Perhaps more than any other place, Chongqing shows how Xi has changed China.
Perhaps more than any other place, Chongqing shows how Xi has changed China. Source: Bloomberg

Xi’s First Decade Made China a Paradox of Confidence and Anxiety

The president’s ever-expanding authority has come at the expense of social and economic freedoms.

On a recent summer night in the Chinese megacity of Chongqing, two dozen young professionals in workout gear scour the banks of the Jialing River for trash.

Wielding long bamboo tongs, the so-called ploggers are among environmentally conscious urbanites from London to New York who pick up litter while jogging. But in China even this is a problem: Within an hour, uniformed urban security officers known as chengguan arrive to break up the gathering.

A decade ago, the Communist Party wasn’t threatened by a group of engineers, lawyers and architects coming together to pick up trash. Yet today, any organization outside of the party’s direct orbit is a potential threat.

“My first response was anger,” said one of the ploggers, who asked not to be named for fear of state reprisals. “But you cannot say it out loud or you’ll be deemed to be against the laws or regulations and penalized — or worse.”

“In these past few decades, people got richer,” she added. “But they’re not richer inside.”

 Ploggers assemble a modest trash pile after being shut down by local security officers.
Ploggers assemble a modest trash pile after being shut down by local security officers. Photographer: Colum Murphy/Bloomberg

When President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, he inherited a nation of newfound wealth that was governed by a ruling party weakened by decades of corruption and decentralization. Soon after, Xi unveiled his Chinese Dream for national rejuvenation: a sweeping campaign to reassert the party’s preeminence, while boosting both prosperity and patriotism.

Xi’s primary motivation is hard for outsiders to discern with certainty. Whether it’s personal ambition, a deep love for the party or a desire for China to overtake the US as the world’s most dominant country, one thing is clear: He’s now the nation’s most powerful man since Mao Zedong, with a clear path to securing a precedent-defying third term at this month’s once-in-five-years party congress.

But Xi’s ever-expanding authority has also come at the expense of a vast range of social and economic freedoms. China today is more inward-looking and conservative than when Xi took office, as he pushes for maximum control at home while challenging the US-led world order abroad.

The Great Firewall has blocked foreign ideas from China’s internet and Covid controls have closed physical borders, sending foreign companies into retreat. Feminism and gay rights have been derided as Western concepts, and minority cultures sanitized in the name of ethnic unity. A sweeping crackdown on non-governmental organizations means even ploggers are viewed as dangerous.

“Politically it isn’t sustainable for you to tighten your control over society,” said Dongshu Liu, an assistant professor who researches Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong. “Yes, it may buy you some time or buy you some extra stability, but sooner or later you’ll need to address those problems. The later China delays those political reforms the more costly or even bloody it will be.”

Security cameras close to a major shopping area in Chongqing.
Commuters cool off off inside a light-rail station.

Security cameras close to a major shopping area in Chongqing. The megacity had some 2.6 million security cameras watching its sprawling population in 2019, making it the world's most heavily surveilled city.

Source: Bloomberg

Shoppers scan health codes before being allowed into a shopping mall. Xi’s virus policy has continued to put politics over the economy, as recurring lockdowns derail China’s annual growth target for the first time in decades.

Source: Bloomberg

Commuters cool off in front of large ad featuring transit workers at a light-rail station in Chongqing. Xi is expected to trumpet his party’s achievements toward building a more modern, prosperous society at this month’s leadership congress. Yet China’s maturing economy also faces rising youth unemployment, higher urban living costs and a housing crisis.

Source: Bloomberg

Perhaps more than any other place, Chongqing shows how Xi has changed China. In the heart of the municipality twice the size of Switzerland, the trendy Zhongshuge bookstore features a shrine-like display of books dedicated to the so-called Chairman of Everything. Overhead, yellow characters scroll across a small red screen, reading: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

In 2012, Xi ousted his main rival for China’s top job, Bo Xilai, who at the time was the Communist Party’s most senior official in Chongqing. When Bo’s wife was linked to the murder of an Englishman, China’s most powerful figures on the Politburo Standing Committee were reluctant to incriminate a top politician — particularly one who, like Xi, was the son of a famed party revolutionary hero.

But Xi ultimately persuaded the top brass to oust the Chongqing party secretary, Shanghai businessman Desmond Shum wrote in his insider account of elite politics, Red Roulette, citing a conversation he had with Zhang Beili, wife of then Premier Wen Jiabao. Bo was eventually sentenced to life in prison.

The dramatic episode ended up changing the trajectory of the world’s No. 2 economy in a way that few foresaw. At the time, many observers outside of China saw Xi as more business friendly than Bo, who spearheaded a “red” political campaign urging Chongqing residents to sing Cultural Revolution-era songs and put Maoist slogans on their cell phones.

When Xi visited the US in early 2012, months before he took the reins of the Communist Party, then Vice President Joe Biden met him in Washington and called China’s rise positive for the world. Xi was pictured at a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game on that trip, chatting to US officials without a tie, top button undone. After Xi took office, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a US banking conference that China’s new leader was “worldly,” “sophisticated” and “more effective” than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, according to documents included in her hacked campaign emails released by WikiLeaks.

Xi Jinping during the National People's Congress in March 2012.
Xi Jinping during the National People’s Congress in March 2012. Photographer: Feng Li/Getty Images
Bo Xilai attended the National People's Congress in March 2012, shortly before being ousted.
Bo Xilai attended the National People’s Congress in March 2012, shortly before being ousted. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg
The Hongyan Revolution History Museum.
The Hongyan Revolution History Museum. Red tourism is booming in recent years as more Chinese travel to sites around the country linked to the party's history. Source: Bloomberg
The Zhongshuge bookstore in Chongqing.
The Zhongshuge bookstore in Chongqing. Xi has published some 70 titles on his governance and philosophy. Source: Bloomberg

Ten years later, Xi’s China looks more ideological than at any point since Mao. China is physically becoming more isolated with his strict lockdown and quarantine measures to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks. It’s looking to end dependence on Western technology. Xi’s government has also stamped out democracy in Hong Kong, set up mass detention camps for Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang and is stepping up military maneuvers around Taiwan — all moves that have prompted China’s international reputation to plummet.

Rather than make democratic reforms, Xi has consolidated more and more power, so much so that former President Donald Trump joked that he was the “king” of China. Xi’s socialist doctrine has been enshrined in the party constitution and is taught to school children. He has also published some 70 titles on his governance and philosophy.

In the Chongqing bookstore, however, the section devoted to Xi’s works failed to attract many shoppers.

Instead, visitors photographed the store’s crisscrossing staircases and mirrored ceilings — part of an Instagram aesthetic sweeping the city, from the Sujiaba Trail observation deck that peers over a huge spaghetti junction, to the Liziba Station where arriving trains seemingly disappear into the side of a high-rise tower.

Xi’s government banned the US photo-sharing platform in 2014, putting it in the same camp as Facebook and Twitter, which were blocked in 2009 after becoming an information source during that year’s ethnic riots in Xinjiang. Xi has also plugged loopholes that allowed citizens to hop over the firewall using virtual private networks. Today, Chinese users mostly post to domestic apps, such as Little Red Book or Douyin, which are meticulously censored for any whiff of dissent.

Others in the Chongqing bookstore perused the fantasy fiction aisles, while some thumbed the few foreign titles still allowed on the shrinking English-language shelves across China — Dan Brown thrillers and anodyne biographies of Warren Buffett and Justin Timberlake.

The shop’s inventory mirrored Xi’s reshaping of the country’s education system, shifting its emphasis to patriotic themes. That overhaul forced 32-year-old Yang, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, to rethink his entire career.

Until 2019, Yang worked for a company sending Chinese children to summer camps abroad, drawing on his experience studying in Singapore and Oklahoma. Today, he’s employed by his family’s water business in Chongqing and is concerned his foreign exposure, once deemed an asset, could now be a black mark. “I heard reports that Xi doesn’t care a lot about English,” he said. “Xi probably doesn’t want us to know about the outside world. He only wants us to have access to Chinese filtered information.”

Xi’s own daughter, Xi Mingze, studied psychology and English at Harvard University under an assumed name until 2014. But Chinese state media now increasingly portrays the US as a society in decay, riddled with gun violence and racism, leading many to question the value of sending their children overseas.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Xi had encouraged Chinese citizens to project their nation’s soft power abroad, predicting in 2014 that more than 500 million Chinese people would travel in the next half decade. Four years later, Chinese consumers accounted for one-third of global luxury goods sales, according to consulting firm Bain & Company. Boutiques in Paris and London began hiring Mandarin-speaking sales staff.

The pandemic halted that trend, with Xi’s strict Covid Zero policy closing down borders. Only 150 international flights arrived or left China on Monday, down from some 2,700 on the same day in 2019, according to data from VariFlight.

While Covid curbs ward against the virus, they also shield China’s population from foreign ideas. With just 10% of the population owning a passport, and even less using it regularly — government workers’ documents, for example, are managed by their employers — Xi could keep the door shut indefinitely without facing mass resistance.

The Zhongshuge bookstore.
SWAT police near 9th Street, a popular bar and club area.

The Zhongshuge bookstore features a shrine-like display of books dedicated to the so-called Chairman of Everything.

Source: Bloomberg

People queue for Covid tests, a common ritual in today’s China.

Source: Bloomberg

SWAT police near 9th Street, a popular bar and club area. For decades, Chinese citizens have accepted curbs on their liberty on the understanding the party would improve living standards.

Source: Bloomberg

Yang’s time abroad made him critical. He calls Beijing the nation’s “brainwashing capital,” and expressed disgust over the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, when the Chinese military violently put down democracy protests, killing anywhere from hundreds to thousands. In China, many people his age don’t know about the event, which has been scrubbed from the nation’s history books and internet. Instead, nationalism expressed in displays of anti-Western sentiment and pledges of party loyalty are on the rise.

“It’s so overwhelming that a lot of things we had seen as hopeful in China’s society are just disappearing at a strikingly rapid pace,” said Alison Sile Chen, a political science researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who was born in China in the 1990s. “The next generation even needs to be persuaded that democracy and freedom of speech is a good thing — that is unthinkable for me.”

For Xi, that is mere proof of success. During the party congress later this month, he’s set to boast of a range of accomplishments that underpin the legitimacy of the predominately male leadership to run China with an iron fist — all with the aim of building a “prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” society by the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2049.

Xi declared an end to extreme poverty in 2020, having lifted nearly 100 million people above China’s official poverty line during his decade in power — defined as earning less than 11 yuan ($1.54) per day. He’s since sought to narrow the nation’s yawning wealth gap under the guiding principle of “common prosperity.”

He’s also set to hail China’s strict Covid measures as superior in particular to the approach of the US and Europe, even as the persistent lockdowns batter the economy while the rest of the world moves on. During the Covid-19 outbreak, Xi’s zero-tolerance policy has kept the nation’s death toll to some 5,226 fatalities, compared with more than 1 million in the US.

Xi’s clash with the West has more broadly weighed on economic growth. Chinese tech companies such as Huawei Technologies Co. have been frozen out of many US allies over security concerns, while trade spats with the US and Australia have taken a toll. Those pressures have been further compounded by China’s birth figures plunging to their lowest since at least 1950, despite Xi ending the one-child policy.

To buoy the economy, Xi has demanded society take a more productive mold. The party’s ideal citizen is now a heterosexual, Han Chinese parent, employed in a core industry that can help China become self-sufficient in essential industries.

The Chinese leader has told women to “shoulder the responsibilities of taking care of the old and young, as well as educating children,” in a break from Marxist goals to dismantle the patriarchy. Censors have cracked down on celebrity promiscuity, while last year the National Radio and Television Administration issued guidance banning effeminate, or “sissy,” men.

At Chongqing’s Hunt Sky Bar, one of the city’s few gay spots, hundreds of men play drinking games as scantily clad male dancers writhe on stage to gay anthems by Western artists such as Lady Gaga and Bonnie Tyler. While the Communist Party tolerates this sort of nightlife, it has moved quickly to quash political campaigns for gay rights.

China today is more inward-looking and conservative than when Xi took office, as he pushes for maximum control at home while challenging the US-led world order abroad. Source: Bloomberg

Social media giant WeChat deleted the accounts of LGBTQ groups at the nation’s top universities last year, while a leading advocacy group that had spearheaded prominent legal cases pushing for greater rights folded in November. Two students at one of China’s most prestigious universities were issued warnings for putting rainbow flags on a shop table. That’s a stark contrast even from 10 years ago, when Shanghai Pride openly held events in the financial hub.

The party’s desire for everyone to fit a narrow set of norms harks back to a masculine “revolutionary culture,” according to Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese politics at Oxford University.

“There is a stronger desire by the state and the party to try and create a wider sense that Chinese identity doesn’t have too many quirks in it, doesn’t seem too individualistic,” he said.

For decades, Chinese citizens have accepted curbs on their liberty on the understanding the party would improve living standards. Now that’s being tested.

The Chinese leader declared in a landmark historical resolution last year that economic growth was no longer the “sole yardstick of success.” That document gave permanence to his “common prosperity” drive to remake the nation’s economy through dramatic socialist market interventions that led to drastic job cuts.

Xi’s virus policy has continued to put politics over the economy, as recurring lockdowns derail China’s annual growth target for the first time in decades. Youth unemployment reached almost 20% in July, while home prices slid for the 12th consecutive month in August.

All that’s resulted in a rare spate of social unrest across China from a cross-section of society as varied as wronged homeowners, locked-down Shanghai residents and social-media users angered by the plight of a mother chained by her husband — abuse that struck a chord on the suppression of women’s rights. Thousands of high-net-worth individuals are trying to move themselves and their money abroad, something immigration lawyers say is getting harder.

While such expressions of rebellion are growing, they’re still the exception. The majority of citizens are trying to adjust to the new social parameters, and hoping party policies will bring stability, even as Xi rewrites the social contract.

Huang Yi
Huang Yi Source: Bloomberg

Education entrepreneur Huang Yi, 33, runs a Chongqing-based consultancy placing Chinese students at top universities such as Harvard and Columbia. Her former employer, education giant New Oriental, fired some 60,000 staff after Xi abruptly ruled last year that the after-school tutoring industry could no longer make a profit. Officials said the $100 billion industry had contributed to the impression that raising a child was prohibitively expensive.

While that move left Huang with “complicated” feelings, she said she supported the government’s policy. “I am not qualified to decide this whole industry’s development for how the education industry should be shaped in this society,” she said. “Of course, I hope my business goes well,” she added. “I hope there would be policies which would benefit my business. But if not I’d respect the government’s decision.”

In the air-conditioned lobby of a five-star hotel in the heart of Chongqing, Yang Liu recalled how she’d filled four passports in recent years on trips to watch the World Cup in Russia, and holidays in the Middle East, the US and Europe. The 42-year-old runs a chili sauce company in her native city famous for its spicy food.

Yang Liu was pragmatic about the loss of that ability to travel, and other changes Xi might have in store. “Whatever comes, I think we need to adapt to the changing times, to adjust,” she said. Chinese citizens are often reluctant to criticize the party in public for fear of government reprisals, not only against them but also their families.

Mitter from Oxford University said there’s now a sense among China’s middle class that professionalism, whether as a businessperson, lawyer or academic, means not asking hard questions. While that environment protects the party from pushback, he said it could also stifle innovation. “There’s a danger that too much control will put off the next generation of entrepreneurs,” he added.

Back on the banks of the Jialing River, the deflated ploggers reassemble out of view of the chengguan. They empty a modest trash pile from their black plastic bags and pose for a team photograph, tongs pointing to the garbage, before heading home.

Reflecting later on the evening’s events, the frustrated plogger said that people felt powerless to stand up to the state. “Perhaps,” she said, “people are revolting from their heart and on the inside.” —Colum Murphy and John Liu