China’s slowing economy, currently illustrated by unpredictable stock market volatility and deepening industrial over-capacity, has been cause for concern among Chinese and foreign investors alike. Annual growth rates—once in the double digits—have more recently decreased to about 6.5 percent and will surely continue to dominate media coverage from around the world about the Eastern giant.
Facing this nationwide economic structural shift, Beijing is striving to establish renewed stability and secure enduring prospects for China’s national economic development. However, while the economy grabs headlines at this pivotal moment in China’s story of unprecedented modern development, a less obvious—and perhaps even more consequential—phenomenon is simultaneously taking hold of the country from behind the scenes.
As the country braces for an uncertain economic future, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is furiously ushering in a pro-government campaign—enacting new laws and regulations that provide the Party a rejuvenated degree of authoritarian influence over society and the economy. A totalitarian regime once respected and greatly feared by the masses during the era of Chairman Mao, the CCP has gradually and subtly loosened some of its social and economic grip within China since the early 1990s to allow for foreign investment and domestic business interests to drive economic development throughout the country.
The current leadership, however, has showed fearful signs that the increasing “openness” of the past 20 years has posed a threat to the present legitimacy and future longevity of the Party. As economic slowdown in China becomes noticeably more certain, the CCP is shifting toward a more hard-lined approach to its contemporary governance in an effort to reconsolidate its power and authority. Yet, perhaps the most distinct aspect of this movement has been the vivid face of this reconsolidation campaign—the face of the Party leader himself, Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Since assuming the presidency in 2013, Xi and his administration have undertaken a series of new laws and initiatives to reinsert deep influence over the people. These have most notably included an anti-corruption campaign targeting a wide range of government officials—at both the national and local level—throughout the country; a crackdown on the publishing rights of foreign media in China; heightening surveillance in China’s ethnically disputed Xinjiang and Tibetan regions; state-owned enterprise (SOE) reform that has, to the surprise and chagrin of many, increased government grip over domestic industry; new licensing and registration measures that create further barriers for foreign companies wishing to operate in China; and intensified surveillance of dissident activities and sentiments among the national population—with harsher punishment for objecting to the absolute rule and direction of the Party.
In so doing, President Xi has established a level of authority over the Chinese people not seen in more than a generation. Yet, what makes this new era of reconsolidated power so interesting—and, in many ways, so important—is Xi’s constantly evolving and strengthening political persona. Already deemed the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, Xi’s leadership has included an element of personal identity that has eluded each of his post-Mao predecessors.
Nicknamed “Papa Xi” among a large number of citizens—many of them young Chinese with a slowly renewing sense of Party affiliation and pride—Xi has been promoting himself as China’s “core leader”. This celebration of Xi the individual, a symbol of a “new-and-improved” CCP leadership that promises to show stronger accountability toward the masses, is attempting to close what has become an enormous gap between the Party and the people. As the government strives to improve connectivity with its citizens, this movement is, indeed, enabling Beijing to gradually regain the trust and respect of the masses it had lost in recent decades. For the first time in many years, growing numbers of Chinese appear to admire their foremost leader—allowing President Xi to guide the CCP as it marches forward into an uncertain stage within China’s complex modern story.
His efforts to reconsolidate power—which, to date, appear rather successful—have also come at an interesting time in the history of China’s economic and social development. Many believe that China’s previous two presidents, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, were the catalysts behind the period of economic “openness” that permitted the influence of business interests in China to spiral out of control. While Jiang and Hu’s policies allowed the middle class to grow from virtually non-existent into a stable core in China’s contemporary consumer economy, they also enabled excessive greed and egregious corruption among the politically connected in China. These individuals include a newly formed class of influential—and often arrogant—Chinese millionaire and billionaire elites, many of whom are the sons of former Party leaders that presided at the top of each respective industry pyramid as the government chose to scrap the socialist economic agenda of Mao and embrace a market-oriented approach to national growth and development.
However, prior to President Xi’s ascendance, the biggest fundamental problem for the CCP was that the only people more greedy and corrupt than China’s wealthy elites were Party officials themselves. Rampant corruption within the Chinese government—from no-name local officials to well-known and influential national party leaders—was eroding trust among Chinese citizens toward the non-democratically elected Party officials whose power these citizens had for so many years permitted. The recently published Panama Papers, which include family ties to secret offshore accounts among several members of the Politburo Standing Committee—the most powerful governing body of the CCP—are evidence that corruption still remains a considerable problem for the Party.
This excessive corruption within the Party, which had grown steadily more apparent and egregious over the course of the past 20 years, has also coincided with other grave national problems enabled by CCP-led economic development. A rapidly expanding wealth disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots” of China has caused greater dissatisfaction among those being left behind by the present structure of China’s economic growth; suffocating and never-ending pollution throughout the country has reached such dire conditions that anyone of means is emigrating China for a cleaner and healthier lifestyle; increased use of social media and access to Western cultural products and experiences have made ordinary Chinese more aware of the shortcomings of 21st century Chinese society—which is limited by heavily censored media and a complete lack of creative channels within Chinese educational and professional environments.
These issues have grown more complex with each passing year and are currently intensifying the friction between Chinese citizens and their government. Increased dissatisfaction among the masses in China serves as evidence that these pivotal issues are disrupting the smooth path to modern development desired by China’s leadership.
Acknowledging the notable economic slowdown already underway in China—the implications of which will have literal material impact on year-to-year rise in living standards among Chinese—the Xi administration has embarked upon a major crossroads stage. When the new administration was announced in 2012, many Western political and social theorists predicted that President Xi’s leadership would represent an important transition—the beginning of a structural transformation that would usher in the foundation of an eventual democratic system. If one were to take into consideration the trajectory of China’s economic liberalization from the 1978 Opening and Reform movement through the present era, these predictions would have appeared to hold great weight.
However, entering the scene during this unique period, the current leadership has all but put these theories to rest. Understanding the drastic impact a slowing economy would inevitably have on rising Chinese living standards—an impact potentially significant enough to serve as the final straw for a society already suffering from vast income inequality, severe environmental degradation, and noticeable creative deficit—President Xi realized that the Party needed to take swift action to address these issues or else run the risk of being undermined by a potential call for democratization among the people.
Recognizing an underlying strategic necessity, President Xi appears to have seized this make-or-break moment in modern Chinese political history to determinedly reestablish CCP authority. Inserting a forceful line of power and surveillance increasingly absent in the years prior to his presidency, President Xi now presides as a new-wave Mao-esque symbol of “core leadership” upon the top rank of China’s Communist political rankings.
Using the media as the mouthpiece of his marketing pitch to the masses, Xi’s political rhetoric invokes the nostalgia of Maoist ideological values, while his promotion of propaganda-infused online rap videos draws disinterested millennials to reengage the contemporary Party. His military posturing in the East and South China Seas instills a self-perception of confidence and pride among Chinese in their worldview, while his crackdown on Party corruption rebuilds trust and support from powerless citizens. Calling for increased censorship and absolute loyalty from Chinese media in their portrayal of CCP impact on the country’s political, economic, and social development, China’s core leader is advocating Xi-style Maoist ideological principles as the guiding prescription to a prosperous national future.
As President Xi champions this carefully crafted and ever-evolving power-reconsolidation campaign, the CCP is striving to reaffirm an impressive 21st century-style authoritarian control over a country that is home to the world’s largest population and second largest economy. As the administration attempts to accommodate China’s slowing—yet still dynamic—economy through heightened censorship and political control, a new era of uncertainty and ambiguity now surrounds the future direction of the world’s first economically capitalist, politically Communist, regime.
Yet, while the external view of Xi’s growing power appears quite clear and very real, it also portends a potential sense of vulnerability within the Administration. During this uncertain time in China’s growth trajectory, President Xi’s efforts to push this increasingly aggressive agenda may be an attempt to control not only the Chinese people, but also the Party itself.
Xi’s campaigns, particularly his unparalleled efforts to crackdown on corruption, have antagonized many within the Party. His takedown of former Party security chief Zhou Yongkong proved to both the Party and the world that no CCP official is safe. Certain officials who had made their names and achieved their wealth through China’s impressive economic development—and accompanying off-the-books financial benefits—are now suffering mightily under an anti-corruption campaign that has lasted far longer than most anticipated. The President’s ideological movement, too, is creating enemies within the Party, from certain factions who would prefer that Beijing focus on economic restructuring instead of the resurrection of Maoist political thought. Xi’s recent efforts to further promote his brand through increasingly cozy relations with the national media hint that the administration wants to make its agenda as public as possible in order to outmatch—and even circumvent—various Party naysayers.
Resistance toward Xi Administration power reconsolidation efforts, however, has not been limited merely to dissatisfied cadres within the Party. These increasingly hard-lined CCP campaigns and policies have also steadily garnered growing resentment from the international community. Diplomatic concern about China’s political direction has not been this high since Beijing’s appalling response to the famous 1989 Tiananmen protests. The United States, European Union, Canada, and Japan—among other influential Western countries—have coalesced in recent months to express a collective disdain for many of Xi’s aggressive policies on both internal and external issues.
These countries are resorting to united advocacy toward China, expressing that the country is taking a wrong turn as it explores the next stage of its political, economic, and social identity. This coalition has been formed in an effort to demonstrate how seriously the West views this political and ideological shift in China. Until establishing this unified voice, there had been growing frustration that China was ignoring individually raised concerns from many of the world’s most powerful countries. Time will tell how China responds to expanding diplomatic resentment—and if its internal agenda continues to put a strain on its external relations.
Regardless of both the influences and outcomes of this unexpected trend in China, Xi appears committed to cementing his growing authority. He will continue to promote his carefully crafted ideology-infused agenda to persuade an apprehensive Chinese people that his approach to reform holds great promise. In this generation of Chinese politics, merely consolidating power within the Party is no longer enough—that era has come and gone from history. Demonstrating an ability to use this power to achieve progress and prosperity for the people is now the standard. To this end, now comes the important test of whether this charismatic ideological leader can convert his influence into a successful future for China amidst slowing economic growth and accompanying social dissatisfaction.