science. In 2016, Xi Jinping convened a “symposium on philosophy and the social sciences” where he gave a keynote speech on the state of science and education in these subjects in China. Xi argued of China's uniqueness and its place in the world, adding that the role of the social sciences and philosophy was in finding that place. The social sciences in China, Xi said, do not provide enough theoretical innovation in the search for Chinese ideology and the construction of socialism, which should be their primary goal. According to Xi, a “confrontation” of ideologies is inevitable in today's dynamic world and China's social sciences are to prepare the country for it. Xi thus sees science primarily as a foreign and domestic political tool, at best a tool of soft power and spreading China's influence. In Xi’s view, science in China must be unique and fundamentally different from Western alternatives.

President Xi Jinping at the 2016 symposium
President Xi Jinping at the 2016 symposium

Although Xi's speech was difficult to describe as specific or coherent, and it was all the more difficult to build a workable scientific paradigm around, this is exactly what Chinese policymakers ultimately attempted to do. According to China's Ministry of Education, universities are required to follow President Xi's instructions – to this end, most universities have established “institutes for the study of Xi Jinping's thought.” At the same time, academics and teachers are forced to cooperate with censorship authorities, which scrutinise their work. If their publications contain “undesirable” elements, the authors can be banned from teaching and publishing altogether and lose their jobs and salaries.

Xi has expressed the same ideas about art. Chinese art should express traditional Chinese culture and modern Chinese values, according to the CCP chairman. Xi's discourse on art has been even more expansive than that on science: in one of his speeches to cultural figures he declared that art in China should be “like the sun from a clear sky, a gentle breeze in the springtime.”

Persecution of students and workers

In addition to cultural and academic figures, grassroots political activists – not necessarily opposed to the Party or even to Xi himself – have also come under fire. Any political thought that does not follow Xi Jinping Thought – even Maoist thought – is considered hostile and undesirable. In 2017, a group of eight students organised a reading club focusing on left-wing political thought and Maoism. The meetings also focused on trade unions and workplace organisation: the students were interested in working conditions and often made research visits to factories and organised cultural events for workers, such as open dance or singing lessons. On 15 November 2017, six students were detained during a routine reading club meeting. Two more students were detained within weeks of the incident, one of whom, Zhang Yunfan, was illegally taken to an unknown location at the end of his arrest without a case being initiated. He later revealed that he had been forced to sign a confession of “radical ideas” and organizing a political conspiracy. Yunfan ended up spending six months in jail before being released on medical grounds.

Any political thought that does not follow Xi Jinping Thought is considered hostile

A similar wave of arrests took place in 2018. Student activists, including young Maoists, were detained en masse in several Chinese cities. According to testimonies, police also picked up random passers-by who happened to be near the students. Zhang Shengye, a student at Peking University, said he was attacked from behind and carried away in a police car by men without uniform. At least eight other activists also spoke of being detained. Zhang was later released, following a campaign of open letters from academics and students from across China.

Another high-profile case involved Jasic Technology, a manufacturing corporation that owns multiple factories across China. In May 2018, a worker in a Jasic production facility in Shenzhen was fired – his colleagues, who regularly faced poor working conditions, delays, compulsory unpaid overtime and low wages, attempted to form a union, but their request was rejected by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. Despite the ruling, the workers decided to form their own union independently, in defiance of the Federation's decision. Jasic responded by trying to put pressure on the employees, at which point days of workers' protests began. News of the workers' problems and the refusal to form a union spread rapidly through the media and social networks. Students, activists and members of independent leftist organisations as well as “neo-Maoists” – including those from the major left-wing forums Utopia and Maoflag – soon joined the protests. The rallies were also supported by more well-known, mainstream activists, including academics and activists from China's #MeToo movement. Major social media accounts and chats related to the protests began to pop up across the country, and activists began to spread the hashtag #epochpioneer, dedicated to the left-wing movement and the protest against Jasic.

Demonstration in support of Jasic Technology workers, Shenzhen, 6 August 2018
Demonstration in support of Jasic Technology workers, Shenzhen, 6 August 2018

A few days later, police officers broke into a flat where students and workers had gathering, detaining all 50 people in attendance. Some leaders of the movement – such as Peking University student Yue Xin, who had earlier written an open letter to Xi Jinping – were taken to an unknown location and later reported missing. The whereabouts of some of those detained are still unknown, although it is believed that they, along with other leaders of the movement and account administrators – such as epochpioneer – have been sent to re-education camps.

Re-education camps

More radical movements are facing even harsher suppression. Entire ethnic groups and regions have been targeted – namely the Uyghurs and the province of Xinjiang. Xinjiang is a large region in northwest China, about half the population of which are Uyghurs, a Turkic people predominantly practicing Islam. Since the early 1990s, the issue of Uyghur separatism has been discussed in the mainstream media, and, in 2001, against the background of the September 11 attacks, the threat of “Islamic terrorism” emanating from the group. At that time, a somewhat organized separatist movement in Xinjiang did exist, and was responsible for several violent acts, such as for the armed uprising in Baren in 1990, which consisted of some 200 men seeking sympathizers in mosques. Uyghur separatists were also responsible for a series of bombings in 1992-1993 and, finally, for a major cluster of uprisings in 1996-1997, when mass protests broke out and several explosions occurred as China joined the SCO (“Shanghai Five”) and launched an anti-separatist takeover operation. Several murders of Uyghur politicians were also reported at the time, but their perpetrators are still unknown.

Entire ethnic groups and regions, namely Uyghurs and the Xinjiang province, have been «cleansed»

It is difficult to trace the sole source of separatist sentiments, but two main factors can be identified. First is the very existence of Xinjiang as an autonomous region, as the emergence of autonomous areas often leads to the birth of autonomous identities and separatist sentiments. Secondly, despite the formal recognition of Xinjiang’s autonomy, the region has almost no de facto independence, which causes discontent. Actual protests, however, are rare. The 1996-1997 uprisings were the last major event in the history of violent separatism in Xinjiang – or separatism in Xinjiang in general – for over a decade, as a notable surge of discontent only occurred in 2009.

Things changed for the Uyghurs in 2014, when Xi declared the beginning of a “people's war on terrorism.” In 2016, Chen Quanguo, the former head of Tibet, was appointed party secretary for Xinjiang, where he was engaged in “pacification” – primarily through harsh measures of social control. This appointment was not coincidental: not only had Chen proved himself to be a tough manager, no stranger to extreme measures, but he was also a loyal and close associate of Xi Jinping. Quanguo moved quickly to meet the president's “war on terror” targets. Soon after his appointment, a comprehensive surveillance system was put in place, and the mass detentions of Uyghurs began.

The main novelty in China’s policy towards the region has been the creation of “re-education” camps for Uyghurs – in effect, prisons, where “unreliable elements” are temporarily sent. While the Chinese government claims that the camps are reserved for criminals in dire need of re-education, there have in fact been reports of academics and artists being arrested. The number of camps increased dramatically in 2017, with 15 new prisons being built. Rare outsiders who have been in the camps, such as those forced to “teach” there, speak of abuse and torture. According to them, prisoners are beaten, water tortured and sexually assaulted. According to the same reports, the cells in the camps are often overcrowded – the number of people arrested far exceeds the capacity of the prisons.

According to some reports, most of the “re-education” involves watching and memorising speeches by Xi Jinping and other Chinese political figures. Prisoners are lectured on the evils of Islam, forced to renounce their mother tongue and publicly renounce their religion.

A road that allegedly leads to a "re-education camp" for Uyghurs in Xinjiang
A road that allegedly leads to a "re-education camp" for Uyghurs in Xinjiang

There is also evidence of direct genocide – an attempt by the Chinese government to artificially regulate the Uyghur population. Some internees have described being forced to undergo sterilisation in the camps; open source data indicates that sterilisation rates in the region are eight times higher than the Chinese average. The birth rate in the region has also fallen significantly. The government denies such allegations, but does not seek to provide an explanation. Several Western countries have already accused China of human rights violations and genocide of the Uyghurs, while the UN has produced a report with evidence of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Despite the lack of material evidence of some of the violations and the lack of access to the camps, there is enough evidence to conclude that systematic human rights abuses have occurred.

Illusions of resistance

The government's commitment to the Zero-COVID policy was not at all surprising. “Dynamic clearing” with Chinese characteristics, was marked by unprecedentedly harsh measures from the outset. The policy included strict self-isolation requirements, massive and prolonged lockdowns, sometimes extending to entire cities, control of citizens' movements through cameras and special apps, and mass testing and intensified control of borders between regions. It should also come as no surprise that these policies resulted in the most massive protests since Tiananmen Square, as earlier reported by The Insider. What is less typical is that this time the government has made concessions and, instead of an asymmetrical response, abruptly lifted most of the restrictions.

For some observers, this outcome has caused unprecedented optimism. They speak of a new policy of “opening up” in China, a democratic turn in Xi Jinping's policy. So far, however, there is no reason to speak of any thaw. Over the years Xi Jinping has demonstrated two key characteristics. Firstly, he believes that “the ends justify the means,” where the end goal is to strengthen his regime of personal power. Secondly, he is able to be flexible and resort to seemingly democratic mechanisms when necessary – due to the mass protests against Zero-COVID, the need to concede has arisen, and Xi has taken a step back. So far, however, there is no reason to believe that Xi will waver from his trend and stop “tightening the screws.”

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