Why is Xi Jinping the reformer resorting to rule by fear?

After what seemed like an initial reformist turn, Chinese President Xi Jinping appears to be changing course. Soon after taking power in late 2012, he dropped references to Marxism and Mao Zedong thought and came up with an impressive reform blueprint.

More recently, though, he seems to be moving in the opposite direction. He has detained human rights lawyers, reined in the media and allowed a personality cult around him.

This apparent zigzag has led some to jest that he is the son of his reformer father, Mr Xi Zhongxun - who helped launch the Shenzhen economic zone - but also the grandson of Mao Zedong.

The late Mao encouraged the Chinese to openly express their views in the Hundred Flowers movement only to abruptly change course and crack down on those critical of the regime in an anti-rightist campaign. Mao later unleashed the devastating Cultural Revolution.

And indeed Mr Xi, 62, has borrowed some moves from the Great Helmsman's playbook - for example, his year-long "mass line" campaign launched in 2013, "mass line" being a term coined by Mao to describe the need for party leaders to stay in touch with the people and to understand their views.

He has also amassed a lot of power by putting himself at the head of several key leading small groups in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the government that craft the policies and coordinate the work of various agencies.


Chinese President Xi arriving for the second plenary session of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing earlier this month. PHOTO: REUTERS

But what has caused a chill in Chinese society is the rise of "rule by fear", as described by some China watchers, through such acts as televised confessions, abductions, surveillance of civil society organisations and the crackdown on human rights lawyers and social media.

All this led one political adviser to remark that people are less willing to talk now. He was speaking earlier this month, at the start of meetings of the country's top advisory body - the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference(CPPCC) - and the national Parliament - the National People's Congress.

Mr Jiang Hong, a CPPCC delegate, told the Caixin news website that advisers like himself should be free to give the CCP and government agencies suggestions on economic, political, cultural and societal issues. "However, influenced by certain events, everyone is a little dazed and doesn't want to talk too much. That's what the atmosphere is like now," he said, as reported by Caixin on March 3.

The article, in Chinese, was removed on March 5 by the Cyberspace Administration, a government censorship unit for the Internet, for containing "illegal content".

But what has brought on this seeming change in direction? Is Mr Xi a conservative or reformer?

It is true that his style would be influenced by his personal experience - growing up under Mao during a time of great upheaval, including the Cultural Revolution - and would include elements of the earlier communist period, such as the mass-line campaign.

But the contradictory signals could well be because he is not in full control of things despite having concentrated power very quickly. Chinese politics is also entering a sensitive period, with the looming 19th party congress, due late next year, and the beginning of jostling for key positions in the party, particularly the five in the apex seven-member Politburo Standing Committee that are up for grabs.

At a Chinese New Year celebration last month of princelings (the children of revolutionaries, like Mr Xi), one of their number warned that China was facing a "complex and fluctuating situation" and that the CCP was facing ideological "chaos" and a graft problem that would need more time to fix.

While Mr Xi may not have pleased the elites, some of whom think he has gone too far and others that he has not gone far enough, his anti-graft drive has made him popular with the masses.

On March 4, an anonymous letter with the byline "loyal Communist Party supporters" appeared on the government-backed website, Watching, calling for Mr Xi to resign and accusing him of gaining excessive power and creating a personality cult. The letter was quickly taken down.

A Beijing-based freelance journalist in his 30s, Mr Jia Jia, was taken away on March 15 by police at a Beijing airport while on his way to Hong Kong. This came after he warned a Watching editor about the letter.

Reports last Saturday indicated that he had been released. In all, some 20 people were reported to have been arrested in connection with the letter.

As early as 2013, independent scholar Wu Jiaxiang in an interview with the Yazhou Zhoukan magazine said Mr Xi was forced to change direction because of a conservative backlash against his early reformist moves. These included the detention of Sichuan deputy party secretary Li Chuncheng for graft in 2012, right after Mr Xi took power as general secretary of the party. At the same time, he faces pressure from liberals to push ahead with reform, in particular, political reform.

However, Mr Wu and some other Chinese scholars have little doubt that Mr Xi is a reformer - perhaps not going far enough for the West, but a reformer nonetheless.

Soon after coming to power, he launched an anti-graft and austerity drive to tackle the deep corruption and profligacy among party cadres that were alienating the people and threatening the party's legitimacy. He has said that corruption poses a life and death threat to both the party and the nation.

In November 2013 at the Third Plenum of the current party congress, sweeping social and economic reforms were announced, including relaxation of the one-child policy, loosening control of the markets, opening up some sectors monopolised by the state-owned enterprises to the private sector, land reforms and social welfare reforms.

The following year, the Fourth Plenum outlined important legal reforms aimed at strengthening rule of law and governance, including the setting up of circuit courts to bolster judicial independence and professional training of lawmakers, judges and lawyers. The strengthening of institutions such as the judiciary, while not going far enough for liberals wanting to see democratic change, is a political reform in the right direction.

Such reforms, undoubtedly, are also aimed at strengthening the CCP, which princelings like Mr Xi would see as their mission. The other objective is to rejuvenate China after its so-called century of humiliation. Mr Xi in his "southern tour" speech in December 2012 made it clear that China would not go the way of the Soviet Union and the CPP that of the Soviet Communist Party, which were undone by too-fast political reform.

But Mr Xi's reforms have come up against the strong headwinds of a slowing economy, massive lay-offs and a weakening global economy . They are also meeting strong resistance from vested interest groups trying to protect their turfs.

In the face of dissent, the lively social media scene was tamed by shutting up bloggers with huge followings, such as retired real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who have been vocal in criticising the government and demanding change.

To marshal the mainstream media's support of the government, Mr Xi last month visited three key state media bodies - Central China TV, the Xinhua news agency and the People's Daily - and reminded them of their duty to "serve the Party".

The tightening of control of the media has moved even the editor of the nationalistic Global Times, Mr Hu Xijin, to call for "greater tolerance" of criticism.

While Mr Xi may not have pleased the elites, some of whom think he has gone too far and others that he has not gone far enough, his anti-graft drive has made him popular with the masses. It does not hurt that Mr Xi and his attractive wife, Ms Peng Liyuan, make a charming First Couple and that attempts to present him as down to earth and close to the people - queuing up for pork buns and holding his own umbrella - have worked.

Mr Xi has done a lot to clean up the party and draw up his reform agenda. It is perhaps time to use some of the political capital he has accumulated to loosen up a little and give the people the room to get that agenda going - both to be able to debate and to take action with less fear.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'Why is Xi the reformer resorting to rule by fear?'. Print Edition | Subscribe