Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Xi’s Obsession With Control Produced China’s Protests

This challenge to the Chinese Communist Party and the state has been building for some time.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A woman with her arms raised holds up a blank white sheet of paper while a man nearby holds a megaphone to his mouth.
A woman with her arms raised holds up a blank white sheet of paper while a man nearby holds a megaphone to his mouth.
Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against China’s strict zero-COVID measures on Nov. 28 in Beijing. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Decades ago, Western political scientists began asking a question that has never been fully resolved but has also never seemed more urgent. They noted that since World War II, extremely few countries had joined the ranks of the globe’s truly wealthy nations and almost all that had were already democracies or were in the midst of political transitions that would lead to systems that gave citizens a choice in the selection of leaders. So, they wondered: Could China, the world’s largest country—and, since the Soviet Union’s demise, the most powerful and, in aggregate terms, richest authoritarian society—buck the trend?

If it failed to do so, China would be said, in the jargon of experts, to have succumbed to the middle-income trap: a theoretical snare awaiting countries that failed to liberalize their political systems no matter how successful they had appeared during an early phase of economic takeoff.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been mindful of this challenge and at times has even boasted about his country’s ability not only to break this mold of notional constraints but also to prove the superiority of his version of authoritarian rule. Now, no sooner than Xi has engineered changes in China’s leadership succession rules so that he can preside over his country for life, a crisis that may come to be seen as an ideal test of the middle-income trap theory is upon him.

Decades ago, Western political scientists began asking a question that has never been fully resolved but has also never seemed more urgent. They noted that since World War II, extremely few countries had joined the ranks of the globe’s truly wealthy nations and almost all that had were already democracies or were in the midst of political transitions that would lead to systems that gave citizens a choice in the selection of leaders. So, they wondered: Could China, the world’s largest country—and, since the Soviet Union’s demise, the most powerful and, in aggregate terms, richest authoritarian society—buck the trend?

If it failed to do so, China would be said, in the jargon of experts, to have succumbed to the middle-income trap: a theoretical snare awaiting countries that failed to liberalize their political systems no matter how successful they had appeared during an early phase of economic takeoff.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been mindful of this challenge and at times has even boasted about his country’s ability not only to break this mold of notional constraints but also to prove the superiority of his version of authoritarian rule. Now, no sooner than Xi has engineered changes in China’s leadership succession rules so that he can preside over his country for life, a crisis that may come to be seen as an ideal test of the middle-income trap theory is upon him.

Its proximate cause appears to have been an apartment block fire in the far western Chinese city of Urumqi that killed 10 people. It reportedly took firefighters more than three hours to put out the blaze, which local officials said was caused by a faulty power strip, causing many on social media to speculate that the city’s ongoing strict COVID-19 lockdown measures may have hampered the response and prevented residents from evacuating. Chinese authorities have denied this and even suggested that blame lay with the apartment dwellers for being slow to flee.

The shocking news of this incident has set off the most serious political protests in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crisis, with Chinese people in a rapidly growing number of cities—including the place where Xi himself studied in Beijing, Tsinghua University—coming out in the streets by the thousands to hold up blank sheets of paper, symbolizing censorship, and braving arrest as they chant recently unimaginable slogans such as “Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!” and “Don’t want dictatorship, [we] want democracy!”

Yet as tempting as it will be for many, it is wrong to see this crisis as solely the result of a spark from Urumqi. This challenge to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the state has been building for some time. The country’s unusually strict and prolonged campaign to contain the COVID-19 pandemic has been a source of deep discontent for many months, leaving many Chinese people feeling disenchanted with Xi, who seems more obsessed with control than any leader since Mao Zedong.

After a previous incident in September involving the crash of a bus carrying people from the locked-down city of Guiyang to a quarantine camp, which killed 27 people, the number of messages I began receiving from friends in China that spoke of wanting to leave the country or mentioned stories of others who had already escaped skyrocketed. That may seem merely anecdotal, but what happened next was anything but.

On Oct. 13, on the eve of the Party Congress in Beijing where Xi effectively coronated himself—and amid high, citywide security—a man hung large protest banners on Sitong Bridge, which passes over a major central thoroughfare, denouncing not just the country’s zero-COVID policy but also Xi’s dictatorship, censorship, personality cult, and suppression of human rights. The banners read:

We don’t want nucleic acid testing, we want food to eat;
We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom;
We don’t want lies, we want dignity;
We don’t want Cultural Revolution, we want reform;
We don’t want [dictatorial] leaders, we want elections;
We don’t want to be slaves, we want to be citizens.

In an echo of the famous Tank Man of Tiananmen, the man was arrested and reportedly has not been seen or heard from since. State censors made furious attempts to remove mention of the protest from webpages and social media, but the intensity of interest overwhelmed them.

The next highly unusual occurrence happened during the Party Congress itself, when Xi’s predecessor as CCP general secretary, Hu Jintao, was ushered off the main dais at a critical moment during the proceedings. Hu had just reached for a folder that is thought to have contained the final list of the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest instance of power in the country after the general secretary. One theory is that Hu suspected that Xi had not respected commitments to allow people other than his closest personal allies to sit on the body, erasing past practices of relatively collective rule. Another leader prevented Hu from opening the folder, and then Xi gave the signal for him to be unceremoniously led out.

While it may be impossible to know exactly what transpired, many people in China responded with shock, as if they had finally realized how deep the country had descended into a new stage of despotism. Again, many friends in China wrote to me, asking what I had heard and writing that they could not afford to say anything, except to deplore the overall situation in the country.

Although the details of these recent events are unique, some of their contours bear strong resemblance to previous crises in the country. Take, for instance, the 1989 Tiananmen crisis. Although Deng Xiaoping, as paramount leader, eventually approved the murderous crackdown on the student and worker demonstrators who filled the square, he later said privately that it was “very unhealthy” for “the destiny of a country to be built on the prestige of one or two people.” Not since Mao has China been so dominated by a single figure as Xi.

Even worse, under Xi, at each hint of crisis, whether economic—as with the pandemic-induced slowdown or a real estate bubble—or now political, instead of the liberalizing reforms his country and its broad middle classes need and hope for, Xi has reflexively become even more sternly top-down and authoritarian in his response. This ominously echoes his famous comment about the end of Soviet rule under Mikhail Gorbachev in which Xi said the Soviet Union’s Communist rulers lost their nerve, meaning that they failed to rule without flinching and to crack down on opposition mercilessly when necessary.

No one knows what is in Xi’s mind, but he is surely aware of the example of Zhao Ziyang, his predecessor decades ago as CCP general secretary during the Tiananmen crisis (a position under Deng). Zhao, in that much simpler and poorer time, had warned that “reform includes reform of the economic system and reform of the political system. These two aspects affect one another. … If [political reform] lags too far behind, continuing with the reform of the economic system will be very difficult, and various social and political contradictions will ensue.”

Zhao had envisioned clear separations between the role and authority of the party and the government; much more independence for the country’s courts; an end to the purely rubber-stamp function of the country’s parliament; increased freedom of speech and of the press; and even a greater role for the country’s tiny, authorized alternative political parties. He and his allies argued that if the people were not granted freer expression, society would have no pressure valve, practically guaranteeing explosive crises in the future. Xi seems to have never thought well of any change that might reduce the CCP’s power, but it seems likely that even he knows that at some point China’s political system will have to adapt for the country to continue to modernize and escape the theoretical middle-income trap.

His problem, like that of so many leaders who concentrate immense power in their own hands, is that no moment ever quite looks like a good one to make serious, substantive change. The difference between Xi and Deng, who had previously long been considered the country’s most powerful ruler since Mao, is that Deng always took care to have high-profile politicians executing decisions and implementing policy in the foreground. Under Xi, who seems to utterly dominate every important committee and instance of power himself, there is no one but the great leader himself. When the Tiananmen crisis broke, Deng could blame Zhao—and did. Xi, however, has no meaningful deputy or surrogate and therefore has no one else to blame.

This places him in the teeth of an altogether different trap. If he orders his troops and police to execute a heavy-handed crackdown on a fed-up and networked citizenry, things could get bloody quickly, as with Tiananmen—with grave consequences not just for his relationship with his people but also for China’s place in the world. It is even possible that some of his commanders could refuse to execute his orders, as at least one principled general named Xu Qinxian did during Tiananmen.

On the other hand, if Xi abruptly changes strategy and puts on the garb of a supple moderate, people both within his system and without may decide that he is weak and vulnerable and become emboldened to mount bigger challenges to his authority.

One way or another, China is poised on an uncomfortable fulcrum right now, and it will have to choose a course.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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