“As a liberal, I no longer feel I have a future in China,” a prominent Chinese think tank head in the process of moving abroad recently lamented in private. Such refrains are all too familiar these days as educated Chinese professionals express growing alarm over their country’s future. Indeed, not since the 1970s when Mao still reigned and the Cultural Revolution still raged has the Chinese leadership been so possessed by Maoist nostalgia and Leninist-style leadership.
As different leaders have come and gone, China specialists overseas have become accustomed to reading Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tea leaves as oscillating cycles of political “relaxation” and “tightening.” China has long been a one-party Leninist state with extensive censorship and perhaps the largest secret police establishment in the world. But what has been happening lately in Beijing under the leadership of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is no such simple fluctuation. It is a fundamental shift in ideological and organizational direction that is beginning to influence both China’s reform agenda and its foreign relations.
At the center of this retrograde trend is Xi’s enormously ambitious initiative to purge the Chinese Communist Party of what he calls “tigers and flies,” namely corrupt officials and businessmen both high and low. Since it began in 2012, the campaign has already netted more than 160 “tigers” whose rank is above or equivalent to that of the deputy provincial or deputy ministerial level, and more than 1,400 “flies,” all lower-level officials.1 But it has also morphed from an anticorruption drive into a broader neo-Maoist-style mass purge aimed at political rivals and others with differing ideological or political views.
To carry out this mass movement, the Party has mobilized its unique and extensive network of surveillance, security, and secret police in ways that have affected many areas of Chinese life. Media organizations dealing with news and information have been hit particularly hard. Pressured to conform to old Maoist models requiring them to serve as megaphones for the Party, editors and reporters have found themselves increasingly constrained by Central Propaganda Department diktats. Told what they can and cannot cover, they find that the limited freedom they had to report on events has been drastically curtailed.
The consequences of running afoul of government orders have become ever more grave. Last August, for instance, a financial journalist for the weekly business magazine Caijing was detained after reporting on government manipulation of China’s stock markets and forced to denounce his own coverage in a humiliating self-confession on China Central Television (CCTV). And more recently media outlets were reminded in the most explicit way not to stray from the Party line when Xi himself dropped by the New China News Agency, the People’s Daily, and CCTV.
“All news media run by the Party [which includes every major media outlet in China] must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions, and protect the Party’s authority and unity,” Xi warned. In front of a banner declaring “CCTV’s family name is ‘the Party,’” Xi urged people who work in the media to “enhance their awareness to align their ideology, political thinking, and deeds to those of the CCP Central Committee.” Then, only days later the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced new regulations banning all foreign-invested media companies from publishing online in China without government approval.
But the crackdown has hardly been limited to the media. Hundreds of crosses have been ripped from the steeples of Christian churches, entire churches have been demolished, pastors arrested, and their defense lawyers detained and forced to make public confessions. And even as civil society has grown over the past few decades, a constraining new civil society law is now being drafted that promises to put NGOs on notice against collaborating with foreign counterparts or challenging the government.
At the same time, independent-minded researchers at think tanks and outspoken professors at universities worry about the “chilling effect” of Xi’s policies on academic life in both China and Hong Kong. Feminist activists demonstrating against sexual harassment have been arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” while human rights lawyers have been swept up in a mass wave of arrests for “creating public disorder,” and even for “subverting state power.”
But what has been perhaps most unexpected about this trend is the way that Beijing has begun to extend its claim to control people and organizations beyond its borders. Despite its stubborn defense of the sanctity of sovereignty, its agents have begun reaching overseas to manipulate the foreign dialogue by setting up hundreds of Confucius Institutes, newspapers, magazines, and even TV networks that answer to the Central Propaganda Department and the CCP.
The Chinese government is also denying visas to “unfriendly” (buyouhao) foreign journalists and scholars; blocking foreign websites with which it disagrees; demanding that public figures like the Dalai Lama, Hong Kong activists, or Chinese dissidents be refused foreign platforms; threatening the advertising bases of overseas media outlets that challenge its positions; and now even abducting foreign nationals abroad and “renditioning” them back to China where it forces them into making televised confessions. It is hardly surprising that Chinese have started whispering about a new “climate of fear” (kongbude qifen), what Eva Pils of King’s College London School of Law calls “rule by fear.”
What is most striking about these new tactics is their boldness and unrepentant tone. Instead of denying or apologizing for them, the CCP seems to proudly proclaim them as part of a new Chinese model of development, albeit one that has no use for liberal values from the West. In the new world of resurgent Chinese wealth and power, what is valued is strong leadership, short-term stability, and immediate economic growth.
Sitting at the very epicenter of this new nationwide campaign to more tightly control and rejuvenate China through a combination of more muscular leadership, regimented thought, and deeper loyalty to Xi is the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). Long one of the Party’s most powerful, secretive, and feared internal organs, the CCDI is dedicated to “maintaining Party discipline.” But when Xi came to power and appointed Vice-Premier and Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan as its secretary, he also charged it with launching an unprecedented new anticorruption campaign.
Wang is the “princeling” son-in-law of former Vice-Premier Yao Yilin. The son of a university professor and himself a student of history, he has headed up the China Construction Bank and also creatively handled China’s financial and commercial affairs under Hu Jintao when he worked closely with US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson to guide the early years of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the US and China. That period is looked back on as a particularly constructive one between the US and China. Why Wang gave up this portfolio to become an anonymous grand inquisitor is unknown, but his friendship with Xi, formed when both were “sent down” (xiafang) as youths to the same dirt-poor region of Shaanxi province in the early 1970s, may help explain his willingness.
According to Li Ling of the University of Vienna, who has written about the CCDI, “the party disciplinary system was and remains primarily a means for consolidating the authority of the Party Central Committee and preserving party unity.”2 But since Wang took over in 2012, its already significant network of twelve branch offices have along with the Central Commission expanded their number of investigations from twenty in 2013 to more than a hundred in 2016 to make it one of the most important organs in Xi’s effort to bolster China’s one-party system. Its work is considered so important that it is even allowed to hire and fire outside the Organization Department, the centralized clearing house that controls other high-level appointments.
As an old-style Leninist party in a modern world, the CCP is confronted by two major challenges: first, how to maintain “ideological discipline” among its almost 89 million members in a globalized world awash with money, international travel, electronically transmitted information, and heretical ideas. Second, how to cleanse itself of its chronic corruption, a blight that Xi has himself described as “a matter of life and death.”
The primary reason the Party is so susceptible to graft is that while officials are poorly paid, they do control valuable national assets. So, for example, when property development deals come together involving real estate (all land belongs to the government) and banking (all the major banks also belong to the government), officials vetting the deals find themselves in tempting positions to supplement their paltry salaries by accepting bribes or covertly raking off a percentage of the action. Since success without corruption in China is almost a non sequitur, officials and businessmen (and heads of state-owned enterprises are both) are all easily touched by what Chinese call “original sin” (yuanzui), namely, some acquaintance with corruption.
Although secret investigations, censorship, and political trials are nothing new in China, what is unique about the CCDI’s part in Xi’s anticorruption campaign is its explicitly extrajudicial status. The investigations it launches take clear precedence over the judicial processes that police, lawyers, and judges would normally carry out in democratic societies. The CCDI is unencumbered by any such legal niceties, except when show trials are needed at the very end of a case so that a formal sentence for, say, corruption, can seem to have been delivered “according to law,” a phrase the CCP tirelessly uses as if incantation alone could make it true. But by then, of course, “guilt” has long since been established and all that is usually needed is a little legal theater to give the CCDI’s investigation an air of legitimacy.
Besides investigating corruption and violations of “Party discipline,” the CCDI has one other more nebulous charge: to “achieve an intimidating effect” on wrongdoing, as its website described it in 2014. In other words, it hopes “by killing a few chickens to frighten the monkeys” (shaji jinghou), as the ancient adage puts it, in hopes of discouraging other potential malefactors. The commission has even launched a new website and smartphone app that allows whistle-blowers to upload incriminating photographs and videos of officials caught violating new sumptuary rules or even in flagrante delicto.
As if the CCDI’s own investigative arm, the Discipline Inspection Supervision Office (Jijian jianchashi), was not up to the ambition of Xi’s purge, the Party has now also breathed new life into a second organ, the Central Inspection Patrolling Group (CIPG, xunshizu). It was originally set up in 2003 to investigate “leading cadres” whom the CCDI may have shielded owing to its own nepotism and cronyism. With each of their teams headed by a retired ministry-level official and reporting to the Central Committee’s new “Central Leadership Inspection Work Leading Group,” the CIPG has grown quickly into an important and feared investigatory unit within China’s already extensive security apparatus. Although it technically reports directly to the Party Central Committee, like the CCDI, its day-to-day activities are under the command of Wang Qishan, making him the capo di tutt’i capi of China’s secretive investigations units.
When a “tiger or fly” comes under suspicion by either investigative branch, the suspect can be detained for what is called “double designation” (shuanggui), meaning that they give themselves up for investigation at a designated time and place, but only by the CCDI. Kept in isolation—often under an around-the-clock suicide watch by multiple “accompanying protectors”—there are only murky limitations on the length of time a suspect can be held and no provisions for habeas corpus, legal counsel, or appeal. The object of shuanggui, according to the scholar Li Ling, “is to destroy the detainees’ psychological defense system so that he or she will ‘start to talk.’” Although some reform measures have recently been taken, in the past forced confession and physical abuse, even torture and death, have not been uncommon. Because any investigation comes with strong presumptions of guilt, shuanggui is usually as much a verdict as the start of an evidentiary process. Needless to say, few things strike more terror in the hearts of officials than news that they, or their “work unit” (danwei), are on the CCDI’s hit list.
“The CCDI’s anticorruption campaign is chillingly evocative of the draconian repressions launched by the Eastern Depot during the Ming dynasty,” one historically minded corporate consultant told me. She was referring to a period in imperial history that represented a high tide of Chinese despotism. As most Chinese know from histories, popular novels, and TV dramas, the Ming dynasty was characterized by factionalism, intrigue, paranoia, intimidation, fratricide, and extrajudicial ruthlessness. Trusting no one and fearing treason everywhere, the Yongle Emperor (reigning 1402–1424) sought to protect the throne with an elaborate network of internal surveillance and espionage.
When, like Xi Jinping, the Ming emperor decided that his existing security apparatus, the so-called “Embroidered Guard” (jinyiwei), was inadequate to the task of protecting his reign against subversion, he set up the infamous “Eastern Depot” (dongchang) and put it under the leadership of loyal palace eunuchs. Here secret files were maintained on all officials, just as today’s “dossier” (dangan) system keeps files on contemporary Chinese. With its epic history of forced confessions, torture, and grisly assassinations, this Ming dynasty security apparatus became a “diabolical force behind the throne,” writes historian Shih-shan Henry Tsai, “a monstrous secret police apparatus” whose “power grew like a giant octopus, extending to every corner of the empire.”
However, so rife with paranoia was the Ming court that later emperors came to distrust even the “Eastern Depot” and so set up the “Western Depot” (xichang) as well, yet another security organ outside of regular bureaucratic channels. The proliferation of security organizations under Xi Jinping today is hauntingly suggestive of this Ming precursor.
Moving away from the “consensus-style leadership” that came to distinguish China since Mao’s repressive rule, Xi Jinping has not only recentralized power, but just as Ming emperors abolished the position of prime minister, he has marginalized the position of the modern-day premier. Instead, he has set up a series of new “leading small groups” (lingdao xiaozu) and made himself head of the most important ones (covering such fields as military reorganization, cyberhacking, economic reform, maritime rights, etc.). More than primus inter pares, Xi has become what Party propaganda organs now grandly tout as the “core” (hexin) of the Party. As a well-known Chinese cultural figure recently complained in private, “Our leadership now has an indelibly ‘dictatorial personality’ (ducaide xingge).”
As popular as Xi’s battle against corruption has been among ordinary people—a 2014 Harvard study showed him as having the highest approval ratings of any world leader—it has had an undeniably chilling effect on anyone hoping to speak truthfully to power. And with its evolution from an anti-corruption drive to a far broader purge of political and ideological rivals, many fear that China is now regressing into a period of neo-Maoism.
Such fears were only reinforced when over the New Year’s holiday Xi made a televised pilgrimage to Jinggangshan where Mao had set up his first revolutionary base in 1927. Here Xi was seen paternalistically “at one with the masses,” sharing a meal with peasants in front of a reverential poster of Chairman Mao. And his trip has generated a great many photographs, news clips, fawning pop tunes, and videos all extolling the benevolence of “Uncle Xi” (Xi dada).
Then in late February, he ordered a yearlong socialist education campaign, especially designed for those comrades who might be experiencing “wavering confidence in communism.” He particularly recommended careful study of Mao’s 1949 essay “Methods of Work for Party Committees.”
The notion that the “Mao Zedong Thought” that had dominated the Cultural Revolution would ever make a comeback in China had long seemed as unlikely as it was unwelcome. But now that China is sliding ineluctably backward into a political climate more reminiscent of Mao Zedong in the 1970s than Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, more and more educated Chinese are making allusions to such frightening periods of Chinese history as the Cultural Revolution and the Ming dynasty. And more and more of them are also seeking to financially anchor themselves abroad by finding ways to park assets outside their country, making it hardly surprising that China has been hemorrhaging foreign currency, with $1 trillion said to have fled the country last year alone.
When in 1978 the twice-purged Deng returned to power to lay out an ambitious reform agenda that allowed post-Mao China to enjoy greater liberalization in both its economic and political life, there was great relief. And during the relatively tolerant decade that followed, prior to Tiananmen Square in 1989, it was possible to imagine that with the passage of time China would not only become more market-oriented, politically open, and committed to the rule of law, but more in the world. Such optimism was only reinforced by such notions as China’s “peaceful rise” propounded later under Hu Jintao.
However, since Xi Jinping’s investiture such roseate hopes of a China slowly evolving away from its Leninist past have become increasingly remote. Indeed, in recent weeks, just as China’s annual “Two Meetings” (the National People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Congress) were being held in Beijing, Xi’s efforts to command greater Party discipline and to censor the media began to provoke surprising levels of popular protest, including a flurry of unprecedented public challenges to both his policies and authority posted on the Internet. For example, an open letter by New China News Agency reporter Zhou Fang criticized censors for their “crude” and “extreme” violations of online freedom of expression. “Under the crude rule of the Internet control authorities,” Zhou wrote, “online expression has been massively suppressed and the public’s freedom of expression has been violated to an extreme degree.”
Zhou’s letter spread like wildfire online before being taken down by censors. Another online letter appeared in the government-linked news site “Watching” (Wujie). It was signed by an anonymous group labeling themselves as “loyal Communist Party members” and not only accused Xi of launching “a cult of personality,” but publicly urged him to step down from office. “You do not possess the capabilities to lead the Party and the nation into the future,” it declared.
His authoritarian style of leadership at home and belligerent posture abroad are ominous because they make China’s chances of being successful in reforming its own economy—on which the entire world now depends—increasingly unlikely. At the same time, because they seem bound to make the Party more dependent on nationalism and xenophobia, Xi’s policies also seem destined to prevent Beijing from being able to recast its inflamed relations with its neighbors around the South and East China seas. Finally, because such policies also grow out of a deeply paranoid view of the democratic world, they make it extremely difficult for China to effectively cooperate with countries like the US on crucial areas of common interests such as antiterrorism, climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation.
Whatever may come, China is undergoing a retrograde change that will require every person, business, and country dealing with it to make a radical reassessment of its willingness to seek convergence with the rest of the world.