Explaining Xi Jinping’s China
On a bad day, the soup of pollution is thick enough to obscure the red flags hanging limp on the Tiananmen gate, the gate below which tanks rolled toward student protestors on their deadly mission in June of 1989. It’s the same gate beneath which millions of Red Guard students, Mao’s Little Red Books held aloft, swarmed some 20 years before that, preparing to destroy the old traditions, along with their teachers, leaders, and nearly all of China. The Tiananmen gate has stood sentinel above a lot of chaos since Mao Zedong declared a new China from atop it in 1949, and while the stinking mist that now floats around it on bad days might not fill the air with the same staccato immediacy as shouted slogans or bursts of gunfire, the smog speaks loudly enough to China’s Chairman Xi Jinping: Disorder is all around.
For some, the concentration camps in Xinjiang, the mushrooming military installations and belligerent ships in the South China Sea, the tightening wall of internet censorship, and the expanding police state demonstrate hopes dashed for a liberal, responsible global stakeholder. China is a bad actor, they say[i], Xi its nasty helmsman, authoritarian and power drunk.[ii] After decades of economic growth, China is stronger than ever and ready to take over the world, unless the United States and its partners at last “get tough on China.”[iii] The opposite is true. China is hemmed in by grim geography, by long and leaky borders, and by frontiers peopled by what its leaders see as dangerous would-be separatists. Those leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, have understood their nation’s geostrategic precarity. Moreover, each lived through the chaos that engulfed China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and each came away determined, though by different means, to keep it from coming apart again. Deng would let the people grow rich but keep his Party always in control, even if it meant sending in the tanks. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao would keep China on a steady, boring course, even if it meant ignoring dark clouds brewing all around. And Xi Jinping would see the multitude and depth of those clouds—the corruption, pollution, economic weakness, ethnic unrest, and geostrategic danger—and decide China could no longer ignore them; that with an iron grip on the till, he, but only he, could steer China to safety. Rather than power hungry and pugnacious, Xi’s China is a nation besieged by disorder, creeping, like that Beijing smog, into everything.
China is in a difficult spot. Its 18,000-kilometer border, shared with 14 other countries, is the longest in the world.[iv] Two other borders—Hong Kong and Macau—are pseudo-autonomous territories once carved away by foreign powers, remnants of China’s century of humiliation when Western powers, Russia, and Japan converged on China’s geriatric final dynasty and tore off chunks and privileges. Of its other terrestrial neighbors, since 1949 China has fought wars with India, the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, and against the Americans in North Korea. Across the mountain borders of the various Central and South Asian states, traders and nomads of no clear national identity have roamed back and forth for centuries, a migration that troubled China’s leaders after exodus and uprising shook China’s control of Tibet and Muslim-majority Xinjiang in the 1950s and 60s.[v] Rumbles of discontent continue to this day, and global outbursts of Islamic extremism have not lessened concerns about instability and violence in China’s most remote regions, regions that have not always been part of China and that have seen their share of foreign meddling. The 1959 uprising in Tibet, for one example, received support from the United States and Taiwan’s Nationalist government, one of their various attempts to destabilize the communist regime and prepare the way for a future reconquest of all China.[vi]
Taiwan hasn’t gone anywhere, either. With American backing, it still sits unconquered off the Chinese coast, a reminder of not only the bloody civil war between the communist and nationalist forces, but also of Japan’s terrible war and the decades before it, when warlords joined with the imperialists to throw the Middle Kingdom in to chaos and carve it into fiefdoms. Japan, too, sits out there in the ocean, pacific for now, but the atrocities it committed and danger it poses to China not forgotten. The Japanese islands are part of a string of islands—many of them American allies or partners—that stitches China in along its entire seaboard from Russia to Vietnam. Through that South China Sea—contested by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan—sails the majority of the trade and oil resources that have enabled China’s decades-long rise.[vii] The United States, which now talks of getting tough on China amid an escalating trade war, guarantees freedom of navigation there. It is a guarantee of little reassurance for Xi Jinping and his compatriots.
Those external geostrategic realities and uncertainties are stark enough. But as its modern leadership well knows, internal disorder often poses even greater danger to China. From 1966 to 1976, China came apart. In the name of Cultural Revolution, China’s youth stormed through their cities, tearing down Old China, beating and torturing their ideologically impure comrades, and dragging all progress to halt. There was chaos under heaven, and China’s leaders lived it.
In 1966, Deng Xiaoping—a CCP stalwart, bona fide revolutionary, and high-level Party official—was denounced as a “capitalist roader,” stripped of his government positions, and purged from the Party ranks. Humiliated, for the better part of the next decade Deng fixed tractors and farmed vegetables in a rural backwater, while “rampaging youth militia” reduced his country to ruins and tossed his son from the roof of a Beijing University building. Deng Pufang, back broken and denied hospital admission, would never move his legs again. Disorder had wrecked Deng’s life, his family, and his country. So when Mao, who died in 1976, called him back to power in 1974, Deng set out to repair China and keep it moving forward. China needed to “put things in order,” he said, and over the next 15 years as he led China from behind the scenes, Deng prioritized stability, science, and gradual economic reform to let the people learn from foreigners and get rich while doing it. The Party, meanwhile, kept all under control.[viii]
Deng’s “Reform and Opening Up” succeeded. From 1979 onward, China grew at an astounding rate as its agricultural system decollectivized and its coastal cities opened to trade and investment. The Party, as many see it, pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty. But in 1989, other parts of the communist world began revolutions of their own. China watched as democratic movements in Eastern Europe shucked off communist masters and pushed toward political reform.[ix] When Chinese political reform champion Hu Yaobang died in April of that year, China’s own student-led memorial-turned-protest broke out on Tiananmen Square, and by May when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing to normalize long-gelid bilateral relations, the mass movement had swelled to some 100-million across China. Chaos had returned, and Deng had seen where student movements lead: to broken backs and broken countries. Deng, however, was no Gorbachev. On the night of June 3, Deng sent in the tanks, and thousands died. Two years later, the Soviet Union was gone; Deng’s China was not.
For 20 years, China’s next two leaders let Deng’s reforms run their course as China grew stronger, Jiang and Hu’s bland personalities and collective leadership style the antithesis of both Mao and what was to come.[x] In March 2013, Xi Jinping took over as leader of China. Xi, too, is a child of the Cultural Revolution. His father, a revolutionary hero and ranking official, was purged and disgraced, and Xi, a young privileged princeling, forced to eke out a brutal life in a dystopic Beijing until he was sent to live in a countryside cave and labor alongside the peasants.[xi] It has become apparent that Xi—once an unknown thought to be a bland administrator with business acumen—learned his own lessons during Cultural Revolution: bide your time, consolidate power, and trust only yourself. He has applied the lessons learned in chaos to China.
If Deng planted China’s economic seeds, Jiang and Hu nurtured them, but alongside progress sprouted disorder: corruption, pollution, slowing growth, unrest, and treacherous neighbors.[xii] Jiang and Hu let disorder grow; Xi will not. He has promised national rejuvenation, a fulfilling of a “Chinese Dream.”[xiii] If Xi is to deliver, China cannot return to weakness and humiliation, nor to the nightmare of revolution. It cannot be dragged back into chaos. After decades of waiting and working, Xi neutered his rivals, constructed a cult of personality, and appointed himself head of everything. He has shut up dissent and arrested tens of thousands, not only activists but also corrupt officials, many of them rivals. He has secured the frontiers, and he has ordered islands built and sea lanes protected.[xiv] China must look after itself.
Xi’s China cannot grow strong and safe if its slowing economy puts millions in the streets. It cannot rejuvenate if foreign adversaries choke off its trade and energy, foment revolt, and threaten its borders. It cannot help its people achieve their dreams if corrupt officials steal from the nation, undermine order, and threaten Xi’s vision. It cannot survive if pollution poisons its soils, slicks its waters, and chokes the air in its skies.
Disorder swarms the Tiananmen gate once again. Like Deng Xiaoping before him, Xi Jinping believes he must tame it.
[i] Pence, Mike, “Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy Toward China” (delivered to the Hudson Institute, 4 October 2018).
[ii] The New York Times Editorial Board, “Xi Jinping Dreams of World Power for himself and China,” Feb. 27, 2018.
[iii] Donald Trump on Twitter.
[iv] Zhihua Shen and Julia Lovell, “Undesired Outcomes: China’s Approach to Border Disputes during the Early Cold War,” Cold War History, 15:1 (2015), 89-111.
[v] Sulmann Khan, Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China’s Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderland (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
[vii] RAND Corporation, “At the Dawn of Belt and Road: China and the Developing World” (October 2018), 42.
[viii] Ibid, 323-339.
[ix] Mary Elise Sarotte, “China’s Fear of Contagion: Tiananmen Square and the Power of the European Example,” Quarterly Journal: International Security, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Fall 2013), 156-182.
[x] Sulmaan Khan, “Placing Xi Jinping”, Lecture at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (March 2019).
[xi] Evan Osnos, “Born Red: How Xi Jinping, an unremarkable provincial administrator, became China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao,” The New Yorker (April 6, 2015).
[xii] Sulmaan Khan, “Placing Xi Jinping.”
[xiii] Even Osnos, “Born Red.”