Profile: President Xi Jinping

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Originally published by The National on April 2, 2016


AN anonymous letter calling on the president of China to resign has switched a spotlight on his increasing intolerance of dissent.

Already drawing criticism for his restrictive policies on free speech, President Xi Jinping’s response to the letter is being seen as a sign of paranoia.

Even though it was fairly brief and only visible for a short time on a Chinese website before it was expunged, the letter has sent shockwaves through China and beyond.

More than two dozen people – including relatives of exiled Chinese who have commented on the letter – have been detained by state security while the Chinese internet has been scrubbed clean of any references to it.

A German media outfit, Deutsche Welle, was even asked to delete comments about the letter, written by a Chinese exile living in Germany. Deutsche Welle refused.

“In the beginning, this letter didn’t seem like much,” said analyst Bill Bishop of the Sinocism China newsletter. “But now, given the reaction, it has become much more important.”


IT may seem like an over-reaction by the state, but the letter has touched a nerve at a time when the president is under pressure over the slowdown of the Chinese economy and the reluctance of state-owned industries to acquiesce with his reforms. Added to this is the fact that while many citizens have applauded his war on corruption, it has made him enemies within the Communist Party.

The letter purports to be written by party members and criticises the president’s leadership qualities.

“Comrade Xi Jinping we feel that you do not possess the capabilities to lead the party and the nation into the future, and we believe that you are no longer suitable for the post of general secretary,” it said. “For the party cause, for the long-term peace and stability of the country, and for your own personal safety and that of your family, we ask you to resign from all positions.”

According to Willy Lam, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the fact that the letter was published in China would have been of great concern.

“It speaks to the paranoia that surrounds Xi’s leadership,” said Lam. “In the process of amassing all this power, he has made multiple enemies, more than his predecessors. So now you have this paradox – the more power he obtains, the more paranoid he gets.”


THIS is not the only paradox about Xi’s rule. His drive to strike up business partnerships with other countries and his apparent openness to a more capitalist style of economy led some to believe that he might also open up other areas of Chinese life introducing more freedom of expression and more democracy.

Instead, the opposite has been the case as there has been an increasing crackdown on dissent since he took over as party leader in 2012 then became president in 2013.

According to the Chinese rights group Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, human rights abuses are at their worst in 25 years.

“The regime is getting stricter and stricter; you could say it’s getting more and more brutal, more and more inhuman.” said group’s founder Liu Feiyue.

The group found more than 2,000 instances of house arrest, enforced “holidays”, detention and phone tapping in 2014, while the  China Human Rights Defenders logged more than 1,800 cases of arbitrary detention and torture of lawyers and human rights activists since Xi took over.

In 2015 alone, 245 lawyers were targeted as part of a move to silence criticism, according to Amnesty UK with many of them still “missing” or in custody. Human Rights Watch claims that torture methods range from electric shocks and starvation to sleep deprivation and beatings.

Meanwhile internet restrictions are so excessive that they’ve been dubbed The Great Firewall of China.


TO understand why this is the case it is important to recognise that for Xi, the Communist Party is everything. Its strength, he believes, is essential for China to maintain its position as a world power and his war on corruption has been, in part, to consolidate the power of the party.

For Xi, the break-up of the Soviet Union began with President Gorbachev and his Western-style reforms which Xi believes weakened the Communist Party.

He is determined the same thing will not be allowed to happen in China.

“He has been very forthright and candid – privately and publicly – about the fact that the Chinese are rejecting Western values and multi-party democracy,” said Henry Paulson, former US treasury secretary. “To Westerners, it seems very incongruous to be, on the one hand, so committed to fostering more competition and market-driven flexibility in the economy and, on the other hand, to be seeking more control in the political sphere, the media, and the internet. But that’s the key: he sees a strong party as essential to stability, and the only institution that’s strong enough to help him accomplish his other goals.”


Xi is ultra ambitious and determined to make his mark on the world.

Born in 1953, a so-called Red Princeling because his father was a revolutionary general and close to Chairman Mao, Xi has experienced the power of the party first hand. When his father fell out of favour, the teenaged Xi was sent to work as a farm labourer and lived in a cave where he became close to the peasants of the area.

Despite this, he tried to join the party’s youth league but his application was repeatedly rejected because of his father’s status. He was finally accepted in 1974 after befriending a local official. Some of his peers, who had also suffered from their parents’ fall from grace, were baffled that he wanted to join the system but one later said that Xi had realised he would not amount to much if he left China but could rise in the party if he became “redder than the red”.

His upward trajectory since joining the party has been steady. He has consolidated power and is thought to be the most powerful leader in China since Mao Zedong.

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