Symposium | The U.S.-China Future

Inside China: Xi’s Risky Power Play

By Manfred Elfstrom

Tagged China

We must approach the world’s most populous country with an eye to its wide variation and profound contradictions. This is true of China’s changing role on the world stage—its trade policies, military upgrades, diplomatic maneuvers, and cultural outreach. But it is especially true of Chinese domestic politics. Here, we must keep several interacting dynamics in mind.

First, we ought to acknowledge the obvious: Political power in Beijing is becoming concentrated in the hands of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary and potential President-for-Life Xi Jinping and in the CCP more generally to an astonishing degree. Meanwhile, the party-state is making an ambitious bid at tech-enabled social control, including online censorship and extensive use of facial recognition software, which has taken its most extreme form to date in the country’s minority-dominated periphery, especially Xinjiang. The rudiments of a personalistic but sophisticated dictatorship and frightening panopticon are being put in place.

Second, we should also be clear that there is nowhere near this level of ambition in the realm of Chinese social policy. Today’s leaders are much more cautious than their immediate predecessors were when it comes to trying to improve working conditions, expand the social safety net, settle the status of migrant workers, improve rural incomes, and so on. If anything, they seem positively befuddled about how to move forward on their society’s thorniest domestic problems and eager to kick the can down the road.

Third and relatedly, we should take special note of how anxious the government is about grassroots efforts to address the pressing national issues that the state ignores, such as campaigns by student Marxist societies to support striking factory workers and provide relief to campus employees, or efforts by feminists to combat sexual assault in public spaces—both of which have been met with police detentions of key organizers. Where the CCP once tentatively sought partnerships with civil society, it has become frightened about competition, revealing a brittleness of authority that often goes unnoticed in American discussions about China.

Finally, two interconnected and deepening trends deserve our attention. Despite the tightening political climate, popular unrest is on the rise in China. Strikes and protests by Chinese workers in particular have increased and become more sophisticated. But clashes involving homeowners, small investors, and farmers are also common. Simultaneously, China’s sources of economic growth, which were already beginning to show signs of exhaustion before Xi Jinping came into office, are drying up further. The slowdown, in turn, is feeding turmoil at the grassroots and leaving the government with fewer options to appease citizens’ grievances.

These twin longer term developments partially explain the state’s attempts to centralize power and expand its reach, its lack of direction on needed reforms, and its fear of alternative bases of power. The government needs strength and discipline to take decisive action. But it believes that a misstep will only encourage public anger, so it treads cautiously where it must to do more. It wants as much freedom to maneuver as possible, unhindered by other actors (including those society sees as unassuming), like students and feminists and various “vulnerable groups” (ruoshi qunti). But the state’s options are being restricted by structural change.

All this means that American policymakers, activists, and academics will have more difficulty engaging China than in the recent past, whether at an elite or mass level. The changes currently underway also raise important moral questions about what form any such engagement should take. However, they also suggest that China’s trajectory is not fixed. The continued willingness of ordinary Chinese to push for greater civil rights and a fairer apportionment of their country’s wealth, especially, should give us some measure of hope. Below, I expand on each of these points in turn, finishing with thoughts about how things might develop in the future.

Concentration of Power

Political power has become ever more concentrated since Xi Jinping assumed power. Most obviously, it has become concentrated in the president’s own hands. Numerous working groups have been established to take charge of various areas of policy, including the economy and national security. With Xi in charge of each group, he’s been described as the “Chairman of Everything.” In 2017, the Party enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the CCP constitution at the party’s 19th National Congress, an unusually strong endorsement at the beginning of what would normally be Xi’s second and last five-year term in office. The government then went on to abolish presidential term limits during the “two meetings” of the rubberstamp National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in March of last year. State media have even started describing Xi as “the core leader,” a title never bestowed on his predecessor.

At the same time, the Party has extended its reach in private-sector companies, on campuses, and in newsrooms. Regarding the last of these extensions, Xi has demanded the “absolute loyalty” of the media and has stated unequivocally that news organizations must “have the party as their surname.” The president recently launched a massive reorganization of government ministries, particularly those related to the environment, finance, and “discipline and inspection,” increasing CCP oversight of all. Central oversight of the CCP itself has also increased, with a massive anti-corruption campaign that has punished not only graft but also ideological nonconformity within the body. As of mid-2018, roughly two million Party members, including both top government and military leaders and low-ranking local authorities, have been investigated. In important ways, this is a different leader and a different Communist Party.

Ambitious Efforts at Social Control

Alongside Xi and the CCP’s concentration of power, the party-state has embarked on ambitious efforts at social control. This has assumed a frighteningly high-tech form. Sensitive foreign websites, from those of Human Rights Watch to The New York Times, are blocked by what is called China’s “Great Firewall.” Beyond that, as political scientists Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts have documented, domestic web traffic is carefully combed for content that might form the basis for popular collective action, while an army of paid state functionaries generates “positive” commentary on social media to flood out critics. Even when Chinese citizens travel to the United States, they travel in the same bubble: The WeChat social media app, which has become essential to everything from ordering takeout to paying rent to reading the news in China itself, also now limits the horizons of Chinese students and others abroad. It is censored as much outside the People’s Republic as it is inside. China is becoming the world’s greatest purchaser of surveillance cameras: Hundreds of million are expected to be installed by 2020. And facial recognition technology—an area in which China is taking a clear lead—is deployed to identify troublemakers in crowds. Authorities are rolling out a social credit system that penalizes citizens who default on loans, jaywalk, or engage in politically destabilizing behavior. The hype around some of these policies exceeds the state’s ability to carry them out effectively (Yale’s Jeremy Daum has debunked some of the more exaggerated claims about the social credit system.) Nonetheless, they are deeply worrying.

The most extreme form this attempt at social control has taken is an ongoing campaign to coercively remold the identity of Uyghurs, a Muslim group that has long held aspirations for greater autonomy and is dominant in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on China’s western frontier. Reported measures deployed against this group include a system for scoring individuals’ reliability, with points deducted for things like prayer or passports; cadres from the ethnic Han majority living with and monitoring Uyghur families; registration of kitchen knives and other implements in homes that might be used in attacks (each tool is stamped with a QR code); tracking devices installed on cars in Xinjiang; apps that are required to be installed on Uyghurs’ phones that collect information on Internet activity; and separate lanes for Han and Uyghur cars at checkpoints, among other steps.

Even worse than these policies is the growth of an incredible system of internment camps, where Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang are held against their will and forced to study Party slogans and cast off their “backward” culture. Satellite imagery, government procurement orders, and the testimony of people who have spent time in the camps suggest that hundreds of thousands, or even a million people, are being swept up in them. And these citizens are captured for seemingly any reason at all: for growing beards, for contacting relatives studying abroad in places like Egypt or Turkey, or even just so authorities can meet their quotas. Villages are emptied out and children are given to the care of others. The Chinese government argues that this is a necessary counterterrorism effort, suggesting that the state views a whole people as terrorists. This Islamophobic tendency is also growing in Chinese popular culture. It builds on similar but less far-reaching policies enacted in Tibet (where Xinjiang’s current party secretary was previously stationed). And it raises the possibility that even worse is in store unless there is effective pushback. Indeed, there are reports that the mosques of Hui Muslims, a group that up until now has not experienced much interference, are now being destroyed in the country’s interior by officials.

A Surprising Lack of Ambition on Social Policy

If the deepening social control described above shows remarkable state ambition, the government’s social policies display relative caution. Here, Xi Jinping comes across as much more ambivalent and indecisive than previous leaders. Under a series of slogans that mixed vague populism with technocracy—“building a harmonious society,” “people first,” and “the scientific concept of development”—Xi’s predecessors Hu Jintao (as party secretary and president) and Wen Jiabao (the premier) launched a series of reforms. For example, in 2002, China embarked on a tax-for-fee reform that folded a variety of onerous fees opposed by peasants into a single agricultural tax. Then, between 2004 and 2006, the country did away with the agricultural tax entirely. When a young, educated migrant worker died in police custody in 2003, Hu and Wen quickly ended the then-existing policy of “custody and repatriation” of migrants found without papers. In 2007, after a public comment period drew an unprecedented flood of input, including forceful opposition from business groups like the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, the Chinese government passed a new Labor Contract Law. It strengthened the country’s 1994 Labor Law with tougher penalties for abusive employers, and mandated open-ended contracts after two closed contracts or ten years of employment. Partially as a result, employment litigation about doubled in 2008. There were also more modest changes: the introduction of a thin New Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme in 2002, the first social work certification exam in 2008, and an end to fees attached to compulsory education in rural areas in 2009. In 2010, Beijing introduced the country’s first consolidated social insurance law, which went into effect in 2011, the year before Xi took power.

Under Xi, there has been less to report in terms of social policy. The Labor Contract Law has been augmented here and there by some recent administrative regulations. Social insurance has been expanded, with more funding and greater consolidation of rural and urban systems. The current Premier Li Keqiang has also raised the profile of social work yet further. And health-related ministries have merged and released a set of goals known as “Healthy China 2030.” Perhaps the most significant social policy of the Xi era is a plan to eliminate rural poverty entirely by the year 2020. (China’s official poverty line now stands at 2,300 RMB per annum at 2010 price levels, or about $350 USD for an individual. An estimated 55.75 million people fell below this line when the president announced the poverty elimination plan in 2015.) The initiative’s implementation has been impressive, utilizing the same big data techniques that have also been used for coercive measures, with officials tracking progress of impoverished communities at the county level, but also micro-tracking individual families. In an echo of the Mao era, talented youth are being mobilized to go down to the countryside to help. Migrants and urbanites, however, are excluded from the 2020 plan, as Dorothy Solinger and others have noted. One can also raise questions about its sustainability. Most fundamentally, poverty alleviation efforts like this conspicuously avoid wading into longstanding social contradictions in the way that preceding Chinese governments did. There is a distinct reluctance to face knotty issues head-on. Instead, the current regime has pushed off meaningful reform until the future.

Suspicion of Grassroots Solutions

Meanwhile, the state has become more anxious about efforts by Chinese civil society to step in and address the issues that the government has neglected. Under the previous administration, a movement of rights lawyers gradually built momentum. These advocates used the space provided by China’s expanding legal system to protect the interests of a range of groups: low-income urbanites facing eviction to make way for new commercial developments; migrant workers detained by police; people discriminated against when applying for jobs because they were HIV positive or had hepatitis; parents of children poisoned by adulterated milk products or killed in poorly constructed schools in earthquake zones; and even adherents of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Beginning on July 9, 2015, Xi’s government began rounding these people up (“the 709 Crackdown”). That March, police had started on a smaller scale, detaining five feminist activists (the “Feminist Five”) who had been campaigning against sexual violence, among other things. By the end of 2015, several prominent labor NGO activists in the vicinity of Guangzhou had been detained, with two eventually put on trial and one serving a long sentence. This past year, Marxist students at prominent Chinese institutions like Peking University, Renmin University, and Nanjing University who have rallied for the cause of striking workers at the Jasic electronics factory in Shenzhen have had their study groups shut down, have been beaten, and have been disappeared into vans right off campus. Striking Jasic workers, needless to say, have suffered the same fate. Just recently, another group of labor NGO leaders was detained.

For a period, there was excitement in China and abroad about Chinese civil society. Especially in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when volunteers from around the country threw themselves into recovery efforts, it seemed that the government was ready to partner with grassroots groups in a productive way. There was repression in that era, too—organizations shuttered, individuals detained. But now authorities seem even more frightened of this competition from alternative domestic bases of power than in the past. This is not the behavior of a confident government, but of one battening down the hatches. There are several reasons for authorities to indeed be concerned.

Long-Term Trends

Alongside these developments, two longstanding trends are accelerating. One is the rise of social contention. In 1995, the government reported that it had experienced 8,700 “mass incidents,” meaning strikes, protests, riots, and other contentious gatherings by all sorts of groups; that number had increased ten-fold to 87,000 incidents by 2005, the last time the government released figures. (Leaked reports put the number of incidents at 127,000 in 2008.) Labor is particularly mobilized—and with powerful repercussions. Auto plant employees have shut down the entire Chinese supply chains of companies like Honda in bids for higher pay. Cab drivers have brought transportation in major cities like Chongqing to a crawl over lax municipal control of “black cabs” and exploitation by taxi monopolies. Teachers have struck for equal salaries with other public servants in small towns (as they are entitled to receive by law).

My website, “China Strikes,” documented a steady rise in strikes, protests, and riots by Chinese workers during the Hu-Wen administration; another protest mapping project by the Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labour Bulletin shows this trend has only accelerated under Xi. Workers are also engaging in more sophisticated actions. In 2018, crane operators across China organized a joint strike, as did truck drivers and delivery workers in major cities. These protests built on previous cross-provincial actions by Pepsi bottling plant employees and Walmart store workers. Other groups taking to the streets include farmers angry about land grabs, urbanites resisting housing evictions, small investors duped by pyramid schemes, and Christians upset at new curbs on religion. As always, the CCP also faces challenges on its periphery in the form of persistent national self-determination struggles in Tibet and Xinjiang. While the latter struggle has slowed because of today’s extraordinary repression, Tibetans are still pushing back at a low level on language rights, destructive natural resource extraction, and other issues.

The other longstanding trend is an economic slowdown. In 2007, midway into the Hu-Wen administration, China reported a GDP growth of 14.2 percent. By 2012, when Xi came to power, growth had fallen to 7.9 percent. In 2017, it was 6.9 percent. And these are just the official figures. A massive stimulus package helped China avoid the sort of disruption experienced by many other countries following the 2008 financial crisis. Interventions since then have similarly picked the economy up when it was sagging. But many projects the government supported were wasteful and the resulting debt is becoming overwhelming. The government has long recognized the need to boost domestic consumption rather than rely so much on exports. To this end, it has done things like encouraging the expansion of mid-level cities, connecting rural Chinese to urbanites via e-commerce, and, mostly during previous administrations, building out the social safety net.

But these efforts have not been enough. More ambitious welfare spending, in particular, might help—but again, here authorities seem to be moving slowly. Finally, following a real estate boom, apartment sales are reportedly slumping. According to a recent survey by Sheng Songcheng and Song Hongwei reported in Caixin, housing accounts for roughly 12 percent of Chinese GDP, a proportion similar to that in the United States. The current trade war is making things worse. Looking forward, things get trickier still: In large part because of its recently abandoned one-child policy, China’s working-age population is shrinking and its society is graying, increasing the burden on families.

As factories close and alternative job opportunities become harder to find, workers become more desperate. Groups like students begin to see their problems as not so dissimilar to those of their poorer compatriots. And the government has fewer fiscal resources to resolve grievances. It is not so surprising, then, that authorities want power centralized and repressive bulwarks erected. But a heavy hand means that policy missteps are a bigger deal. It should not be so puzzling that social tinkering has also been put on hold. Soon after Xi took power, his ally Wang Qishan is said to have urged apparatchiks to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, with its famous warning that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform. That danger of reform is presumably heightened by economic stagnation amidst rising discontent. Better to get things under control, then deal with root causes.

Reasons for Optimism

We should not learn an entirely gloomy lesson from what is happening in China. The continued activism of ordinary Chinese is inspiring. And not just in the sense of uplifting David and Goliath stories, either. Rising unrest means that a growing circle of people have experience taking collective measures to improve their lives, even if that action is not always explicitly political. Moreover, there are areas of policy where things are, in fact, gradually improving, the stasis noted above notwithstanding. The environment is one such area. Important investments are being made in subways and high-speed rails, renewable energy, and electric vehicles. These decisions are in part a reaction to popular pressures around air quality, in particular. There is a blowback for activists, but there are also constant wins along the way.

Going forward, American policymakers, activists, and academics will have more difficulty engaging China than they once did. They are already experiencing difficulty. Thoughtful Chinese officials are wary of showing indiscipline by interacting with foreigners. Chinese civil society groups desperate for resources have to weigh the benefits of external support against the dangers brought by outside connections. Those U.S.-based individuals and institutions who do manage to make important contacts in China must place those contacts in a larger context: Are they providing a cover for the clampdown? Or do they encourage positive developments? A dramatic economic downturn or the emergence of new protest groups will likely increase the government’s paradoxical tendencies toward power-grabbing, paralysis, and paranoia—and make these questions more urgent. Such turns will also make seizing on any political openings that do present themselves all the more important.

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Manfred Elfstrom is a Postdoctoral Scholar and Teaching Fellow at the University of Southern California's School of International Relations. Before entering academia, he was active in nonprofit organizations supporting workers' rights and improved grassroots governance in China.

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