Western anti-China groups, especially those in the US, are wary of Xi Jinping’s elevation to the ranks of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. A November/December Foreign Affairs article by Minxin Pei, a staunch anti-Beijing scholar, says China is returning to “strongman” rule and that Xi will violate human rights. Others claim Xi is building a strong military to bully China’s neighbors and push the the US out of Asia.
Xi must have done something right if he is being personally attacked by the anti-China crowd in the US and elsewhere.
Criticisms and counter arguments
Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang and other senior officials harboring ambitions to get the top post were considered a threat to Xi’s power. According to his critics, Xi mounted the anti-corruption campaign to sideline his opponents. But not many, particularly inside China, subscribe to that theory.
Economic reforms allowed talented people to flap their wings, culminating in China’s rapid economic growth. Zhou Yonkang, the former Standing Committee (apex of power) in the Hu Jintao administration, was said to be responsible for making China’s oil industry what it is today, big and awash with cash. But he was also a deeply flawed and corrupt official, accused and indicted for stealing millions of yuan from the state and accepting bribes. Corruption extended to the military. The two former vice-chairmen of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, were found guilty of selling ranks up to major-general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and other misdeeds. Those who bought the positions were similarly selling military ranks to others to recover their “investment.”
Hu Jintao knew of the corruption and understood its implications, possibly destroying the Party and country. But he was powerless to act because most key Party and government positions were held by the corrupt officials. But Hu saw an opportunity to stop or slow down corruption by breaking tradition, stepping down as chairman of the CMC at the end of his mandate, which was a break with tradition. Deng and Jiang did not vacate the CMC chairmanship until two years after they left office. Hu’s giving up the CMC chairmanship gave Xi control over the Party, government and military, making him Party secretary, president of the country and chairman of the CMC.
Xi seized that opportunity. His maiden speech at the 18th Communist Party of China National Congress was focused on corruption, a “cancer” he insisted would doom the Party and the country if it was not stopped. He enlisted Wang Qishan, a former mayor of Beijing, governor of the China Construction Bank, and newly promoted member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. He was appointed to head the newly formed Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). With Xi’s full support, Wang and his team managed to jail thousands of senior and low-ranking officials known as “tigers” and “flies.”
There is no reason to believe that Xi mounted the anti-corruption campaign to solidify his own power. The US-based Pew Poll and internal Chinese newspaper reports indicate Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is in part responsible for his rising popularity and support in China. Wang Qishan’s failure to get re-elected to the 300-odd member of Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCCPC) or the 25-member Politburo (where the real power lies) would indicate that Xi is not able to change Party rules on retirement. Indeed, even Mao did not have the power to go against the all-powerful CCCPC and Politburo, being sidelined after his disastrous Great Leap Forward Movement that almost pushed the economy to the brink of disaster. What’s more, Deng Xiaoping reformed the governance architecture, forming a collective leadership in which no one can serve more than two five-year terms and must retire at 70 years of age.
Monitoring foreign NGO activities and dissidents
The government and majority of people in China believe foreign powers interfere in their internal affairs, funding NGOs to instigate protests disguised as “pro-democracy” movements to destabilize and weaken the country. The 1989 student protests were against corruption and inflation, not for democracy. It turned into one because (China’s intelligence community was said to have discovered) a foreign power was instigating the student leaders to demand democracy with the promise of scholarships to attend the West’s most prestigious universities. Though there was no proof to support the claim, the student leaders (said to be aided by a Hong Kong-based group called “Yellow Bird”) were able to leave Beijing hours before the tanks rolled in. Yellow Bird was reportedly funded by a range of organizations, including foreign NGOs and gangsters. And the student leaders later enrolled at Harvard and other renounced Western universities.
To prevent foreign NGOs from interfering with China’s affairs again, the Chinese government instituted a law requiring foreign NGOs to report their activities and disclose funding sources.
It will not surprise observers if harsher laws against “pro-democracy” activists are also on the horizon. They would likely be closely watched and suppressed if the government had evidence that the protests could cause chaos of the sort largely responsible for instability in China in the past. Such influences have divided and weakened the country, allowing European and Japanese imperialists to invade, occupy and humiliate the country and its people.
Building a strong military to win wars
Xi Jinping probably pays more attention to national defense than any of his predecessors since Mao, building record numbers of modern weapons, reforming the military into a “leaner and stronger” fighting force and planning to make Chinese military power second to none by 2050. Critics are quick to jump to the conclusion that he is doing it to bully China’s neighbors and threaten the US.
The US has military bases surrounding China, and is regularly holding military exercises with its allies on China’s periphery, mounting “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea, and showcasing military muscle by deploying aircraft carrier groups and flying the most advanced stealth jet fighters and bombers near its shores
The US has military bases surrounding China, and is regularly holding military exercises with its allies on China’s periphery, mounting “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea, and is showcasing military muscle by deploying aircraft carrier groups and flying the most advanced stealth jet fighters and bombers near its shores.
Japan is on the verge of revising its pacifist constitution, allowing troops to fight alongside US forces. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, set up to deter Soviet expansion in Europe, is now entering Asia on the pretense of helping members (the only one is the US) to fight against North Korean “aggression.”
Senior US officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford are openly denouncing China’s rise as a “threat” to the US. Tillerson went as far as trying to recruit India for a 100-year alliance against China.
Thus, as far as the Chinese are concerned, Xi is only protecting China’s national interest and the safety of its people. They ask what a US president would do if the table was turned.
How the Chinese see the impact of Xi’ rise
The vast majority of China’s population see Xi Jinping as a leader who can navigate China through the insurmountable challenges confronting the country over the next few years. Like Mao and Deng, Xi is seen as a leader who can stand up to foreign powers. What’s more, Xi’s “Thought” is seen as what the revolution was all about: serving the people, modernizing the economy, and building a strong military to deter (forever) foreign powers from interfering in China’s affairs.
A final comment
It is difficult to say whether Xi can deliver on his promises to eradicate poverty by 2020, make China a moderately prosperous country by 2021, realizing the first stage of socialism in 2035, and turn China into a wealthy, strong and harmonious nation by 2050. But in his long speech at the 19th CPC National Congress, he recognized that the people not only want a higher living standard, they also demand “blue skies” in the polluted cities, accountability, and more freedom and democracy. To that end, the China expert Robert Lawrence Kuhn is right in pointing out that the people’s demands and globalization promotion would drive Chinese policies over the next five years and beyond.
Xi is not perfect, but he is not threatening the US or bullying his neighbors. He, in fact, promotes dialogue as a way to solve disputes and differences. In the South China Sea, Xi also calls for joint development on exploiting its resources. Judging by his words and deeds, Xi has done more to make the world a better than any other leader.