Xi Kickstarts a Jittery CCP’s Second Century

As party marks a milestone, president’s aggressiveness stirs international alarm

Chinese President Xi Jinping this week presided over the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party to praise the most dramatic rise out of poverty of any country in world history and to say China would take no stick from anybody.

But at the same time, he has begun to drive alarmed western nations into considering alliances last seen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He has presided over the imprisonment of a million Uyghur Muslims as well as engineering the political and journalistic evisceration of Hong Kong, previously Asia’s most vibrant city, with promises of more to come.

Xi is bringing extraordinary strains to the party’s existence, both domestically and internationally. He proclaimed himself president for life in March of 2018, abandoning the cautious collective leadership that characterized the Politburo since Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s corrected the excesses of Mao Zedong’s rule, which critics say starved 35 million people to death.

Optimists once made much of the two weeks Xi spent on a farm in Iowa as a teenager as if it would turn him into a democrat, a fanciful thought at best. The bristling speech he delivered on July 1 is an indication there will be no backing away from the domestic and international belligerence that has characterized his presidency from the start. His most widely quoted line in his speech – in which he abandoned a western business suit for a grey Mao tunic – was that “only socialism can save China, and only socialism with Chinese characteristics can develop China," adding that "we will never allow anyone to bully, oppress or subjugate China" Anyone who dares try, he said, “will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people" – a line that was later laundered before delivery in English.

It isn’t just the Turkic Muslims in reeducation camps in Xinjiang. Human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and religious figures have been silenced, jailed, and hounded. Crosses have been pulled off Christian churches. The entrepreneurs who were thought to have the potential to propel the Chinese economy have been muzzled as well. Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate tycoon who called Xi a “clown who deserves power, has been sentenced to 18 years in prison. Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba and formerly China’s richest man, was run over the washboard for three months after he criticized China’s regulatory regime. The IPO for his parent firm Ant – the biggest in Hong Kong and Shanghai market history – was canceled. The executives of dozens of fintech firms have been told to toe the party line.

It is the international side that the world mostly sees and is growing increasingly nervous over. China’s aggressiveness has solidified a rising level of concern from Japan, which has joined India, Australia, and the United States in the Quadrilateral Security Dialog to contain China. As President Joe Biden proved in his June trip to the EU, that concern extends to Europe as well. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and lately even the Philippines have displayed rising anxiety.

China has traded former paramount leader Hu Jintao’s official policy of “peaceful rise” for Xi’s China Dream, which he enunciated in 2012 and whose aim is to restore the glory of earlier dynasties after what is widely perceived to be the century of humiliation from the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1839 and the rise of Maoist China in 1949.

While the Chinese Dream has been open to a variety of interpretations, it is pretty clear that the “revitalization of the nation” has meant extending China’s borders out to the edges of the world reputedly sailed by the Ming admiral Zheng He, who led seven voyages of what was then the world’s biggest ships far afield from China in the 15th century.

Although China laid claim to the islets in the South China Sea as long ago as 1935, since rising to power in 2012, Xi has aggressively upped the ante, since 2014 building rocky outcroppings, some of them underwater, into man-made artificial islands heavily fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems -- prompting outcry from the other governments. At least six other governments also have overlapping territorial claims in the contested waterway: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

The most disturbing extension is not in the sea, however. It is the planting of settlements of Han Chinese in what is clearly other nations’ sovereign territory, in Ladakh, and Bhutan as the Han search for Lebensraum. Tensions have become a continuing condition between China and India all along the 3,400 km border, which runs through some of the world’s most spectacular scenery in the Himalayas. 

Four decades of headlong economic and social progress have given a wide swath of the population the confidence that China and its leadership can do anything it wants. It has built the most superb rail system in the world, coupled with some of the world’s best airports. Its cities, particularly Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, have been torn down and rebuilt into some of the most modern metropolises, obliterating hundreds, in some cases thousands of years of history/.

“Xi no longer needs to cater internationally," said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a Senior Nonresident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “He no longer cares what the international community thinks.”

What the apparatchiks think of Xi’s aggressiveness is unknown. Xi’s Tigers and Flies campaign to end corruption has ended the careers of up to 2 million bureaucrats and resulted in the jailing of at least 100,000 and put some of the country’s most untouchable figures behind bars – or executed. There are complaints that too often the tigers and flies are Xi’s political enemies. The campaign also hasn’t cured the centuries-old culture of official corruption, witness the arrest for bribery of Dong Hong, former vice-head of China’s anti-corruption team, and the rumored defection of another top spy official.

The question, as Mastro points out, is whether this aggressiveness is the result of hubris or insecurity.

*It’s hard to know, “ Mastro said by phone from Sydney. “It’s a very opaque decision-making process. Since the Mao era, it is hard to know if there is disagreement” among the cadres. The most important thing is to embrace the uncertainty.

However, she said, a sign of Xi’s insecurity is the need to crack down on all aspects of society, with security cameras everywhere and with the insertion of the party in all aspects of both private and public life. As Asia Sentinel reported last December, private companies including western ones have been forced to appoint CPP board members and to create party committees to oversee decision-making.

The question is what’s next. Hong Kong, which is peopled by the descendants of those who swam down the Pearl River to escape the excesses of Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Revolution – and only 35 percent of whom regard themselves either Chinese or Hong Kong Chinese citizens – appear likely to face further repression as Xi snuffs out what had been the most vibrant city in East Asia.

Xi wants to do the same thing to Taiwan. Up to 28 Chinese fighter jets, bombers, and surveillance aircraft, some of them nuclear-armed, are overflying the island every day. Taiwan is the most viable democracy in Asia. The current ruling Democratic Progressive v Party refuses to endorse the so-called 1992 Consensus agreed by the Kuomintang that both sides of the 160-km strait belong to China.

As the situation has heated up – egged on by the Trump and Biden administrations’ embrace of the government in Taipei – the threat of war has continued to rise. The Economist recently said the situation had created “the world’s most dangerous place.” Mastro puts the risk of a Chinese invasion at 60 percent and rising.

In all, the situation in Taiwan boils down to the situation in other regions of Greater China, as Xi calls it. Nobody outside of Han China wants to be governed by China. Not Taiwan, not Hong Kong, not Tibet, not Xinjiang, not Ladakh, not the littoral territories inside the Nine-Dash Line and certainly not Bhutan. That doesn’t seem to matter to Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, feeling their oats after 100 years in power.