The Cult of Xi

Little is scarier to me than the phenomenon of personality cults. Think Jim Jones and his 900+ followers drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Think Stalin’s fanatical apparatchiks snatching food from Ukrainian farmers, leading to one of the worst man-made famines in history (twenty years later Mao would one-up him). Think the throngs of Hitler supporters surrendering their critical faculties to embrace a madman who would soon lead the country to catastrophe. Think Mao inspiring fanatical Red Guards to beat or even kill their teachers, wreaking havoc on their own fellow citizens and destroying national treasures in the name of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Think Falun Gong. Think Kim Jong Un.

And think Donald Trump, whose rabid supporters rushed blindly “into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell” to violently overturn the results of a free and fair election.

Which brings us to President For Life Xi Jinping. An excellent piece in the Atlantic draws parallels between Mao and Xi and warns us that China may yet again follow its leader down the path to catastrophe. And this time the peregrination could have global consequences.

…Xi’s approach has taken on aspects of old, Maoist mass campaigns. Mao conceived the disastrous Great Leap Forward based on his conviction that China could catapult into the ranks of the advanced economies by sheer public effort alone. Workers and farmers just had to labor harder and longer, and keep the Communist faith. So, too, does Xi seem to believe that COVID can be overcome by national willpower. Having declared the battle with the virus a “people’s war,” Xi and his administration have characterized pandemic measures as an almost militaristic movement against an “invisible enemy,” which has required “tremendous sacrifice” and “solidarity and resilience” to achieve “victory.”

But this time it’s different. Back in the 1950 and 60s the effects of Mao’s insanity were felt in China alone, where upon his death he left a nation mired in poverty and its people brain dead. The cult of Xi, on the other hand has the potential to rock the world.

This is where Xi really differs from Mao—in the China he commands, and in the wider impact he has. Mao’s disasters fell mainly on the Chinese people. That’s bad enough, but in a world where China is a rising power, with greatly enhanced economic and military might, how Xi governs will affect all of us. That means the whims of one man have the potential to lift or sink the global economy, or throw the world into conflict and turmoil.

As critical as I am of the CCP, credit must be given to China’s earlier leaders, from Deng onward, who navigated China to prosperity and global status, despite some disasters along the way (think the Tiananmen Square massacre). These leaders were careful not to repeat Mao era fanaticism. Until now. “Xi Jinping thought,” modeled on Xi’s writings and speeches, seeks to ensure that Party leadership and its philosophy of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” dominate life in China.

Content from Xi’s 2017 speech is used in public messages, described as being ‘pervasive’ by a Beijing correspondent for the New York Times. A poster featuring the slogan “Chinese Dream” comes from the speech, where the phrase is used 31 times. In July 2018, the carriages of a train in Changchun Subway were decked out in red and dozens of Xi’s quotes to celebrate the 97th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party. The train was described as a “highly condensed spiritual manual” of Xi Jinping Thought by the local government. In January 2019, Alibaba Group released an app called Xuexi Qiangguo for studying Xi Jinping Thought.

Xi faces no opposition. The decision-making process revolves around him. Just as with Trump, loyalty to Xi transcends all else, and if you want to move up the party ranks this loyalty is essential. The zero-Covid strategy is Xi’s baby, and those who criticize it have been sidelined. The Atlantic article lay out how the cult of Xi has led to confusion bordering on chaos: “Much like Mao, Xi’s mere comments can send officials scrambling. Last August, he gave a talk about ‘common prosperity,’ or narrowing income disparities, and the term instantaneously became all the rage, plastered across newspapers while executives rushed to open corporate wallets for poor farmers and other charitable causes.”

I remember my optimistic hope, sitting in my Beijing apartment in the winter of 2003, that maybe Hu Jintao would further open China up and lift the iron curtain of the Great Firewall. There seemed to be hope when Hu addressed the SARS calamity head on in March of 2003 and seemed to be initiating a new era of greater transparency. Of course, I was bitterly disappointed. Today, as China implements the most draconian surveillance apparatus in history and continues its repression in Xinjiang and Tibet, I fear Xi will continue to push China backwards, and in so doing possibly unravel the progress China has made since Deng. As the article concludes, “His insistence on zero COVID, erratic attitude toward the private sector, and hostile foreign policy are combining to sap the economy’s vitality, depress investor sentiment, alienate more countries, and isolate the Chinese from the world. None of that bodes well for China’s future as a great-power competitor.”

Xi’s cult of personality is mild compared to that of Hitler, Mao and Stalin. But it still has the potential to derail China’s status as a global leader and rattle the world’s markets. I fear for China. Personality cults rarely end well, and Xi’s ambition and lust for power could well drag China down the road to disaster. Again.


Shanghai, the next Xinjiang?

There is an absolutely must-read article in yesterday’s NY Times drawing parallels between China’s police state policies in Xinjiang and the brutality of the “Zero Covid” policies imposed on the people of Shanghai.

Let me say first that my dearest friend in China lives and works in Shanghai and has kept me apprised of the misery of day-to-day life in the age of Zero Covid. Thank god he works for one of the best multinational companies which has been supplying its employees with food. Someone in his building tested positive for covid a couple of weeks ago and the tenants are basically under house arrest. The psychological toll this takes on citizens, my friend said, is crushing. Can Shanghai ever be the same again? I was there just three years ago and never saw so much prosperity — Teslas and other luxury cars everywhere, shopping malls that felt like you were in Paris, a general mood of festivity and optimism.

Now, according to the NY Times article, Shanghai finds itself in a dark place.

Shanghai and Xinjiang used to be the two sides of the China coin.

Shanghai was the glamorous China, with skyscrapers, Art Deco apartments and a thriving middle class that shopped in Paris and strolled around Kyoto, Japan.

Xinjiang was the dark China. The western frontier region, which is twice the size of Texas, is home to more than 10 million Muslim ethnic minorities who have been subject to mass detentions, religious repression and intrusive digital and physical surveillance.

Since April, the 25 million residents of Shanghai have gotten a small taste of the Xinjiang treatment in a strict citywide lockdown. They have been lining up for rounds of Covid-19 tests to prove they are virus-free, a pandemic corollary to Uyghurs lining up at checkpoints to prove they don’t pose any security threat.

The political slogans in the government’s zero-Covid campaign echo those in the Xinjiang crackdowns. Residents in both places are subject to social control and surveillance. Instead of re-education camps in Xinjiang, about half a million Shanghai residents who tested positive were sent to quarantine camps.

What many Shanghai residents are experiencing doesn’t compare to the violence and cruelty that Uyghurs and Kazakhs have endured in Xinjiang since 2017. But they’re all victims of senseless political campaigns that are driven by paranoia, insecurity and authoritarian excess.

The CCP, one interviewee tells the reporter, has demonstrated in Shanghai its ability to impose “a digital totalitarian regime that surveils everyone, makes each neighborhood an on-site concentration camp and controls the society with the same iron fist in a future crisis, be it war, famine, climate disaster or economic meltdown.”

Fourteen years ago, around the time leading up to the Beijing Olympics I underwent a change of heart in regard to the Chinese government. I learned about programs to bring the Internet to people in remote parts of the country, of plans to build affordable housing for migrant workers, of a seemingly unending wave of prosperity and the continuous strides being made to lift the Chinese people out of poverty. I never forgot the sins of the CCP, its authoritarian tendencies, its censorship, it’s arrest of activists, its paranoia and deep insecurities. But I couldn’t deny the progress it had made in so little time; I had first moved to China briefly in 2002 and Beijing looked nothing the way it does now (although the gentrification took its toll on many of the city’s hutongs and other cultural icons, like the Bookworm and the sleazy bars along Sanlitun). For the Games, China opened its Internet, got half the cars off the Beijing roads to cut down on pollution and transformed Beijing into a gleaming first-class city. Beijing became a destination. I was awestruck.

Now I wonder if I can ever go back again. The iron fist with which Xi is ruling China has me terrified. Would I be safe there? Could I access the Internet? Would my critical blogging about China over the years make me a marked man? (I realize that is highly unlikely, but I have other friends who worry that they, too, might be targeted because of their past criticisms of the Party; one even writes under an alias, worrying if China knew their real name they might be harassed there). For nearly three years in Beijing I was happier than at any time of my life. I went back to see my friends twice a year; it was my home. And now, I can’t imagine going back for years, if and when China’s brutal Zero Covid madness has abated.

Back to the article. What we’re seeing play out in Xinjiang and Shanghai is not new, but rather an extension of the totalitarian noose the CCP has wrapped around its citizens’ necks for more than half a century.

Both the Xinjiang crackdown and the Shanghai lockdown are political campaigns that can be explained only through the governing rationale of the ruling Communist Party: Do whatever it takes to achieve the leadership’s goal.

That was why Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the Great Famine, why the Cultural Revolution devolved into a decade of political chaos and economic destruction and why the one-child policy left many women traumatized and the country with a demographic crisis. In each case, the leadership mobilized the whole nation to chase after a goal at any expense. In each case, it resulted in a catastrophe.

The Shanghai lockdowns herald a new phase of governmental repression, and one that might linger for years. The CCP has always sought control over the minds of its people, thus the Great Firewall, the vast network of censors, the drivel you see nonstop on Chinese state television. In Shanghai it has shown just how far they are willing to go, and one must wonder if the repression represents a new milestone in the Party’s obsessive need to control the Chinese people’s bodies and minds.

Nazi comparisons can be alarmist and unfair, but Germany in 1933 comes inevitably to mind as I read about the Shanghai police battering down doors and forcing citizens into quarantine camps with ghastly living conditions. And there is no recourse for those mistakenly rounded up; you can’t fight a faceless bureaucracy as entrenched as the Chinese Communist Party.

The article continues:

Like the Muslims in Xinjiang, the people in Shanghai and many other cities lost their rights and the protection of law in lockdowns.

A city in northern Hebei Province made headlines when community workers demanded that residents surrender their keys so they could be locked up from outside. In Shanghai, community workers covered the insides of apartments with disinfectant after residents tested positive, even though there’s no scientific evidence that disinfectant can kill coronavirus. In a widely circulated video and a social media Weibo post, a woman documented how a group of police officers had broken the door of her apartment and taken her to a quarantine camp even though they couldn’t present a Covid test report. When her Covid test came back negative hours later, she was already in a camp, according to her posts.

It is sickening and painful to watch the asphyxiation of a once great city. It used to seem that CCP repression on a massive scale was largely limited to faraway places like Tibet and Xinjiang. Seeing it play out in China’s financial hub, one of the greatest cities on earth, liberal and urbane, is agonizing. No I won’t be going back for years, if ever. Weep for a China that has fallen victim to indescribable cruelty and inhumanity. I once believed that the misery Mao inflicted on his people could never be repeated, that after Deng’s reforms China could never go back to totalitarianism. I fear I may have been wrong, and that the country I so loved and considered to be my home, may not recover for generations. I kept waiting for years for the government to institute reforms and loosen its draconian control of what its people say and do. I thought in the early years under Hu Jintao, after SARS, that freedoms would expand. I was bitterly disappointed. Now, under Xi Jinping, the only emotion I feel is hopelessness. And outrage. Can I ever go back again? I just don’t know. All I know is that in this era of Xi Jinping Thought, we’re witnessing the brain death of a country I loved like no other. How tragic.