The Chinese Communist Party was founded at a time when China was treated humiliatingly and with disdain by the Great Powers. On 23 July 1921, 50 delegates gathered in secret at an unprepossessing house in the French Concession in Shanghai and started arguing out the details of the new party. After a week of this, on 30 July, the French police raided the house. Only a dozen or so of the party members managed to escape. They headed off to Jiaxing, 60 miles away, and hired a pleasure-boat on a lake there. In this safer and more relaxed fashion they completed the business.
The party that was born in such desperate, if romantic, circumstances evolved to defeat its opponents, control China, be responsible for untold brutality to its own people and those of territories such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and regain and silence Hong Kong. Under its leadership China emerged as the second greatest economy – and possibly the most influential power – in the world. Chinese communism, a kind of Leninist capitalism, has triumphantly survived the collapse of Marxism elsewhere in the world – although there was a time, only a decade or so ago, when it looked as though it might finally abandon the Leninism in favour of the capitalism.
One dark evening in the autumn of 2008, in a desolate outer suburb of Beijing, my three colleagues and I hunched down and slipped one by one past a brightly lit police box. A man in uniform sat inside it, slurping noodles; he didn’t lift his head and spot us. The police box had been set up in front of the entrance to a block of flats, to ensure that a dissident who lived on the ground floor didn’t go out without permission. Or, indeed, receive visits from Western television crews.
Mr Chen (not, as they say in the newspapers, his real name) was a charming man in late middle age with twinkling eyes and a welcoming smile. Once he had been a leading light in the upper levels of the Chinese Communist Party, but in the late 1990s he had shown an unhealthy interest in opening up politics to people from outside the party. A purge followed, and Mr Chen was sentenced to a long period of house arrest.
While his wife bustled round making us cups of pu’er tea, I chatted to him about the political situation in China. He was remarkably upbeat. When the camera was rolling he said, “I fully expect that in five years’ time we will have proper elections, and that I will have a seat in China’s new legislature.”
In November 2012, at roughly the time when Mr Chen hoped to be taken back into political life, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party gathered in Beijing. Its members, awkward in their new government-issue suits, white shirts and red ties, obediently elected the tall, chubby, rather jovial-looking Xi Jinping as general secretary of the party. It became fashionable among the irreverent to call him Winnie the Pooh, though memes based on the Disney cartoon were later forbidden.
Xi was very different from his boring predecessor, Hu Jintao, but it still wasn’t clear what line he would take. Privately, officials suggested that more liberalisation was on its way. Leading Western China-watchers speculated that we might be looking at the rise of a Chinese Gorbachev. Xi seemed like a crowd-pleaser and he had one foot in show business: his second wife, Peng Liyuan, was a famous folk singer. Their daughter had studied English and psychology at Harvard. Xi’s first wife had gone to live in London after their divorce. The pattern seemed to be clear.
Nine years later, it’s hard to believe we could have been so sanguine. Under Xi, China seems deeply hostile to Western values, and can buy up governments and international organisations to provide it with support. It has forged a powerful alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and is snuggling up to countries with a grudge against the West, such as Turkey, Iran and North Korea. It is persuading others – Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan – to think of China as a more attractive counter to the United States. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once called Chinese repression in Xinjiang “genocide”, now stays quiet about it because he needs China’s cash. He’s not the only one.
At home, China is wiping out the last of Hong Kong’s freedoms and clamping down on any domestic faiths that might compete with the Communist Party: independent Christian churches and Islam. Hence the brutal campaign against the Uighurs in Xinjiang, whose riots against Chinese interests 12 years ago have been punished with re-education camps and forced sterilisation. It’s all happened under the jovial eyes of Xi.
Those eyes have seen some pretty hard times. Xi Jinping started life as a princeling, the son of Xi Zhongxun, Mao’s propaganda chief. But in 1963 Xi senior was purged and banished to a factory in distant Henan province. During the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, the Xi house was attacked and burned, and Xi’s sister Heping was killed or took her own life. His mother was forced to denounce her husband, who was dragged through the streets and pelted with filth. At 15, Xi too had to denounce his father. He was sent to live in a cave house in Shaanxi province, where he slept on a brick platform with five others. He escaped, was arrested and spent seven more years in the village he’d tried to get away from.
In 2000, in a rare interview, he talked with bitterness about political life: “I don’t just see the superficial things, the power, the bouquets, the glory, the applause; I see the bullpens, and how people can blow hot and cold.” The bullpens was the half-fearful name given to the huts and enclosures where the Red Guards held their prisoners during the Cultural Revolution. Nowadays the shivering boy whose father was thrown into the bullpens, and who grew up alone and deprived, is in charge during the most powerful and wealthiest phase in China’s entire 5,000-year history.
Xi has abolished the system of collective leadership, brutally casting aside his rivals, and has scrapped the limits to his presidential term. He can be president for life, if he chooses. Why? Because only by making himself all-powerful, and by stamping out dissent and disorder at home, can he be certain of keeping the Communist Party in power and of staying there himself.
Back in 2008, someone leaked to the BBC the details of an investigation the party leadership had carried out into the reasons why Soviet communism collapsed between 1989 and 1991. It all boiled down, the experts decided, to a lack of grip by the Kremlin. Softness and permissiveness had allowed alternative power centres to grow and thrive. If the Chinese Communist Party became more liberal, it was doomed. People could have more wealth, more luxury goods, more foreign travel, but they couldn’t be permitted a voice in politics. Only the party could represent them and their aspirations. Xi Jinping has adopted these findings as his own.
Not long before I visited Mr Chen under house arrest, I bumped into someone I’d known for several years: Bo Xilai, trade minister, party boss of Chongqing and challenger to Xi Jinping for supreme power. We’d become friendly after I’d interviewed him when he was mayor of the city of Dalian and exchanged emails. In one of them he wrote, “You’ll never understand how insecure politicians are when they know they’re not elected.” Soon afterwards Bo fell from power because his wife was accused of murdering a British businessman. Found guilty of corruption, he is now serving a life sentence at a comfortable prison on the outskirts of Beijing. Such could have been Xi’s fate, if things had gone differently.
Xi is insecure because he too knows he has not been elected. As it happens, reasonably reliable opinion polls consistently show that he is popular and that people approve of the way he is running things. But it’s essential for him to maintain the party’s grip unflinchingly. No alternative sources of power and information can be allowed to compete with the party and its organs: in particular, no religious leaders unauthorised by the party, no intellectuals who can disseminate alternative views, no pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong. Nor can there be any real independence for Taiwan – a problem that China’s previous rulers wanted to kill by kindness. Taiwan would, Xi Jinping said in 2018, suffer “the punishment of history” if it opted for separatism. He has regularly refused to rule out the use of force in reuniting Taiwan with the Chinese mainland, and recent US war-gaming is said to have shown that America would fail if it tried to protect Taiwan from Chinese invasion by military means.
We seem to be stuck with a fiercely illiberal regime in China that has the power and the cash to buy or blackmail large parts of the world. Realising this, Chinese officials are becoming louder and more hostile; recently the Beijing Global Times, which supports Xi’s policies as aggressively as the Sun once supported Margaret Thatcher’s, likened Australia to chewing gum stuck to the soles of China’s boots. When I challenged the editor, Hu Xijin, about this recently he said simply, “Well, it is.”
And yet President Xi, who knows how people “can blow hot and cold”, has to be careful. The threat to him won’t come from outside but from within. He will remember the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that almost brought down China’s then leader, Deng Xiaoping. Was Xi, perhaps, one of the thousands of party officials from all over the country who turned up in the square that May to support the students? When the massacre happened three weeks later, he would no doubt have been appalled, as so many Chinese officials were; nowadays, though, he would probably thoroughly approve.
China is a cauldron that can boil up amazingly fast. Every week there are dozens of violent protests about purely local issues across the country, and any day they could get out of hand. Xi must remember how much hostility to him there was in the party when he made himself president for life, and he will certainly be aware that if the old rules still applied he would have to step down as president next year. His domestic enemies, and they are plentiful if weak, won’t have forgotten that. Xi Jinping will need to tread carefully in 2022, especially if Covid-19 brings a serious downturn in the Chinese economy. Yet none of this will turn him into a Gorbachev who will start dismantling the worst aspects of the communist system. That, as he and the party experts who studied the fall of the Soviet Union know, would be nothing short of disastrous for them all.
A hundred years after the birth of the Chinese Communist Party, we can forget the idea that China will dump its Leninism. As long as Xi is in power, anyway.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor
This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?