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Behind the Scenes / ‘Xi thought’ shows signs of personal despotism

By Hiroyuki Sugiyama / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterBEIJING — Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping acquired overwhelming personal power at the party congress last month as his administration began a second five-year term. Chinese politics will likely become increasingly authoritarian with Xi at the helm, and signs have even emerged of a revival of the personal despotism that gave rise to tragedies such as the Cultural Revolution (see below) in the Mao Zedong era. A sense of unease is being felt across the country, where praise of Xi has become deeply rooted.

Test of allegiance

“Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” was written into the party’s constitution as a guiding principle, despite being nearly incomprehensible.

But regardless of the content, the intention is clear. What matters is that a form of “thought” attached to an individual’s name — an honor previously bestowed only on founding leader Mao Zedong — has once again been promulgated. All party members must respect the new philosophy, a situation tantamount to having to grovel to Xi.

This is not a game of words. Xi’s words will be the ideological golden rule binding the whole party, and to deny or reject them will constitute anti-party behavior.

Xi is now “the second Mao Zedong,” a senior party member said. As was the case with Mao, Xi is urging the entire party to obey his commands in what can be called a test of allegiance.

“I visited Liangjiahe [the farming village where Xi was sent during the Cultural Revolution], and I was impressed by his charming personality, which lies at the core of the new era.”

This kind of impassioned speech was repeatedly delivered at the party congress, until it entered into the realm of a personality cult — something forbidden by party rules. Senior officials were competing in their loyalty to Xi in an effort to avoid suspicion.

“No one wants to become a target of anti-corruption [measures],” a person with connections to the party said. Officials are ready to take such loyalty tests a number of times.

Call to struggle

The trend of “reform and opening up” continued through the administration of previous President Hu Jintao. Democratization, improved human rights and marketization were accepted without question as progress, both within and outside the party.

Compared to the values of that time, the political principles decided at the recent congress are undoubtedly a “retreat to the Mao era,” according to an intellectual.

The principles contain an exhausting list of measures that inflate the state’s ability to control, manage and monitor, including eliminating foreign political models; restricting the internet and other areas of speech and culture; pushing education that thoroughly instills the party’s values even in families and children; and expanding state-owned enterprises.

A culture based on propaganda is likely to flourish.

Xi also said at the congress, “We must oppose and resist various erroneous views” on the ideological and academic fronts. Intellectuals are forced to follow or remain silent.

“I’m worried about a revival of the Cultural Revolution,” an expert on international affairs said. His concerns are becoming increasingly realistic.

Who can stop it?

The lineup of leaders at both the central and regional levels in the Xi administration’s second term is full of members of Xi’s faction.

Now that a “leader in a new era” has been inaugurated, what is needed more than anything is someone to act as a brake to prevent Xi from going too far. But such a person is nowhere to be found. Elders such as former general secretaries Hu, 74, and Jiang Zemin, 91, were present at the party congress, but their decline is hard to conceal.

Since Mao died in 1976, the party has made decisions while balancing opinions among individuals and groups. Even Deng Xiaoping, the strongman who came after Mao, was unable to ignore the opinion of heavyweights such as conservative elders. In recent years, both the Jiang and Hu factions have been engaged in fierce competition.

The collective leadership that all but collapsed at the congress was in fact a system of aligning different interests, centered on power struggles and bargaining behind closed doors. Having come through the calamity of the Mao era, the party had come to function like a muddy reservoir pond that stemmed the tide of personal despotism.

Dissatisfaction with Xi is strong within the party. However, it is bound by fear, and criticism does not rise to the surface. Bringing the seriousness of the situation into sharp relief are people who say that if things become economically and socially unstable, Xi will be in a difficult position.

Does this mean the mechanism to put the brakes on Xi will fail to work unless problems occur that neither China nor the world wants to see?

Pitfalls of ‘strong nation’

With Xi’s thought, the party is aiming to realize a “great modern socialist nation.” The plan is founded on the huge wealth brought by development during nearly four decades of reform and opening up.

Nevertheless, Xi’s policy for a strong nation — with his emphasis on control and power — appears to lack awareness of the importance of the dynamics of economic development, such as markets, freedom and a stable international environment. The vitality of the private-sector economy and society may decline, possibly undermining the foundation of a strong nation.

Moreover, if policies that turn back the clock continue, ghosts of the Mao era will return. These include dogmatism detached from reality, extraordinarily high numbers of fake reports, a declining willingness to work and extremely disproportionate investment based on the view that the Chinese should be prepared to “pawn their trousers” to make atomic bombs.

Hard-line diplomacy such as China’s self-righteous maritime expansion in the South and East China Seas also hinders development.

The pitfalls of the strong nation policy are in the policy itself.

Party to tighten control

“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will become a reality in the course of reform and opening up,” Xi Jinping told domestic and foreign reporters following the inauguration of the new leadership. Xi is undoubtedly ready to continue reform and opening up to the outside world.

However, it could also be said that Xi’s declaration of a “new era” has brought down the curtain on Deng Xiaoping’s era of reform and opening up.

In 1978, following the death of Mao Zedong and under the decree of Deng — who was a victim of the Cultural Revolution — China established economic development as the basis of its national policy. Afterward, the state and its people rushed headlong toward prosperity. It was an era when development was everything.

Serious political, economic and social strains also emerged during this era, such as a growing gap between rich and poor and the spread of corruption.

Xi was influenced by Mao in the sense that his political roots lie in his own farming life during the Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese president is said to be ready to reinforce the one-party dictatorship by tightening discipline in the Communist Party, which has become more lenient due to reform and opening up.

■The Cultural Revolution

A political movement led by Mao Zedong from 1966 to 1976. Starting with the cultural front, Mao attacked and overthrew the Communist Party leadership that had been critical of him. Instigated to rebellion, the masses destroyed order and authority, creating a state of civil strife. Victims of violence and persecution are said to have numbered more than 100 million. Amid the turmoil, many urban youths, including Xi Jinping, were forcibly sent to rural areas.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 31, 2017)

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