AWhen Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, a New York Times columnist made a bold prediction: the new Chinese Communist Party secretary-general would have Mao’s embalmed body removed from Tiananmen Square and release Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo from prison. It was a complete misjudgment.
State founder Mao Zedong, who is responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese, is being glorified in China today as he has not been since his death in 1976. Dissident Liu Xiaobo died in captivity in 2017. China’s detention centers are full of political prisoners.
The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of several books on China, was not the only one who got it wrong about Xi Jinping at the time. Even the American secret services and Chinese regime critics considered the new head of state and party leader to be a beacon of hope. Instead, Xi emerged as a ruler with totalitarian reflexes and a revisionist worldview.
There are good reasons why so many experts could be so wrong: First, China’s power apparatus is a black box. Secrecy is one of the Party’s instruments of rule. That was true ten years ago and is even truer today. Second, behind Kristof’s prediction was the belief and hope that China’s rapid rise out of poverty and the needs of the new middle class would sooner or later force a political opening.
“Sucked up the party’s milkweed”
It is precisely these centrifugal forces that Xi Jinping opposed with all his might. If there’s one leitmotif that has run through his ten years of rule to date, it’s the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fear that China’s Communist Party could meet the same fate as the CPSU. In Xi’s eyes, the recently deceased Mikhail Gorbachev was a fool who opened the floodgates to Western ideas, ideas of freedom and democracy and thus fell into the West’s trap.
Again and again in his speeches, Xi talked about the lessons China should learn from this. “The disintegration of a regime often begins in the area of ideology,” he said shortly after taking power. Since then, Xi has gradually banned Western ideas from schools and universities, cinemas, pop music, computer games and the Chinese Internet and replaced them with his own nationalist-Leninist ideology.
At the same time, he has concentrated power so much in his hands that there is no end in sight to his reign. At the forthcoming party conference, which begins on Sunday, he will be confirmed in office for a further five years. In doing so, he is breaking with a convention that the party had established following the experience of Mao’s tyranny in order to prevent the return of one-man rule. It also doesn’t look like the 69-year-old Xi plans to step down in 2027. In any case, a potential successor is not in sight. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a recognized China expert, even believes Xi will remain in power “at least until 2037”.