Selected to be China’s president in November 2012, Xi Jinping sent a team to study the Singapore model to get ideas about reforms to suit the Communist Party. Its first and long-lasting leader Lee Kwan Yew believed that Western liberal democracy doesn’t work in Asia. Appointed the head of the party, the military, and the state, Xi wants more freedom for citizens to criticize the government and to crackdown on government corruption, but rejects any move to political liberalization or Western “constitutionalism.” His nationalist economic and territorial policies were in the same vein as Putin’s Russian nationalism. A former magazine editor, Li Weidong observed about Xi, “I think that he’s attracted to the idea of a kind of enlightened dictatorship.” The government printed over 17 million copies of “Papa Xi’s” book about government, an indication that historically he is second only to Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and his domination of China. He praised the “Chinese Dream,” and is glorified in songs, videos, musical theater, and Internet posts. His government silenced social activists, even shutting down a volunteer network of 22 rural libraries.
Xi Jinping initiated the biggest campaign against corruption since the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, but from the top down. Nearly 72,000 officials were punished in 2014, mostly from commoner roots rather than the descendants of CCP founders like Xi, called the Red Second Generation.[i] Some suggested Xi was trying to dominate the group-based leadership of the previous two decades, targeting his political enemies as corrupt. Xi opposed adoption of Western ideas, telling journalists in 2013 that they should guide public opinion in Marxist frameworks and that people who are loyal to Marxism and the Party should control the Internet. The CCP told professors in 2015 to teach Marxism and traditional culture and universities should supervise student associations. The next year the CCP named him “core” leader, which ranked him along with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, undermining the tradition of “collective leadership” since 2000.
A lawyers, Xu Zhiyong (age 40), started a New Citizens Movement for Democracy. Small groups of its members have gathered for several years in various cities to plan action campaigns. He was sentenced to four years in prison for remarks like this one: “Political lies know no bounds in this country, and 1.3 billion people suffer deeply from it as a result. Suspicion, disappointment, confusion, anger, helplessness and resentment are norms of life.”[ii] He mentioned doing his advocacy work for the “glory of the Lord,” implying he’s a Christian. (A video shows him in a detention center.[iii]) In a 2012 paper on “The New Citizens’ Movement in China” Xu wrote, “The New Citizen college student diligently studies, cares for the society—does not cheat on tests or plagiarize essays.”[iv] The tactics he suggested for spreading the goal of “freedom, righteousness, and love,” include the new global tactics of Internet posts, fliers, t-shirts with slogans, photographing injustices, performance art, demonstrations plus organizing dinner discussion and filing lawsuits.
World famous artist and rebel Ai Wei Wei is not allowed to show his art in China; western cities like Berlin and San Francisco host his shows for Western viewers.[v] (The 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry tells his story). When he was fined $2.4 million for supposed past due taxes in 2011, supporters folded paper money into airplanes and tossed them over the walls of his Beijing compound after his Internet account was disabled. Ai commented, “Over the past three years, during all the efforts I’ve made, sometimes I felt like I was crying alone in a dark tunnel. But now people have a way to express their true feelings. This is a really, really beautiful event.”[vi] A government newspaper responded, “Ai’s political preference along with his supporters’ cannot stand for the mainstream public, which is opposed to radical and confrontational political stances.”
Ai said his friend Zuoxiao Zuzhou (born 1970) is the most important musician in China because he also comments on social problems like corruption, toxic food scandals including baby formula, and housing demolition to make room for apartment complexes. Zuoxiao complains, “No one is willing to stand up and speak out.”[vii] He said that authorities wage an online smear campaign against him and censor his albums. One of his fans said the singer represents the views of many young people: “We don’t want to fight against the government, but we really think they should do something better.” However, Zuoxiao isn’t hopeful; “The people of this soil have no hope. There is a big problem with our education. For the past 60 years, people have been brainwashed. Everyone is too selfish. No one has any faith.” Young people are attracted to American consumer items and popular media, but are critical of US foreign policy.[viii] Zhao Yixiang, age 26, sells American skateboards for a living; he said his generation, “really likes American culture, but we also like to have a government that doesn’t show weakness abroad.”
China implemented a “social credit” system to give each person a score based on financial, legal and civic measurements similar to credit scores in the US but more inclusive, leading some in the West to view it as Big Brother in action again. Data is drawn from purchases, traffic tickets, etc., and was mandatory by 2020. However, much online satire and critique of local and regional governments and corporations is allowed, a way to keep Beijing informed about local issues and discontent.
[i] Andrew Jacobs, “In China’s Antigraft Campaign, Small Victories and Bigger Doubts,” New York Times, January 15, 2015.
[ii] Julie Makinen, “Accused Dissident Xu Zhiyong Calls for China to Democratize,” Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2013.
[vi] Andrew Jacobs, “Online and by Paper Airplane, Contributions Pour In to Chinese Dissident,” New York Times, November 6, 2011.
[vii] Louisa Lim, “China’s Leonard Cohen Calls Out Political Corruption,” NRP.org, February 18, 2013.
[viii] Chris Buckley, “Chinese Embrace America’s Culture but Not Its Policies,” New York Times, September 28, 2015.