Xi Jinping embodies a point of discontinuity within recent Chinese history. The “golden decade” of China, the period from 2002 to 2012, was a country marked by double-digit growth, able to organize Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 and the Expo in Shanghai in 2010, both events considered successful. It was also the country that, after the period of Deng’s Reforms, had been able to find a place within the global economic establishment, guiding its economy in a planned manner and able to defend it against harmful external influences, to such an extent that the financial crisis of 2008 hit Beijing only indirectly, causing difficulties for its exports model.
The China of that period was a country led by the Communist Party, not without controversy on human rights issues, but whose technocratic leadership abilities were recognized, able to steer the Chinese ship in the desired direction. The “leadership” was spoken of in a generic way, and for good reason: Then-leader Hu Jintao was not on the International media’s radar. Few remember his theoretical contribution, the “scientific development” of Chinese socialism, as he cut a gray, unremarkable figure, diluted among the collective leadership of the party.
But in 2012, everything changed. Xi rose to the position of secretary of the party and president of the People’s Republic. At that point he was viewed as a “sign of continuity” with the past.
Reality, from the very beginning, proved otherwise. What was to be a “peaceful” transition brought to light a violent struggle within the party. Bo Xilai was the one made to pay the price, tied to an ultra-nationalist clique. Today Bo is in prison on a life sentence, while Xi, after the party Congress, which began today, will probably be the strongest leader that China has ever had.
And if his current appointment to lead the country for the next five years is not counted, there is a serious possibility that his mandate could last for 15 years. He has concentrated in himself more of the powers Mao Zedong once had, and, with his anti-corruption campaign, presented himself as the problem solver for the greatest of China’s ills, gaining popular support and credibility. He placed the military, national security and economy under himself. He was named the “heart” of the Communist Party, and “Xi Jinping Thought” will end up immortalized in the Constitutional Charter of the Communist Party, together with “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory,” a guideline bearing his name that will last as long as the Party itself. In effect, Xi is not only the most powerful man in China right now, but the most powerful since the birth of the People’s Republic.
This concentration of powers occurred with regard to both domestic and, most importantly, foreign policy. The “new Chinese dream,” or the desire to bring the country back to its rightful place at the center of the world, “the rebirth of the Chinese nation,” a mix of image-focused initiatives very similar to “soft power” (for example, football and cinema) combined with “smart power” (outright economic acquisition), is the fulcrum which Xi used to put China back at the center of the global stage. And he has designed a plan of “Chinese-style globalization” for the future, which is to say the New Silk Road.
This is a paternalistic, certainly hegemonic, and definitely nationalistic type of globalization, very far from the muscular American version. Internally, Xi has pushed for innovation, robotics, artificial intelligence, Big Data, and for a closer intertwining of public and private, to the point of wanting the state to have a stake in the flagship companies of the all-new “made in China,” which no longer stands for cheap knockoffs but for leaders in e-commerce (Alibaba) and apps (WeChat).
Who could stop him? According to the Wall Street Journal, in this China the danger could come from billionaires. But Xi has already shown that he knows how to handle them: by having them arrested. So this is what China will be: a country increasingly focused on expanding the middle class as much as possible and on boosting its international role. But all in the hands of one person, which has not happened for a long time.
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