Fifty-five years ago, China was in turmoil. Mao had launched the Cultural Revolution to eradicate opposition in the party and cleanse the country’s political soul, using the power of the masses. It would last a decade and claim well over a million lives; 36 million people were hounded, including Xi Jinping’s father, who had previously been a senior leader. The current president was himself denounced and spent years living in bleak rural poverty.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Xi has spoken scathingly of the Cultural Revolution in the past. Yet many now see growing echoes of the era. The Communist elders who survived the disaster sought to cage the power of the leader through consensus and new conventions. Under those, Mr Xi would be expected to step down as general secretary of the party – the role that gives him real power – next autumn, after 10 years. But putative successors have been sidelined or ousted, and dismantling term limits for the presidency, his other position, was a clear sign he plans to continue. The overt hostility to foreign influences is growing. A personality cult is flourishing; new textbooks on Xi Jinping Thought tell young schoolchildren that “Grandpa Xi Jinping has always cared for us … ”
China’s turn towards increased repression has accelerated under him. The crackdown in familiar realms – on civil society, religion, academia, the defence of Hong Kong’s autonomy and minorities, especially Uyghurs – went further and faster than anyone expected. Now it is expanding into areas that the party had long ago retreated from. Recent weeks have seen a spate of attacks on everything from big tech firms to actors and pop stars, to private tutoring. Children will be allowed to spend just three hours a week on online gaming. Ride-hailing services are under pressure. Regulators have ordered broadcasters to shun talent shows and “sissy men”. And a key party committee announced that China needed to regulate “excessively high incomes” to ensure “common prosperity” – suggesting a substantial turn towards redistribution.
Several of these measures, however crude and misguided, target real problems that need to be addressed, such as the vast gulf between the rich and the rest, monopoly power and tech firms’ untrammelled use of data. Taken in isolation, at least some of them will look attractive to many in China. But in concert, they reflect the determination to assert the party’s authority across society, culture and the private economy (as well as other motivations such as demographic concerns). Concerns escalated when an incendiary essay by a leftist commentator celebrating the “profound revolution” under way was carried extensively on party-run websites – suggesting it had the stamp of approval. Since the Cultural Revolution began with similar articles, some intellectuals saw that as an attempt to test the appetite for such a campaign, or even an opening blow.
Authorities appear to be trying to correct that impression, apparently concerned about the economic fallout; an editorial on the People’s Daily website pledged the government’s “unswerving commitment” to the private sector. The extent of the pivot to the state is unclear, and probably still undetermined. Mao unleashed the power of the mob to serve him, however briefly and cynically; Mr Xi is a strongman too, and has successfully tapped into public sentiment to extend his power and promote ideology. But unlike the Great Helmsman he has no appetite for disruption – only order and control.
That does not mean Mr Xi’s approach is without risk: though his grip appears iron, some wonder if cracking down on everything could, in the long term, breed instability. Still less does it mean that this is good for China. “Better than the Cultural Revolution” is a very low bar.