All Hail Chinese Emperor Xi Jinping: Will He 'Make China Great Again'?
Perhaps no event embodies the unyielding abstruseness and the unforgiving hierarchy of China’s ruling Communist Party as much as its Party Congress, the government’s most important leadership conference. Attended by some twenty-three hundred delegates from across the country, it is held every five years in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People—and when the weeklong meeting finally begins, one can be certain that the crucial politicking has already concluded. What proceeds is a choreographed spectacle bearing fastidiously scripted speeches, pro-forma elections of what has heretofore been determined (a leadership reshuffle in the seven-member Politburo, the highest echelon of power), and, in the case of the 19th Communist Party Congress, which opened today, high-spirited, propagandistic posters reminding the masses that “Life in China Is Good! Everyday Is Like a Holiday!”
This is a message that Xi Jinping, who was appointed President at the previous Party Congress, in 2012, is eager to instill in a country that continues to grapple with a vertiginous pace of change and the outsize influence of politics in everyday life. Xi is almost certainly guaranteed another five-year term, if not longer. Since taking office, he has sought to launch the greatest ideological campaign since the days of Mao.
Xi has made clear from the outset, he is intent on both defining a new world order and restoring to Chinese culture its former esteem.
Yet Xi’s mission should be regarded in the context of a collective and profound post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of almost two centuries of cataclysmic events in China. For every Tang Taizong, who ushered in the golden years of the Tang Dynasty, there were many others like Empress Dowager Cixi, who usurped the throne, crippled the path of progress, and contributed to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty.
As Xi made clear today, during his three-hour address to the Party Congress, he sees this moment as “a new historic juncture in China’s development”—and himself as the man to seize it. He seems to believe that the more power he amasses, the easier it will be for him to enact the kind of monumental changes necessary to transform China into the world’s leading superpower. In this sense, he is positioning himself as a savior with a cause noble enough to justify his autocratic turn. The logic is akin to that which animated the ambition of many of the Middle Kingdom’s five-hundred-odd emperors. Sure, Xi has rerouted all tributaries of power to run upstream to him, but isn’t it in the service of rejuvenation?
Xi has also used his growing power to curb that of his citizens. Under his rule, China has become increasingly repressive. The media is censored and civil society has been muted. Activists have been silenced and human-rights lawyers arrested. More than a million officials have been disciplined. Despite paying lip service to the constitution—the Party devoted an entire plenary session during the 18th Congress to a discussion of “judicial independence”—Xi is steering the country away from the rule of law and toward the rule of the Party.
Xi’s vision for China’s future suggests a great leap backward, in which old lessons remain unlearned.