Populism in the Middle Kingdom

The Communist Party of China has run the People’s Republic in an authoritarian manner since the end of 1949. Since he rose to the top of party and state in late 2012, Xi Jinping has been reversing timid steps towards the rule of law and re-centralising power. He is promoting aggressive nationalism, but does not appreciate citizens’ rights.
Xi’s personality cult is reminiscent of Mao. picture-alliance/AP Photo Xi’s personality cult is reminiscent of Mao.

Xi will not tolerate any centre of power, unless he is part of it. He heads all the new leadership commissions that were set up in recent years. For many years, personality cult was not encouraged, but Xi likes to be celebrated as a great leader, the core of the party.

Xi‘s predecessor Hu Jintao was in office for a decade. In his time, civic movements emerged, demanding more rule of/by law. Today, the true meaning of “rule by law” becomes reality. Led by Xi, the regime has passed more laws than ever before (concerning cyber and national security). Under Hu, the judiciary occasionally spoke out against government interference in court cases. Independent lawyers, civil-society organisations and bloggers had some, though very limited influence. The rule of law was certainly not guaranteed, but citizens’ advocates were striving to restrict arbitrary rule.

Since July 2015, however, 319 lawyers and civil-rights activists have been interrogated, detained or sentenced to prison terms, as the media have reported. In January 2017, Zhou Qiang, the president of the Supreme People’s Court, told other judges: “Bare your swords towards false western ideals like judicial independence.” The party, after all, is above the constitution. 

An understanding of citizenship had begun to grow, but that trend is now being reversed. “Citizens” had started to organise, get involved in public affairs and make a difference in public life, for instance, in regard to town planning. Now the “people’s will” prevails, and it is once more exclusively defined by the party. Civic activism is only welcome to the extent that it supports the party in establishing a kind of welfare state, but non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are not supposed to act independently. Social protection systems are only emerging in China – and so is social work. NGOs that promote civil rights are struggling in China. The regime only sees a role for NGOs in supporting its attempts to establish social protection and, perhaps, punish environmental offenders.

Since Xi took power, populist grandstanding has become common again. The “Chinese Dream” of reclaiming former global relevance is being emphasised. Xi promises to achieve “great renewal of the Chinese nation” and wants his expansive foreign policy strategies to be praised. Massive military expenditure and ambitious infrastructure projects abroad (see Afshan Subohi on Pakistan) serve the purpose. 

It is true that the “China goes global” initiative was launched 16 years ago, but with much softer rhetoric. The stress was on “China’s peaceful rise”. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the party had focused on economic modernisation with tremendous success. Market-oriented reforms were started under Deng Xiaoping, ushering an unprecedented economic boom that set an end to the poverty of hundreds of millions of people. In the eyes of many, the regime’s legitimacy rests on this upswing.

The boom is obviously coming to an end. Economic growth is slowing, and the signs of speculative bubbles are multiplying on the stock and real estate markets. People suffer because of massive environmental pollution. Protests are recurring. China Labour Bulletin reported 2700 labor disputes for 2015.

China’s new populism relies on nationalism and personality cult. Relevant buzzwords include the expanding middle classes, green growth, and free-trade agreements. Anything that looks like “western democracy” is being suppressed more vehemently than before, while market forces are being promoted, as Xi’s presence at the Global Economic Forum in Davos showed.

China is already member of the international community of nations, and is now claiming the role of being its leading proponent of trade, globalisation and climate protection. We must pay close attention to what is going on at the grassroots level. We do business with China, so we must not neglect its people.

Nora Sausmikat heads the China Programme of Stiftung Asienhaus, a civil-society organisation based in Cologne.

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