Xi Jinping is the most authoritarian Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. But in bolstering the power of the Communist party, is he putting China's future at risk?by Willy Lam / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
In April, the Chinese authorities imposed a seven-year jail sentence on a 71-year-old female journalist named Gao Yu. Gao, who suffers from serious heart problems, had been arrested a year earlier for reportedly passing a copy of “Document No 9”—which forbids members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and college professors from talking about “seven taboo areas,” including democracy, media freedom and judicial independence—to a New-York based Chinese-language publication. Well before her detention, however, copies of the document had been disseminated by newspapers and websites in Hong Kong, Taiwan and in the United States. That the regime of President Xi Jinping should feel it necessary to imprison an elderly journalist shows not only its ruthlessness, but also its paranoia about challenges to its authority, big and small.
Xi, who became General Secretary of the CCP in late 2012, and State President soon afterwards, is the most authoritarian Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, the revolutionary founding father of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Mao’s determination to transform China radically from a country of farms and peasants to a world power in industry led to the Great Famine of 1958 to 1961, and later to the Cultural Revolution in which those deemed ideologically unreliable were persecuted in huge numbers.
Just over two years since Xi formally took power, his moves to consolidate state control have confounded all those who thought that, as the son of a renowned liberal, he would continue the steady liberalisation of the past 30 years. He was only 59 when he became President, relatively young for a Chinese leader; surely, many thought, his values would have been shaped too by China’s increasing openness to the world during his adult years?
But like Mao, he has made the preservation of the power of the Communist Party his overriding goal. His motive appears partly to be to counter the growing demands of the new, large middle class, created by China’s recent transformation. In doing so, however, Xi runs the risk of reversing many of the extraordinary advances that China has made since the reforms introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, the leader who opened up China to the rest of the world.