In the spring of 2013, when the rotund Xi Jinping took over as president of the People’s Republic of China, he was relatively unknown outside the mainland. The joke in Beijing then was that he was known as the husband of Peng Liyuan, one of China’s most popular folk singers, and the son of Xi Zhongxun, a first generation communist revolutionary and one of the founding fathers of the republic, along with the legendary Mao Zedong.
By the end of his first term, he had made a name for himself, unleashing a ferocious campaign against corruption that fuelled many prominent names in the party and the military, and giving rise to what has come to be known as ‘Xi Jinping thought’ or ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. He has also flexed his muscles outside China, keeping neighbours, especially India, on tenterhooks (read Doklam).
President Xi and his Premier Li Keqiang kept their hands steady on the wheel as the country sailed through some turbulent economic waters and international crises, especially with some sabre rattling in the South China Sea. He also faced a mini crisis at home with the volume rising about how polluted the country was becoming. In the year he became president, the Beijing air was a soupy grey with the smoke and gasoline fumes and the sky remained hidden for days, especially in winter.
He managed to fix a lot of the latter. This last winter, the air was much more breathable, and locals say there have been more blue sky days this season than in the previous ten.
Gang Wu, 38, a Beijing resident, says, “President Xi is strong. It is because of him that the air is so good now. He said he will fix the pollution problem by 2020, but I am sure he will do it by 2019 itself. He knows how to get his work done.” Yan Li, 28, who is from Yunnan province and works in a software firm in Beijing, says, “Just look at China’s stature since Xi became president, it has gone up. He is a strong president and is good for China.”
In the recently concluded annual session of China’s parliament, the president’s two-term limit was removed, paving the way for Xi to stay on for life. It was Deng Xiaoping who had brought in the term limit, saying a “leadership transition cannot be stopped”. Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat and translator for Deng Xiaoping, is vice president at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. Gao is enthused at the prospect of another term for Xi. He speaks effusively about “how Presider Xi has impressed the Chinese people with his relentless and successful anti-graft campaign, which has paid great dividends. Just look at the number of generals who have been implicated in corruption—more than one hundred. And, then, if you take into consideration the many regional chiefs, mayors, heads of state owned enterprises (SECs), the scale is unprecedented. He wants to give the Chinese people a cleaner party and government.”
Not everyone is happy though. Entrepreneur Lin Yue, 50, says, “Economically, things are good. President Xi is good for the economy, but it is time Chinese enjoyed more freedom, especially Christians.” The challenges are not small. United States President Donald Trump has been threatening to hit China with massive trade tariffs. That could send the Chinese economy into the doldrums, with the good life that the younger generation has so far experienced quickly dwindling and public opinion moving away from the ruling communist party.
But, Xi has a way of outwitting his critics. When he first came to power, he was not seen as a man the military trusted, but he is now seen as a military strongman, with ambitious spending plans, a blue water navy in the offing and an armed forces budget of $215 billion—much less than the $600 billion the US spends on its military, but definitely the largest in the region and sure to upset nearby countries with outstanding border issues, like India.
Despite a growing number of fans for the military might he has built, Xi faces pressure to reform or abolish the ‘hukou’ system—an internal residential permit system for Chinese nationals. Linked to many social benefits available in the city, town or village, hukou limits a local. The system is also a ‘great wall’ that China’s internal migrant labourers, perhaps the largest in the world, are trying to overcome. It denies them crucial services, such as hospitals, access to public education and even the right to give birth in the city they work. They can do so only in the town where their hukou is issued. A 45-year-old housemaid in Beijing says, “The hukou denies us the most basic rights. I had to leave my child 600km away because she cannot go to a school here in the city without a hukou.” Despite working a lifetime away from home, they would barely be able to scrape together a living, and cannot even dream of owning a home of their own.
China says it has lifted 300 million people out of poverty in less than 30 years, something never done before, and probably never again. However, the rights of those who barely have their heads above water is not a sweet tale. There has been very little political reform that gives any voice to the people, and almost “no religious freedom for people who are not Buddhists,” says Lin Yue.
It is probably these that will define Xi Jinping as a statesman that he wants to become. And, with no presidential term limit, he may just have time on his side.