On November 15, 2012, one Xi Jinping became the latest General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, thereby also becoming for all practical purposes the supreme leader of China, only the country’s fifth since 1949. At first glance, he seemed cut from the same faceless, technocratic cloth as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, his two immediate predecessors. Indeed, as far as most China watchers were concerned, the most remarkable thing about Xi was how little he had distinguished himself at the national level to date. Analysts in North America and Europe deemed him a leader of modest ambitions and few bold ideas, his tenure likely to be little more than a matter of steady as she goes. Seldom in modern times has the Western brain trust been so wrong about a foreign leader.

Xi Jinping (Υπουργείο Εξωτερικών)

Xi Jinping was a child of privilege. Born in 1953 in Beijing, he was one of a small group of youthful Chinese elites who were, in the immortal diction of George Orwell, more equal than others; he and his peers were sometimes derisively referred to as “the princelings” of Communist China. His father Xi Zhongxun had been a guerrilla fighter for the Communist cause from well before the Long March, and had been rewarded with a high position in Mao Zedong’s new government. The younger Xi attended the best schools and lived in the lap of luxury.

But when the Cultural Revolution began, his family circle did nothing to immunize him from the whiplash chaos — quite the opposite, in fact. The father was purged and imprisoned, and at age fifteen the son was sent down to the countryside near Yan’an — Mao’s own stronghold during the wilderness years of the 1930s and 1940s — for “reeducation.” As soft as one would expect a boy of his upbringing to be, he initially had a rough time of it; he ran back to his mother in Beijing at least once, only to be forcibly returned to the farm. Yet in due course he made his peace with his plight in his mind, even as his body was hardened by backbreaking labor. By the time his exile finally ended, after Mao’s death in 1976, he was a highly respected young man in the region where he lived and worked, known equally for his honesty and his industry.

His father having been rehabilitated at the same time, Xi Jinping was poised to make a place for himself in Deng Xiaoping’s version of China. He remained a man of the countryside, moving from rural posting to rural posting in a steady upward trajectory. Still, few would have pointed to him as either a visionary or a future leader of all of China. He was distinguished not by his words or ideas — he was a dull, even timid public speaker, and as far as anyone could see the very definition of a conventional thinker — but by his competence, and by his complete insusceptibility to the temptations of petty corruption in a country where business and government were intertwined in dangerously convoluted ways. When the Chinese press gave him some attention for the first time, it was because of whom he married rather than anything he did or said: in 1987, he was wed to Peng Liyuan, a singer of popular patriotic pablum, the antithesis of the rabble-rousing rock and roll that Cui Jian would soon be belting out on Tienanmen Square. In interviews, his glamorous wife felt compelled to defend her match with this semi-anonymous government functionary. “I wouldn’t marry a man who I felt was beneath me,” she insisted. “I’m a traditional Chinese woman. I’ll always be subservient to him.”

Xi Jinping didn’t receive a prominent urban posting until 2007, when he was sent to Shanghai to clean up after a series of corruption scandals — a common task for Xi, who had long been recognized within the Party as one of its few untouchables in leadership roles. The following year, he was elevated all the way to the office of Vice President. This was a strange period in China’s recent history. In the West, the country’s rise seemed inexorable; books with names like When China Rules the World, Becoming China’s Bitch, and Death by China imagined the nation as a sort of ultra-efficient, ultra-organized hive mind with which messy democracies couldn’t hope to compete. Within China, however, an emerging oligarchic class with its hands in both the public and private tills was leading to significant discontent and an alarming number of public demonstrations. The Party was slowly coming to the realization that the rampant double-dipping could be its downfall, making Xi’s spotless record ever more of an asset to his career. We know nothing of the campaigning and maneuvering, by himself and/or by others, that must have gone on behind the scenes to make Xi the successor to Hu Jintao. But we do know that he became the top dog in 2012.

Foreign diplomats and press alike now scrambled to figure out who Xi Jinping really was from data points that were decidedly thin on the ground. Only once in his life prior to 2008 had he visited a Western country, but that trip did seem like something of a positive sign. In 1985, he had come to Iowa as the leader of a minor delegation sent to study American farming techniques. The folks he had met there remembered a goal-oriented and businesslike but fundamentally mild-mannered, even sweet-natured man, who had ingratiated himself enough with their communities that he had been invited to spend a few days in the home of one family. The future leader of the most populous nation and the second largest economy on the planet had slept in the bedroom of a temporarily evicted child, surrounded by Star Wars action figures and the other detritus of an indelibly American upbringing. He was never anything but curious and respectful during his stay, no one’s idea of a communist firebrand.

And yet there was much, much more to Xi Jinping than met the eye, as the world would gradually be forced to realize. He proved to be the most assertive leader China had known since Deng Xiaoping, if not Chairman Mao himself. He came to power convinced that China was on the wrong track in many ways, that the Party had become too lax and liberal. Now, he was bent on correcting its course. Earlier inhalations of the Chinese body politic during the Communist era had been sudden and spastic, driven by the whims of Mao or the pressure of events: the end of the Hundred Flowers period and the beginning of the Great Leap Forward; the Cultural Revolution; that fateful decision to send the soldiers into Tienanmen Square. Xi’s inhalation would be more measured and controlled, in keeping with the reserved persona of its architect. But it would be no less relentless for that; in fact, it would only be made that much more effective by its dispassionate methodicalness.

All signs are that the Party first elevated Xi in the hope that he would rein in the corruption that had become so endemic in the daily life of the country. It wasn’t disappointed in this respect; indeed, it may have gotten a good deal more than it bargained for. Xi’s first big project was a thoroughgoing investigation of the work habits and histories of the Party’s officials, from the highest ranks to the lowest. Thousands of those whose ethical standards failed to pass muster — the “tigers and flies,” as Xi called them, who preyed on honest citizens — were subjected to demotion, termination, and in many cases prosecution. That many of the high-ranking tigers were liberals pushing for a more open China, and thus enemies of Xi’s broader political agenda, can be called either a happy coincidence or the real point of the whole endeavor, depending on how charitable one wishes to be to Xi. Either way, the verdict of the people was clear. The house-cleaning ended the tyranny of low-level functionaries with their hands perpetually held out demanding bribes for the most routine of services; it made the lives of countless ordinary people better in a very direct way. And this in turn made Xi Jinping by all indications genuinely popular.

But Xi was no populist by disposition. At the end of the day, he saw the billion and a half people over whom he ruled as a threat to his power rather than its wellspring. During the final stages of his ascent to the General Secretary post, a so-called “Arab Spring” had taken place: the populations of many of the authoritarian nations of the Middle East had risen up en masse against their geriatric leaders, and succeeded in toppling four regimes outright. Xi took this lesson to heart; in his worldview, it joined the collapse of the Soviet Union as a vivid example of the fate that could all too easily befall the Chinese Communist Party if it failed to be vigilant. It wasn’t lost on him that most of the Arab Spring’s organizing had been done online, through social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Therefore, when he came to power, he was fixated on making any similar online incitement impossible in China. The result was a program of digital surveillance and censorship of a scope and breadth that dwarfed even the not-inconsiderable one he had inherited from Hu Jintao. “Without cybersecurity there is no national security,” said Xi in 2014, couching the program in terms with which many a democratic leader would doubtless agree. It was all too easy to lose sight of what Xi really meant by “national security”: not the security of the nation of China itself, but the security of the Communist Party as the undisputed arbiter of all aspects of life within it. The overarching goal was and is to prevent any and all forms of activist solidarity from taking shape on the Internet, to keep those holding views contrary to those of the Party isolated, scared, and as few in number as possible.

Under Xi Jinping, the Party also began to preach a related and equally innocuous-sounding doctrine, that of “cyber-sovereignty.” Rather than a single open Internet, it posited a balkanized set of national networks, exchanging information only when and as the governments that ran them saw fit. “Cyber-sovereignty seeks to establish an international, as opposed to global, Internet,” writes the tech journalist James Griffiths. “Instead of the World Wide Web as we know it, countries would each maintain their own national Internet, by force if necessary, with the border controls and immigration standards they see fit.”

In that spirit, China locked out the firms whose names have become almost synonymous with the Web in the eyes of the West, replacing them with domestic alternatives that were much easier to censor and spy on. Today, Chinese citizens shop on Taobao instead of Amazon; use Baidu Search and Baidu Maps instead of Google; stay in touch using WeChat instead of Facebook and WhatsApp. Being homegrown, these services suit the Party’s nationalistic propaganda agenda. Even more importantly, they provide it with a ringside view into its citizens’ digital lives; being an open book for the Party is a precondition of their existence. Tens of thousands of human censors comb through their data trails every day, looking for anomalies among the citizenry, whether they take the shape of open defiance or the merest hint of disloyalty. This human labor being highly inefficient, the Chinese government under Xi has invested large sums of money into artificial-intelligence research, in the expectation that it will someday be able to automate the work entirely.

The population’s physical existences are monitored just as extensively as their online ones, again through digital means. Half the world’s closed-circuit television cameras are installed in China, connected to facial-recognition systems that are becoming ever better at identifying any one of the country’s billion and a half people at a glance. By combining the surveillance images with mobile-phone trackers and the like, automated systems are able to perform spot checks on randomly selected citizens, finding out where they go throughout their day, whom they meet, in many cases even exactly what they say to their interlocutors. If the ever-improving artificial intelligence that scours all this data finds cause for concern, it can bring it to the attention of a human analyst for a deeper look and possible intervention. All told, it is a set of tools for which the totalitarian leaders of the past would have given their right arms. Whereas they had to rely on such blunt instruments as mass imprisonments and mass executions, Xi’s Communist Party can steer the lives and speech if not the thoughts of modern China’s people with surgical precision.

That said, there are situations where it has judged a more old-fashioned, broad-based approach to repression to be most appropriate. What with its conviction that any lapse in conformity represents a threat to its rule, the Party has made life extremely difficult for those in Outer China of other ethnicities and/or cultural persuasions than Han Chinese. Its brutal treatment of Mongolians, Tibetans, and Uyghurs — all rich, aged cultures with their own social and religious customs and their own languages, who were once lucky enough to be more or less left alone by the central government, thanks to their sheer distance from Beijing — has attracted widespread condemnation from the likes of the United Nations and Amnesty International since Xi Jinping came to power. The details of what is really going on in their home regions are obscured by government censorship, but they appear to involve concentration camps where hundreds of thousands or millions of people at a time are forcibly separated from their traditions and “reeducated” into the sanctioned ways of Inner China. Cultural genocide may not be too strong a term for what China is practicing in its hinterlands. And there are credible accusations that it is renting its prisoners out to Foxconn to make iPhones while it is about it — a winning arrangement for everyone but the slaves laboring long hours on the production lines.

There is nothing sadder than watching people who have become accustomed to even a modicum of freedom lose that precious gift. That is true in the case of Outer China’s ethnic minorities, and it is equally true in the case of Hong Kong, whose Faustian bargain with the Communists finally came home to roost during Xi’s tenure.

For some years after Xi’s ascent, Hong Kong mostly escaped the central government’s digital-surveillance regime and many of the other trappings of life in an authoritarian state. It was even allowed to continue to operate its own independent judiciary. In 2019, however, the Party moved decisively to change that by introducing a bill in the Hong Kong legislature that would make it possible for “criminals” — a category that included political activists — to be extradited back to the mainland for trial and punishment. The violent reaction to the bill seems to have taken Xi by surprise; in an unnerving echo of Tienanmen Square in 1989, roiling waves of protest, mostly by university students, clogged the streets and brought the city to a virtual standstill. For once, Xi lost his nerve; the Party backed down and withdrew the bill. But it was only a temporary, tactical retreat. Anyone who had watched Xi Jingping’s first seven years in office with any degree of thoughtfulness could sense that he would be back sooner rather than later to finish the job. Hong Kong was still living on borrowed time — and now that time was fast running out.

Much of the messaging of the Hong Kong protestors was self-consciously crafted for the Western gaze, but it was rewarded with no notable sanctions or interventions. (Studio Incendo)

The young people who did the bulk of the protesting in Hong Kong were a plugged-in bunch. The placards they waved so frantically before the world’s television cameras were as often as not written in English, being pleas for international attention and support at this, their city’s most desperate hour of need. But sadly, the slogans they bore about democracy and universal human rights seemed almost anachronistic at this juncture, when democracy itself, and with it the post-Second World War liberal order that the protestors wanted their city to continue to inhabit, were widely considered to be in retreat. An inward-turned Britain that had just shocked the world by deciding to withdraw from the European Union was in no shape to do more than feebly protest China’s blatant violation of the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement that had returned Hong Kong to its original owner in 1997. Meanwhile Donald Trump, the real-estate mogul and reality-show star who had been elected president of the United States in 2016, all too obviously felt more at home with the world’s authoritarians than its democrats. Hong Kong was on its own, just like Outer China’s ethnic minorities.

In truth, there was more behind the West’s toothlessness when it came to Xi’s China than just the recent crisis of confidence in liberal democracy. China was deeply embedded in international finances, in supply chains — in short, in all manner of business. These entanglements came complete with huge financial incentives to look the other way. Since the 1980s, the Western establishment’s narrative about China had been that trade would inevitably lead to liberalization as the standard of living rose and a growing middle class came to expect the same basic rights as their peers in other countries. In many or most cases, this argument was honestly believed, but it was at the same time self-serving, yet another example of our bottomless human ability to find reasons to believe that which we would most like to believe: “We can best help the people of China by getting rich along with them!” It presumed that a more open, representative form of government in China would somehow just happen, perhaps in the same way that the Soviet Union had quietly packed its bags and left the world stage. It failed to reckon with the fact that Party members like Xi Jinping were thinking hard every day about that same event, and taking steps to ensure that their rule would be more enduring.

The fact is that trade with China has created a complex matrix of compromised relationships from which none of us can claim to stand fully apart. Even Sue Lin-Wong, the host of a recent podcast that is highly critical of China’s current government, admits that

I like my iPhone, and my iPhone is made in China. If it wasn’t made in China, it’d be much, much more expensive. But as my podcast series looks at, there are accusations that Apple is using forced labor in Xinjiang [the province of Outer China where the Uyghurs live]. And even if those accusations are not true, Apple is engaging with the Chinese Communist Party. That raises a bunch of really, really tricky questions. If we believe, as I do, that the Communist Party is committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, how do we square that circle?

It is, to state the obvious, quite a conundrum. Do you happen to be reading this book on a Kindle e-reader? If so, you are complicit; Foxconn makes Kindles as well. Of course, I am equally complicit for selling it to you in that format; you will find no finger-pointing here. Trade with China really has benefited billions of people in tangible ways, both inside and outside of the country. But it has also aided and abetted an authoritarian regime that has made the lives of hundreds of millions of people — among them some of the same people the trade has benefited — substantially worse in other ways, even as it has spoiled much of China’s natural environment and that of the whole world for generations to come. Anyone who claims to see absolute moral clarity in this morass has earned only our suspicion as to their real agenda.

There are many stories to tell of Western acquiescence to China’s less savory aspects, of outrage traded away for cheaper production costs and access to an emerging consumer marketplace of extraordinary size and scope. One of them is perhaps especially telling, precisely because it doesn’t involve the usual suspects in the tech sector; it rather involves the National Basketball Association, the premier basketball league of the United States and by extension the world. “Professional American basketball has become a case study in how the Communist Party controls what foreigners can and can’t say about China,” says Sue Lin-Wong.

Basketball exploded in popularity in China in 2002, when the Houston Rockets became the first NBA team in history to draft a Chinese citizen. Yao Ming, at fully seven and a half feet (2.29 meters) freakishly tall even by NBA standards, became a national folk hero, prompting a mad scramble for the rights to show his games on Chinese television. Suddenly a new generation of Chinese youths was shooting hoops in backyards and back lots, just like their peers in the United States, all of them dreaming of being like Yao someday. In 2004, when the Rockets came to China in person to play two preseason games, it was the entertainment spectacle of the year. By 2010, basketball in general was the most popular sport of all in China, with the NBA posting television ratings there that often surpassed the number of viewers in the league’s home country. The phenomenon was frequently held up as a model example of sport as a vehicle for cross-cultural understanding, of globalization as a positive force. For the NBA, this particular cultural exchange meant buckets and buckets of extra income, a bumper dividend on a tiny investment.

Arguably more so than any other professional sports league, the NBA has always been supportive of its players who have something to say about the world beyond the court, to the point of letting them play in jerseys emblazoned with explicitly political, sometimes controversial slogans. “I encourage all of you not to stick to sports,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver directly to his players on one occasion. But his support of free speech proved to have limits when it came to the subject of China.

On October 4, 2019, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets — the very team that had kick-started the NBA’s China breakthrough — tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protestors’ “fight for freedom.” The Communist Party’s response was immediate and furious: it took the NBA off the air in China the very next day. And so the genuflecting began. The Rockets’ ownership and the NBA’s management disavowed Morey’s comments, while the latter deleted his tweet and apologized. A chorus of prominent players — including many who were known for their political activism at home — added to the drumbeat of criticism of Morey rather than China. “We all have freedom of speech,” said LeBron James, the first athlete ever to become a billionaire on the basketball court. “But at times there are ramifications…” Coincidentally or not, Daryl Morey stepped down as the Rockets’ general manager the following year, at just about the same time that the Party finally deemed the NBA to have shown sufficient contrition and deigned to allow its games to appear on Chinese television again, having by now deprived the league of billions of dollars in revenue in recompense for a seven-word tweet.

Feckless capitulations like that of the NBA have done nothing to increase Xi Jinping’s respect for the West. He sees the democratic world as tired and decadent, emasculated and fractious, its citizens too busy squabbling about all of their tiresome “rights” to pay heed to the institutional decay all around them, much less stop the rise of a strong, unified China. This message, far more contemptuous and aggressive in tone toward the West than anything heard in China since the days of Chairman Mao, was already being blared ceaselessly in state media well before 2019. Anyone who got in China’s way, Xi said, would “have their heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel.” His government’s tone when conducting diplomacy with the outside world could be almost as uncompromising. Xi and his henchmen took to dressing-down foreign leaders and journalists who dared to question China’s record on human rights, telling them pointedly to tend to their own houses first and then naming their own latest domestic scandal du jour — i.e., classic whataboutism, an often politically effective if almost always disingenuous mode of argument. This stance came to be known as “Wolf Warrior diplomacy,” after a 2015 Chinese blockbuster about an elite special unit of the People’s Liberation Army that goes into action on the country’s border against a loathsome American-led mercenary band — think a sort of Chinese Rambo, demonstrating in its every frame how much it has learned from Hollywood’s way with popcorn flicks, even as it reverses the tables of heroes and villains.

The film’s sequel, 2017’s ingenuously titled Wolf Warrior 2, is China’s most successful single movie of all time, and provides an even more telling illustration of Xi’s newly muscular stance toward the world. The action takes place this time in an unnamed West African country in the throes of a pointless civil war that is being egged on by yet more evil Europeans and Americans, until the Chinese swoop in to punish those real instigators. At the end of the film, our heroes are driving toward their home base, exhausted and out of ammunition after winning the final fight against the Westerners, when they are ambushed by a notorious gang of African outlaws. Their position looks dire — until the heroes unfurl their flag. “Hold your fire!” shouts the rebel leader. “It’s the Chinese!” Then he and his men stand and watch at respectful attention as the convoy drives past. The Great White Hope in Africa has become the Great Chinese Hope, the film informs us with all the subtlety of a jackhammer.

The movie reflects Xi Jinping’s two biggest foreign-policy projects, which are really one in spirit: a “Belt and Road Initiative” and a “Maritime Silk Road.” (Whatever else one can say about it, the modern Communist Party does have a certain genius for snazzy branding.) These massive aid programs have invested hundreds of billions of dollars into the still-developing nations of Central and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the South Pacific, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Needless to say, the aid comes with some strings attached. The ultimate aim is to create a “community of common destiny,” as Xi has put it. China’s container ships will fill its client states’ ports like the dragon fleet of Zheng He did 600 years ago, as China becomes the Middle Kingdom once again, the sun in their collective sky to which they all pay homage. “A global network of partnerships centered on China would replace the U.S. system of treaty alliances,” says the China scholar Liza Tobin by way of summarizing Xi’s grand vision. “The international community would regard Beijing’s authoritarian governance model as a superior alternative to Western electoral democracy, and the world would credit the Communist Party of China for developing a new path to peace, prosperity, and modernity that other countries can follow.”

China’s bid to become the first new superpower to arise since the end of the Second World War naturally requires a powerful military. A steady buildup was already underway before 2012, and Xi has accelerated it enormously; China’s annual military spending surpassed $250 billion in 2020, making it the second biggest spender in the world after the United States, with almost four times as big a budget as third-place India. Its navy is already the largest in the world, although it still lacks fast, full-sized nuclear aircraft carriers to challenge the queens of the American fleet. But don’t worry, China’s military planners would doubtless say; we’ll get there.

Following his election in November of 2016, President Trump proved to be an ideal foil for Xi’s Wolf Warrior rhetoric. After years of measured speech from the various administrations that occupied the White House, emphasizing the old theory of economic engagement leading to political freedom in China, Trump’s bellicose claims that China was “raping” the United States through unfair trade deals played right into Xi’s narrative of a Western world that feared China’s rise and was implacably opposed to its interests; this was foreign news that the Party’s censors were happy to let through the Great Firewall. Less welcome were the raft of tariffs which Trump put in place, but they did give Xi the chance to play the responsible adult in a world that felt suddenly rudderless to many national governments, accustomed as they were to a relatively stable, sober-minded United States. In his more ebullient moments, Xi must have gloated that Trump was doing much of the work of destroying the United States’s international credibility for him.

Meanwhile Xi was accruing more and more internal power to himself. Since Jiang Zemin had replaced Deng Xiaoping as China’s de-facto supreme leader in the early 1990s, the post of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party had coincided with the title of President of China. The latter had a legally enshrined limit of two five-year terms, which Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had each abided by, resigning their posts after the requisite ten years. When Xi Jinping was duly awarded his own second term after completing his first five years in both positions, no one outside China yet suspected that would change. But the world was surprised to learn in March of 2018 that the presidential term limit had just been lifted, clearing the way for Xi to rule for the rest of his life if he so wished. It was the clearest signal yet to the outside world that China’s latest leader was an exceptionally strong one.

Those inside China, on the other hand, had long since come to realize the same thing. After decades of blandly technocratic rule, the Party was now creating a cult of personality around Xi Jinping like nothing seen since the death of Mao Zedong. Its propaganda machine trotted out honorifics for Xi that had last been applied to Mao, such as “The Great Helmsman,” while turning the story of his life into a mythology; the people were told that the young Xi of the Cultural Revolution era used to walk from village to village with a 200-pound (90-kilogram) sack of grain slung casually over one shoulder. Just as it did with Mao, the Party embedded Xi’s personality cult into its very constitution, which was rewritten in 2017 with copious references to “Xi Jinping Thought.” School textbooks were rewritten on the same basis. “Government, the military, society, and schools,” says Xi. “North, south, east, and west: the Party controls them all.” In 2019, the Party introduced a mobile app whose name puns on “Study” and “Learn from Xi,” which are near-homonyms in Mandarin Chinese. Party members are expected to use the app daily; Sue Lin-Wong calls it “an ideological fitness tracker.” Users’ scores on its fill-in-the-blank quizzes are ranked alongside those of their peers, with deleterious effects on the careers of those who are insufficiently studious.

Xi’s portrait is displayed alongside Mao’s in many public settings, something that was never true of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, or Hu Jintao. (Public Domain)

Xi himself is not an intellectual. Most of what is called Xi Jinping Thought is actually the product of a close advisor named Wang Huning. Wang first made a name for himself in the late 1980s, when he claimed to have identified the political and social weaknesses of the West in a book that is still widely read in China. It is called America against America — a reference to the fractiousness of democracy that, he said, must eventually tear those nations which attempt to practice it apart. The most striking aspect of Wang’s philosophy — and the most obvious place where it differs from Mao Zedong Thought — is its essentially conservative character; some of Wang’s dicta would ring a sympathetic chord in the likes of Edmund Burke. The Communist Party has had a conflicted, ever-shifting relationship with China’s long past over the years. But Xi Jinping stands today at the forefront of a new school of authoritarian or would-be authoritarian leaders — other names include Vladimir Putin, Victor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jair Bolsonaro, and Donald Trump — who pitch themselves as a traditionalist bulwark against the bewildering currents of post-modernity: multiculturalism, secularism, feminism, alternative gender and sexual identities.

China’s reconciliation with its past started early in the Xi Jinping era. In 2013, 47 years after Mao’s Red Guards had trashed Confucius’s temple in his hometown of Qufu, Xi made a pilgrimage there, just as the Chinese emperors of old had once done. He formally apologized for the actions of the Red Guards, and promised to use the sage’s teachings as a guide in governing China henceforward. “Our nation will be full of hope as long as the Chinese pursuit of a beautiful and lofty moral realm continues from generation to generation,” he said. New Confucian temples began to pop up all over China thereafter, with the full blessing of the state, whose media reported on them enthusiastically. One Party-sanctioned thinker said that Chinese society lacked “core values. Our country is like a young person whose bones and muscles are growing too fast. The development of spiritual cultivation has not caught up to the physical growth. Restoring core values will build up the mind.”

Xi and Wang wish to reintegrate the tale of Communist China with the rest of the country’s history, to put a stop to the rejection of their own glorious past which many Chinese have been engaging in for more than 150 years, since at least the time of the Taiping Rebellion. Of course, to thus legitimize China’s imperial incarnation goes against the most basic tenets of Marxism and Maoism — but then, China ceased to manifest any serious aspirations toward genuine communism as soon as Mao Zedong died.

The process of historical acceptance and reintegration may sound like a harmless or even healthy step in theory, but in practice a revival of the past inevitably entails a revival of past prejudices. The women of China are among the unfortunate victims of this tendency. Mao once told the Chinese people that “women hold up half the sky”; Xi’s propaganda largely relegates them once more to the inferior position in which they have lived for the vast majority of China’s existence. By far their most important roles in society, the Chinese are now told, are those of the dutiful wife and the strict but loving mother. (These campaigns are partly driven by a serious demographic crisis in China, which brings with it an urgent need for more children; we’ll return to this subject before this book is finished.) Granted, gender equality even in Mao’s China was far from a lived reality. Nevertheless, there is a melancholy significance to the fact that the Party under Xi has stopped giving it even lip service.

This, then, was Xi Jinping’s China as the second decade of the 21st century drew to a close. On the one side, it was a Middle Kingdom reborn, the fastest-rising nation in the history of the world in purely economic terms, a superpower of the past ready to reclaim its heritage in a geopolitical environment where the seeming decline of Western democracy left it plenty of space to maneuver. On the other, it was a repressive police state with absolutely no respect for the sovereignty of the individual, a nation whose many rules and limits were enforced with a cold-blooded, calculated precision that was also like nothing yet seen in the history of the world. And then, in the very last days of the decade, came one of those wildcards that history serves up from time to time to flummox all of humanity’s best-laid plans.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. Pledge any amount you like on Patreon.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

11 Comments for "Chapter 28: A Slow Inhalation"

  • Phil B.

    I just want to say that this series has been particularly fascinating. Perhaps what I really mean is “surprisingly” so; at first I thought the long further discussion about China in the modern age was besides the point, but I’m engrossed. I always knew I’d love reading about other ancient wonders, but this particular one has been a revelation. Thanks for the excellent read.

  • Martin

    “Cultural genocide” is a nonsensical term. “Cultural deracination” is probably what you mean.

    > multiculturalism, secularism, feminism, *and* alternative gender and sexual identities.

    Nicely written.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Why is it nonsensical? The first definition I see is “the attempted destruction of a group’s culture, religion, and identity.” That seems exactly appropriate.

      • Martin

        ‘Geno’ is like genetics or genome. ‘Cide’ is like pesticide or herbicide. Genocide is the elimination of a species or ethnic group. Culture-cide is what you’re talking about. Everyone says “cultural genocide”, though, so it’s a common error. I think it’s important to distinguish whether or not people are being intentionally killed. I think the Armenian genocide, for example, was people actually being killed.

        • Jimmy Maher

          I’m all for precise use of language, but you may be overthinking this one, my friend. 😉 An etymology such as the one you’re attempting is better done with reference to a classical rather than a scientific dictionary.

          • Martin

            I can only appeal to authority on this one. Conrad Black is brainy and literate, and he wrote:
            “Cultural genocide is nonsense, sophomoric pyrotechnics to elicit unmerited shame and what is meant is deculturation or cultural deracination…”

            A major news item out of Canada conflated “cemetary” with “mass grave”, the latter having associations with war crimes. This was related to purported treatment of indigenous by those of European descent. Language is important, as you know. Canadian history shouldn’t be smeared baselessly.

            I’m willing to condede defeat on this one, but it would be defeat to a majority of imprecise speakers who use “literally” to mean “emphatically”, and such things. I’m fairly sure (but one can never be certain, because of the imprecise language) that some people who say ‘cultural genocide’ are meaning that killing was part of the policy. In any case, it’s a term seemingly designed for propaganda purposes.

            Keep up the good work.

  • Tim Kaiser

    In the first paragraph, “Indeed, as far as most China watcher were concerned” should be China watchers” ?

    I’ve also been enjoying the series!

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Mark

    A very minor quibble in an otherwise excellent summary – Alibaba is the parent company but Taobao is their online shopping platform that’s the closest analogue to in China.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • morg

    > The fact is that trade with China has created a web of compromised relationships from which none of us can claim to stand fully apart.

    > There are many stories to tell of Western acquiescence to China’s less savory aspects, of moral outrage traded away for cheaper production costs and access to an emerging consumer marketplace of extraordinary size and scope.

    Your passive-voice hedging here is even still very generous indeed to the West. China didn’t become the industrial center of the world on its own and then go looking to ensnare originally-innocent if feckless foreign corporations! Those corporations and the governments drafting trade agreements on their behalf were active participants in the process from the start, driven (by capitalist imperatives, one notes) to lower their manufacturing costs, torpedoes be damned, and where they didn’t find a willing Chinese partner they turned to Bangladesh, Vietnam, and the global South more generally. Lower wages, laxer worker protections, and occasionally worse, in China as elsewhere, were not unforeseen consequences of offshoring production so global North companies could focus on the more profitable games of financialization — they were the _point_.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RSS Articles Feed
RSS Comments Feed
Twitter: DigiAntiquarian

All writings on this site except reader comments are copyright Jimmy Maher. All rights reserved.