Six ways Xi Jinping’s decade of crackdowns and campaigns changed China

2022-10-16 12:18:06 By : Ms. judy zhu

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On the eve of China’s party congress, a special Grid look at how one of the country’s most powerful leaders since Mao has made his mark.

Next week, China’s President Xi Jinping is likely to make history. The man who has ruled China for a decade is expected to secure a third term as the country’s leader at the Communist Party Congress, China’s once-every-five-years leadership reshuffle. This year may bring a “reshuffle” at lower levels, but despite a range of domestic problems, almost no one anticipates change at the very top. In which case Xi will cement his status as one of China’s most powerful leaders ever.

It’s a moment to take stock of Xi’s tenure and what has without question been a period of staggering change in China. Grid surveyed experts who have watched Xi and China closely, with the aim of assessing where Xi has had the greatest impact on the country he has led since 2012.

“Things have changed dramatically on the social, political and economic fronts,” John Yasuda, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who focuses on China, told Grid. “It is difficult to pinpoint any one particular thing because it has been a sea change in many respects since the Hu [Jintao] years.”

Grid has identified six elements in that “sea change,” and what emerges is a report card that ranges from considerable achievement to major missteps and, in some cases, irreparable harm.

One can certainly argue that under Xi’s tight grip, China has experienced changes for the better: His vast anticorruption campaign has reined in some of the once-ubiquitous graft; his policies have helped lift millions from extreme poverty; and a shift to cleaner energy has significantly improved air quality and helped curb the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet the costs of Xi’s rule have been profound. He has overseen sweeping crackdowns on human rights in China’s Xinjiang province and more recently in Hong Kong. Across the country, new levels of censorship, surveillance and policing have all but suffocated free speech and civil society. On the economic front, Xi’s state-led vision of the economy has punished businesses from real estate giants to the tech sector.

And perhaps the policy felt most widely across China has been one that Xi could never have imagined when the party congress last convened: his “zero-covid” response to the pandemic, which has taken a severe economic and psychological toll on the nation. The policy has been widely criticized, most recently in a rare and forceful protest in Beijing this week; banners were hung from a bridge with messages that read, “We want freedom, not lockdowns,” and “We are citizens, not slaves.” It would have been a notable form of dissent at any moment; it packed that much more power coming as it did, on the eve of the party congress.

Our list leaves aside what Xi has done outside his country — the trillion-dollar infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative and the military buildup on islands in the South China Sea, to name two powerful and controversial expressions of China’s influence beyond its borders. This “report card” is confined to the impact Xi has had on his own people. It offers a guide to where he might lead China, assuming another five years — or more — lie ahead.

Xi was clear about one thing right out of the gate: Corruption had gotten out of hand across the government, and in his view, posed an existential threat to the Communist Party. In his first speech as general secretary, Xi said, “There are also many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption. … We must make every effort to solve these problems.”

This call to action came on the heels of high-profile disclosures of the immense wealth hoarded by party leaders. Reporting by the New York Times in 2012 had revealed that China’s then-Premier Wen Jiabao’s family held at least $2.7 billion in assets — and he wasn’t alone.

In a January 2013 speech, Xi said the party had to focus on the “tigers” as well as the “flies,” an only lightly-veiled reference to his plans to target officials at all levels. And while past anti-corruption drives had avoided the party’s upper ranks, Xi made good on his pledge. Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing whose scandalous downfall had tarnished the party’s image, was given a life sentence in 2013 for taking bribes. Zhou Yongkang, a powerful former Politburo Standing Committee member responsible for security and law enforcement, became the highest-level official to face trial for corruption. Chinese military officials were also targeted and charged at the highest ranks.

“No one seemed to be immune,” wrote Kerry Brown, a professor of China studies at King’s College London, in a 2018 review of the campaign. Xi’s purge swept aside hundreds of top officials — more in a few years than had been punished over several decades, said Andrew Wedeman, a political scientist at Georgia State University who has studied graft in China.

While Xi went after the corrupt “tigers,” he swatted many “flies” as well. The data is patchy, but according to estimates from Wedeman, roughly 250,000 to 300,000 people have been investigated for corruption during Xi’s tenure. Along with the crackdown, the government published an eight-point list of austerity measures aimed at curbing excesses common among even low-level bureaucrats. One measure reads, “There should be no welcome banner, no red carpet, no floral arrangement or grand receptions for officials’ visits.”

The campaign left an impression. “It’s political theater in part,” said Wedeman, but he added that initial polling suggested the public approved. “People were pretty impressed with Xi and his willingness to go after corruption at the highest level.”

The main problem with Xi’s campaign? It’s still going, 10 years later. In other words, as more officials are bagged for bribery, year after year, it’s hard to argue that the corruption problem has been settled.

“The more tiger pelts Xi pins up on the walls of Zhongnanhai,” said Wedeman, referring to the government’s Beijing headquarters, “the more people are, I would guess, scratching their heads and saying, ‘That’s a lot of pelts. How many more are still out there?’”

Another signature Xi cleanup campaign that has had a clearer record of success is the battle against China’s infamous air pollution. China hit one of its worst stretches of smog in recorded history soon after Xi took power. During the “airpocalypse” of winter 2013, the air was so bad it was dangerous to spend long stretches of time outside. Data published by the U.S. Embassy showed pollution levels in Beijing were literally off the charts.

“The public concern and outrage over air pollution reached a boiling point in the winter of 2012 and 2013,” Shen Xinyi, a researcher at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, told Grid. While popular anger hasn’t typically driven government action in China, this was a problem that couldn’t be swept under the rug. In 2013, China established a national air pollution action plan, which set binding air quality targets for regions and ordered compliance by 2017. The plan outlined methods to achieve those goals — key among them a shift from coal, China’s energy staple, to cleaner sources.

The policy produced results. Pollution levels dropped by more than half in Beijing from 2013 to 2020, according to a report from the University of Chicago, and the industrialized provinces around the capital saw similar improvements.

“It bolstered this argument from some quarters in China,” Alex Wang, a professor of environmental law at University of California, Los Angeles, told Grid, “that a strong state could get things done — that ‘the war on pollution’ required this strong state, operating from the top down.”

The “war on pollution” is only one facet of a broader push under Xi to elevate the importance of environmental protection, long relegated to an afterthought in the country’s rush to economic development. The U.S. and China helped lay the foundation for the 2015 Paris Agreement, and Xi caught the world by surprise in 2021 when he announced China would reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Beyond the pledges, Xi has shown a clear ambition for China to dominate green technologies of the future and build its reputation as a climate leader on the global stage.

China still has a long way to go on these fronts. And experts warn that the top-down approach to environmental protection may leave the country vulnerable to blind spots. “I think there’s a risk for China because it removes some forms of accountability — eyes on the system to identify problems,” said Wang. “It removes people that can help implement goals.”

Still, when grading Xi’s reign, he gets solid marks for confronting one of the most obvious problems the country faced a decade ago — and beginning to tackle China’s immense climate challenge.

Along with Xi’s crackdowns on corruption and pollution has come a dramatic assault on all manner of human rights in China. This change is hard to overstate: The space for civil society has shrunk dramatically in China.

“Civil rights have always been very repressed in China, but in the past 10 years the crackdown on [non-governmental organizations], the imprisonment of activists, the censorship and the surveillance have made it almost, you know — there’s no channel for people to voice their opinions,” Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, told Grid.

While dissent had long been punished, and censorship was a fact of life, the extent of intolerance under Xi means even mild criticisms can be dangerous now. And the government’s ability to track dissent has grown exponentially.

Eric Liu, a former Weibo content censor who is now an analyst for the U.S.-based China Digital Times, detailed the extent of the government’s sensitivity to seemingly innocuous language in an interview for The Prince, a podcast produced by the Economist. Banned words on one app included any characters that sounded like “Xi”; even the word “he” was deleted for a time.

Xi has overseen a tightening of the noose around all media in China. Document No. 9, an internal memo released to party cadres in April 2013, called for “unwavering adherence to the principle of the Party’s control of media.” Today the government routinely issues propaganda scripts to media outlets, and these are often copied verbatim, with images of Xi splashed across newspaper front pages and TV newscasts.

The most obvious impact has been that some of the biggest human rights stories in China have gotten very little attention domestically, while they’ve raised alarm in the outside world.

Perhaps the most indelible image of the Xi era — at least to those who have seen it — was a government photo of a Uyghur woman looking straight into a camera, tears welling in her eyes. This was one of thousands of photographs of Uyghurs in leaked police files published by the BBC and other outlets in May; in some of the photos, a police officer stands at the edge of the frame. The journalists found that the woman had been detained for “re-education” — among more than one million Uyghurs estimated to have been held in China’s camp system in the Xinjiang region. The camps were built starting in 2016 to eradicate religious extremism among Muslim ethnic minorities, and journalists and researchers have documented widespread abuse in those camps, from sexual assault to indoctrination. In a high-profile report, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded recently that abuses in the region may constitute “crimes against humanity.”

Leaked documents published by the New York Times in 2019 revealed that Xi had condoned the brutality in Xinjiang. Internal speeches show that he had called early on in his rule for “absolutely no mercy” in the “struggle against terrorism” after Uyghur militants conducted a series of attacks, killing dozens of people in 2013 and 2014.

Xi has also ushered in a new era of restrictions in Hong Kong. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from the British, Xi traveled to the territory and said it was “entering a new stage — moving from the transition from chaos to governance, toward the transition from governance to prosperity.”

“Chaos” seemed to be Xi’s euphemism for the 2019 protests that saw millions of Hong Kongers take to the streets to oppose an extradition law that would have given Beijing more control. China’s response included a new national security law for Hong Kong, which the Beijing-backed leadership said would ensure that law and order were guaranteed in the territory. The law has reshaped life in Hong Kong. Since it was put in place, “the Chinese government has systematically dismantled human rights,” according to a 2021 report from Human Rights Watch. Hong Kong police have arrested thousands of people since 2019 and a slew of independent civil society organizations, unions and media outlets have been shuttered.

Long before Xi took power, the Chinese Communist Party had laid out a goal of eradicating extreme poverty — and Xi himself set a deadline of 2020 for meeting it. Last year Xi declared, effectively, mission accomplished. The 2020 census showed that 100 million people in China had moved above the extreme poverty threshold since 2012.

It’s a staggering achievement — but many experts are skeptical about the long-term fate of the program. “Peasants may have been officially lifted out of poverty due to a one-time cash or in-kind subsidy, but they are likely to revert to poverty once the campaign ends,” wrote a Fudan University researcher in a 2019 study.

According to Scott Rozelle, a Stanford University economist, China desperately needs further investment in rural education and healthcare to tackle the wealth gap in the long run. A Tibetan man from a village in northern Sichuan underscored that point to Grid. He said the government has connected his village to the national power grid and pledged to improve the road, but poverty remains an issue. “Minorities have language and cultural barriers,” he said; the villagers who learned Tibetan in school struggle to access higher paying jobs which require Mandarin. “Of course they’ll say [they’ve solved poverty], but I don’t think it’s true at all,” he said. “There are families that I can tell — they’re struggling.”

When Xi took power in 2012, many political insiders predicted he would be a liberalizing force for the economy. Ten years later, those predictions look to have been way off the mark.

“The Chinese economy is in its worst shape in recent memory,” Barry Naughton, an economist at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in a recent paper. “Some problems are caused by exogenous, random shocks, but most of them can be directly or indirectly attributed to Xi himself.”

That’s a reference, in part, to the government’s efforts to rein in China’s private sector — which many experts say have been drivers of the downturn. When Xi came to power, China’s technology industry was an economic juggernaut; its leaders rivaled the icons of Silicon Valley. But to Xi, these individuals and their companies had grown too rich and powerful. In Xi’s second term, Chinese regulators have fined tech giants including Alibaba and Tencent billions of dollars for monopolistic practices. Other tech giants, including Didi Chuxing — the “Uber of China” — have seen their stock values plummet after the government imposed more restrictive data security and privacy rules.

The impact has been stark — for the titans of China’s tech industry, their companies, and for the economy writ large. Internet companies lost more than $1 trillion in value during the first months of the campaign. China’s brightest young graduates once flocked to these companies; now the youth unemployment rate is at nearly 20 percent and many are turning toward government jobs that provide greater security.

“Many private internet companies are firing more than they hire,” Tianlei Huang, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics, told Grid.

It’s the crackdown few saw coming — and it’s dragged the economy down.

Facing these tough economic straits, the biggest question for many people watching China’s party congress is a simple one: “Will zero-covid end?”

Xi’s signature approach to handling the pandemic — the policy that brought success after the initial outbreak in Wuhan — has become an albatross for the Chinese government. Having relentlessly promoted the success of zero-covid and the need to lock down cities to ensure caseloads remain low, Xi has thus far refused to change course.

During lockdowns across China that have stretched for weeks and sometimes months, tens of millions of people have struggled to procure food and access medical care — famously in Shanghai in April, and most recently in Tibet and Xinjiang. Xi and other party officials have credited the policy for saving millions of lives, but many public health experts and the World Health Organization have called the policy unsustainable. Economists, meanwhile, blame zero-covid for battering the country’s growth.

Despite in-person and online protests against the policy, the government hasn’t budged. Some have hoped the party congress would be the turning point, but a recent spate of state-owned newspaper editorials suggests the government isn’t prepared to let up.

For all the profound changes to life in China under Xi, zero-covid may prove to be the policy that has affected people most profoundly — and shaped their view of the government more than any other.

Cleo Li-Schwartz contributed to this report. Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

Lili Pike is a China reporter at Grid focused on climate change, technology and U.S.-China relations.

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