Strongman Politics and Xi Jinping

By – Brijeshwar Dahiya;

A strongman is an authoritarian political leader, whose rule according to political scientists Brian Lai and Dan Slater (2006), is characterized by an autocratic dictatorship by a leader as opposed to juntas or oligarchic dictatorships. Strongmen seek to have complete control over the political system of a country and employ various tactics including populism to justify and garner support for their rule. Since his accession to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has employed all the tactics of strongman politics to assert his control, initially over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and gradually, over the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

In 2012, Xi by attaining powerful positions of general secretary of the CCP and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), informally became the paramount leader of the PRC. After assuming power, Xi went on to consolidate his position within the CCP, he introduced various measures to enforce discipline among the cadres. He employed populist measures to destroy any kind of dissent and garnered support for his authoritarian policies. Xi’s far-reaching anti-corruption campaign targeted his political rivals and retired several senior leaders of the CCP. The anti-graft campaign became Xi’s hallmark as a tough leader. 

Under Xi Jinping’s rule observers have noted an increase in human rights violations of the regime’s critics, particularly in autonomous and ethnic minority regions, including mass surveillance and internment of Uyghur Muslims in detention camps in Xinjiang. Although the PRC, since its foundation, has been engaged in censorship and mass surveillance of its population, the practice has become widespread under Xi’s rule. His administration is also systematically destroying Hong Kong’s autonomy under “One Country Two Systems”, protests against Xi’s policies in Hong Kong have been brutally crushed. He has not only projected himself as a strong leader domestically but on the global stage as well. 

Under Xi Jinping, the PRC has followed a more assertive foreign policy. China has become more aggressive and sometimes violent in asserting its territorial claims on its neighbours like India, Japan and Southeast Asian countries. Incursions in Taiwanese airspace have increased manifold under Xi’s rule, especially in 2020-21 when Taiwan reported 969 incursions into its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). The PRC government under Xi has been alarmingly vocal about the option of using force to occupy Taiwan if “peaceful efforts” fail. 

Xi Jinping has successfully created a personality cult around him. Through these efforts, Xi Jinping has completely centralized power under him. Though there are scholars who argue that this shift from collective leadership, as noted since Deng Xiaoping’s era, to strongman rule is not the result of Xi Jinping’s individual personality but a collective response of the party’s elite to the CCP regime’s weakness. Since, the period marking Deng Xiaoping’s rule till Xi Jinping’s witnessed openness in the PRC, leading to challenges to the CCP’s authority. Nevertheless, Xi has become the paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China and through his strongman politics, he has changed the politics of the PRC.

Consolidation of Power

Xi Jinping has become the most powerful leader of the PRC since Mao Zedong. Along with being the general secretary of the CCP and the chairman of the CMC, Xi became President of the PRC in 2013. Since becoming the top leader, he has shifted from the collective leadership model to the concentration of power in his hands. He created several “working groups” and “Central Leading Groups”, rendering the existing institutions and several top-ranking leaders completely powerless. Xi believed that the CCP had become corrupt and wasteful, which posed the greatest challenge to the stability of the PRC. The motive behind the formation of such groups is to integrate all the power and to increase the efficiency of administration.

The most influential group that Xi himself heads include “Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms”, which has undermined the power held by the State Council and Premier Li Keqiang. The newly established “Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization” and “National Security Commission of the CCP”, allow Xi to control the security infrastructure and have helped him shape PRC into a panopticon state. In 2018, the National People’s Congress (NPC) amended the constitution which removed the term limits of the President and the Vice President’s tenure, a convention followed since the adoption of the 1982 constitution. This consolidated Xi Jinping’s position in the PRC and made him the paramount leader of China 

After consolidating power, he proceeded toward the elimination of opposition. Corruption has been rampant in China, especially since the reforms of 1978. At the 18th Central Committee of the CCP in 2012, while handing over power to Xi Jinping, the outgoing President Hu Jintao warned about the “enemy within” while cautioning about the danger that corruption poses to the stability of the CCP. Xi Jinping, a few months after being elected at the same 18th Party Congress, listed out his “eight-point guide”, laying down the policies for curbing corruption and maintaining discipline among the party officials. He launched his campaign by promising to take out “tigers and flies”, pointing toward high-ranking and low-ranking party officials. 

In the initial three years, the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and the National Supervision Commission (NSC), the bodies responsible for curbing corruption in China, investigated and charged more than 500 senior officials of the party. This brought the downfall of many CMC and Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) officials like Bo Xilai, who was Party Secretary of Chongqing and many others like him. Bo Xilai’s case attracted much attention because of the prevalent rumours pertaining to a coup led by him against Xi Jinping. Though the campaign has been popular within China, international human rights organisations including Amnesty International have described institutions like National Supervision Commission (NSC) which lack accountability, as a threat to human rights. The anti-corruption campaign has been used by Xi Jinping and his aides to purge any political opponents who can challenge his power. The political purge, as claimed by critics, is on a scale unseen since Mao Zedong’s time. 

Since 2012, internet censorship has increased considerably in China. After coming to power, shaping the narrative and controlling the rhetoric has been a top priority for Xi Jinping. The party’s General Office circulated “Document No. 9” in 2013 which warned the party cadres against the seven dangerous western values, which included constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, neoliberalism, media independence, historical nihilism, and challenging the Chinese style of socialism. Xi Jinping’s regime has imposed stringent restrictions on the use of the internet, invoking “internet sovereignty”, China has censored the use of international platforms like Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia.

In 2013, the Chinese government passed a law prohibiting bloggers from sharing ‘defamatory’ content on popular Chinese social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat, a violation of which will invite imprisonment for three years. By 2018, the Virtual Private Networks (VPN) of individuals were blocked by telecommunication carriers on the orders of the Chinese government. In 2018, the Disney movie Christopher Robin was not allowed to release in China following the comparisons between the animated character Winnie the Pooh and Xi Jinping on popular social media platforms, furthermore, any such social media post comparing China’s paramount leader with the character on Chinese social media were censored by the Chinese authorities. 

Under Xi Jinping, the human rights status quo has worsened in China, with increased attacks on activists, lawyers, and journalists. Hundreds of activists have been arrested, including prominent activist Xu Zhiyong of the New Citizens Movement. The CCP has always considered religion as a threat to its authority; they have suppressed the religious freedom of Tibetans and the Uyghurs. One of the methods used by Xi Jinping’s regime is either to destroy the religious monuments or by putting banners of Xi Jinping in Uyghur mosques and in Tibetan monasteries. Hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have been attacked like the Larung Gar in 2017. After terror attacks in Xinjiang, the Chinese government started the ‘People’s War on Terror’, about a million Uyghurs have been put in internment camps, which the Chinese government terms as “education camps” to assimilate them with the Han Chinese.

Assertive Foreign Policy

Since 2012, China has followed a more assertive foreign policy, a clear shift from Deng Xiaoping’s “bide your time” to a more forward “wolf warrior” diplomacy. China has increased its military budget enormously to $229.5 billion, second only to the US, and is increasing every year at a rate of 7.1%. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is today the world’s largest navy in terms of the number of vessels. With the largest armada at its disposal, the PLAN is using increasing muscle, sometimes violently, while pursuing the PRC’s interests in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea. Clashes have increased between the Japanese navy and the PLAN over the Senkaku Islands, which both China and Japan claim. In the South China Sea’s Spratly, Paracel islands and other maritime claims which fall into the hypothetically drawn Nine Dash line conflicts have increased between the PLAN and the Southeast Asian countries. Xi Jinping on a number of occasions has warned the rival claimants and has held that China’s territorial sovereignty will not be compromised. 

Similarly, China under Xi Jinping has shown Brinkmanship in Ladakh without any provocation from the Indian side despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. On the question of investigating the origins of Covid-19, Xi Jinping has openly ordered Chinese diplomats to answer with the hawkish “wolf warrior diplomacy”. Owing to this belligerent form of diplomacy and foreign policies, China under Xi Jinping has deteriorated its relations with major powers including Australia which is currently engaged in a trade war with China. Engaged in a global competition with the US, Xi Jinping unveiled his flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure development strategy in 2013. Although 146 countries have signed to join this initiative as claimed by China, there are allegations of debt-trap diplomacy and neo-colonialism against the PRC. 

Cult of Personality

Xi Jinping’s both domestic and foreign policies have built his image as that of a strongman. In 2021, the CCP passed its third most important resolution since its foundation which declared Xi Jinping’s ideology as the “essence of the Chinese culture” effectively putting him alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in the Chinese cultural and political psyche. Passing such major resolutions, Xi Jinping has built a cult of personality around him. Books, movies, places, and slogans have concretized his place in the popular imagination of Chinese people. Since becoming the paramount leader, Xi Jinping has been called Xi Dada (Uncle Xi) and places connected to Xi Jinping’s life have been turned into shrines by the CCP’s propaganda machinery. All this captures and consolidates the image of a ‘charismatic leader’ which is characteristic of a strongman, which Xi Jinping undeniably is. But Xi’s further tightening of control over the CCP and the Chinese people is harming China’s national interests. His war against the big tech transnational companies in China is forcing both foreign and domestic investors to look for alternative options for investment. His “Zero-Covid” policy has been a disaster for the Chinese economy. As he further concentrates more power at the 20th Party Congress, the risk of alienating people grows, which poses a greater challenge to the PRC’s stability and prosperity.

Brijeshwar Dahiya did his Masters in International Relations and Area Studies with a focus on China from School of International Relations (SIS), JNU. He has written on Chinese Communist Party’s politics and on People’s Liberation Army’s role in Chinese foreign policy. He can be reached @BrijeshwarDahi2 on Twitter.

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