China national congress: Xi Jinping signals spread of state control over all aspects of people’s lives

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Originally published by Independent on October 18, 2017

China’s President Xi Jinping set out his Communist Party’s far-reaching agenda on Wednesday, using his opening speech at a twice-a-decade leadership meeting to set out a vision of total control – with the party guiding not only the economy and the internet but culture, religion and morals.

China’s leadership already has a hand in just about every aspect of life. But Xi’s speech – three-and-a-half hours long – cast the net even wider.

It was a vision of a reinvigorated Communist Party, backed by a strong economy and a powerful, modern military that increasingly has challenged US influence in the Pacific.

“Achieving national rejuvenation will be no walk in the park,” Xi told more than 2,200 members of the party’s elite in the mammoth Great Hall of the People, a monument to Communist authoritarianism in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, beneath gigantic red drapes and a huge hammer and sickle.

“It will take more than drumbeating and gong-clanging to get there,” he added. “Every one of us in the party must be prepared to work even harder toward this goal.”

Yet outside, the run-up to the 19th Party Congress has been most marked by the Communist Party’s particular brand of paranoia.

Dissidents been arrested or railroaded out of town, lest they disrupt the celebratory mood by saying anything remotely critical. Ordinary public gatherings – including a high-profile football match – have been closed down or postponed.

Censorship of the internet and controls on private chat groups have dramatically intensified, while massive lines built up at subway stations in the capital this week as security checks were stepped up. Volunteers with red armbands and security personnel patrol almost every street corner, while banners extolling the party dominate almost every free space.

Every arm and level of the government has been straining for months to make sure nothing was left to chance, that nothing would spoil this, the big moment for China’s President Xi.

In a week’s time, Xi will be formally granted another five years in power as general secretary of China’s Communist Party.

On Wednesday, with a large illuminated red star gleaming in the ceiling 30 yards above his head, he painstakingly set out what he sees as his achievements over the past five years and his vision for the next five – a campaign speech with particularly Chinese characteristics, where the support of the entirety of the tiny, handpicked electorate is already guaranteed.

“For five years, our party has demonstrated tremendous political courage and a powerful sense of mission,” Xi said, boasting of having driven profound and fundamental change in China but also warning of many difficulties and challenges ahead.

His speech beamed around the nation on state television, China’s leader also set out his ideological contribution to the party’s intellectual canon: ponderously named “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” One official later described it as the “third milestone” in the party’s “ideological innovation” – after Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping theory.

The Congress may formally incorporate that ideology into the Party’s constitution next week – a step that could potentially elevate Xi to the ranks of the most powerful leaders in Party history.

Behind him, his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao listened attentively, his eyes mostly on the text of the speech. But 91-year-old Jiang Zemin, president from 1993 to 2003, seemed less captivated, only occasionally taking out a largely magnifying glass to gaze at the text, scratching his ear, yawning.

Other delegates took notes, or stared straight ahead, looking attentive, stern, impassive, dazed – or just tired, as Xi spoke on, and on. In the gallery, one diplomat dozed.

The theme of the Congress: that the party should remain true to its original aspiration, hold high the banner of socialism, and secure a decisive victory in the battle to build a moderately prosperous society.

In bullet point after bullet point, Xi set out a vision of party leadership and discipline, of reform and development, national security, and national pride, of ideological confidence and above all, of control.

“The party exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavour in every part of the country,” he said, the first sentence of the first bullet point of his ideological exposition.

Key challenges that strike at the heart of the Communist Party’s claim to legitimacy, he said – the contradiction between unbalanced development and people’s rising aspirations – as well as rampant corruption.

“Development is the underpinning and the key for solving all our country’s problems,” he said, adding later: “The people resent corruption the most; and corruption is the greatest threat our country faces.”

Indeed, Xi’s campaign against corruption has been one of his most popular initiatives with the general public, even if it has also been used to take down factional rivals, and may only have pushed graft slightly further underground rather than eliminated it.

Xi told party members to resist vices including “pleasure seeking, inaction, sloth and problem avoidance.” In general society, he said the Party would launch a campaign to raise moral standards, enhance the work ethnic, and promote family values and personal integrity.

Under Xi, China has taken a more confident role on the world stage, as he was eager to point out, not only citing his “Belt and Road” infrastructure development project but also his controversial program of island-building in the disputed South China Sea. At the same time, the military would be further modernized and strengthened.

“A military is built to fight,” he said. “Our military must regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work and focus on how to win when it is called on.”

The speech was long on aspiration but largely devoid of concrete new policy measures. Much was devoted to the idea of keeping the Party’s ideology at the centre of public life.

“Culture is a country and a nation’s soul,” Xi said, before explaining how he wanted Chinese culture harnessed to the cause of socialism, and following the guidance of Marxism.

“Ideology determines the direction a culture should take and the path it should follow as it develops,”‘ he said. Writers and artists should produce work that both thought-provoking but also extols “our Party, our country, our people and our heroes.”

“Erroneous” ideology must be opposed, he added, while religion must be “Chinese in orientation,” and guided by the party to adapt to socialist society.

Those remarks would appear to pour cold water on talk of a formal rapprochement between the Chinese government and the Vatican, in a country where the Party does not recognize the Pope’s authority over a population of around 12 million Catholics.

In the run-up to the Congress, popular talk shows and costume dramas were taken off the air by order of the government, so the entertainment media could focus more wholeheartedly on propaganda and anti-Japanese war films.

Indeed state media has been in overdrive in its praise of Xi in recent weeks, gushing on Wednesday about thousands of foreign journalists were enthusiastically covering the Congress and how schoolchildren were inspired, happy and excited after watching Xi’s speech.

Less enthusiastic was anyone who has tried to stand up for the civil rights of the Chinese people or fight injustice. Chinese Human Rights Defenders documented 14 activists who were criminally detained and two cases of enforced disappearance in the run-up to the meeting. Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo – who died in Chinese custody this year – and who has herself been under house arrest since 2010, was also reportedly forced to leave Beijing by government agents.

Security was so tight that Airbnb abruptly announced it was suspending its service in central Beijing during the second half of October, as did a well-known online retailer of knives and scissors.

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