Elected as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party less than three years ago, Xi Jinping now stands unchallenged at the top of China’s power pyramid. Mr. Xi controls not only the party as general secretary, but also the government as president, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as chairman of the Central Military Commission. The collective leadership practiced by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since the death of Chairman Mao is largely a thing of the past.
In a ploy familiar to students of one-party dictatorships, Xi Jinping has used the pretext of an anti-corruption campaign to purge supporters of his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. This, more than anything else, makes it clear to their respective factions — and to everyone else in China, for that matter — that their one-time patrons no longer have the power to protect them. Astonishingly, even Mr. Jiang’s own sons have fallen victim.
If this were all Mr. Xi had done, he could be compared to Deng Xiaoping, who had the hapless Hua Guofeng removed as Chinese Communist Party chairman back in 1978, or Jiang Zemin, who insisted that his Politburo contemporaries retire after Deng’s death so as to clear the field for his unfettered rule. But Mr. Xi seems to be harking back to an earlier model of leadership.
His personality cult already rivals that of the Great Helmsman — he is known as Big Daddy Xi to his adoring public — and several books of his speeches and sayings have already been published a la Mao and have sold millions of copies.
Mr. Xi’s benignly smiling visage can be seen everywhere, as Mao’s once was. He is a fixture on the front pages of party newspapers. He beams down from posters that people put up in their living rooms. His face even adorns the red-tasseled good luck charms that people hang from the rear-view mirrors of their cars, as if he were the new patron saint of road safety.
Under Mr. Xi’s rule, the Chinese people are not waving “The Quotations of President Xi” in the air or dancing in the streets, as they did under Mao. At least not yet. But the level of public adulation, stoked by the state media, is in the rise. And people are singing Big Daddy’s praises, so far voluntarily.
One song that has gone viral is called “China has produced a Big Daddy Xi.” As every living Chinese knows, this is a riff on “The East is Red,” which begins with the line, “China has produced a Mao Zedong.” Other songs similarly fete Big Daddy as a loving father to his people, as the scourge of the corrupt and powerful, and the leader who will realize the “strong China dream” of China “Dreamers,” namely, PRC pre-eminence.
What has emerged from the boiling cauldron of Chinese factional politics, in other words, is a figure familiar to students of recent Chinese history. It is clear to this China watcher that China’s new emperor is self-consciously modeling himself on the “first emperor” of the PRC dynasty, Mao Zedong.
The world should take notice, since Mr. Xi obviously shares Mao’s expansive view of China’s dominant role abroad. China’s increasingly bellicose behavior in the South China Sea and elsewhere is not a result of a PLA general or two going rogue, which would be worrisome enough, but of the entire PLA military establishment reflecting the bounding ambitions of its new emperor.
What does the increasing concentration of power into Xi Jinping’s hands mean for the United States and the rest of the world? First of all, it means that our own “America dream” that China would, by embracing elements of the free market, peacefully evolve into a nation that respected human rights and individual liberty is bootless. The Middle Kingdom is instead moving in the other direction, arresting dissidents, passing new laws restricting freedom of speech and association, in short, turning backward toward the same kind of imperial system of governance that it imposed on its people for over 2,000 years.
This, in turn, means that it is now almost impossible to imagine circumstances under which China will simply integrate itself into the existing, U.S.-dominated, world order. Whatever concessions the United States makes to China’s growing power, Xi Jinping has far grander ambitions on the global stage than merely playing second fiddle to America.
The vast majority of Mr. Xi’s compatriots share his “China Dream” of a world in which China is the pre-eminent power. But, in the end, it is Mr. Xi’s views that matter most. The new Chinese emperor, who is only 62 years old, is a good bet to continue to rule China for a couple of decades to come.
• Steven W. Mosher is the president of the Population Research Institute and the author of numerous books about China.