In 2017, a small Chinese town steeped in history hosted a thousand technophiles from across the world. They gathered in a great hall, where they were welcomed by a thin, bespectacled government official from Beijing. “Greetings, honoured guests,” said the official. “Welcome to the grandly beautiful, thousand-year-old Chinese town of Wuzhen in Zhejiang province, to attend the fourth edition of the World Internet Conference. On behalf of Chairman Xi Jinping, I express sincere regards to all of you and warm congratulations for the opening of the conference.”
The guests included CEOs Tim Cook of Apple and Sundar Pichai of Alphabet, senior executives of chipmaker Qualcomm and several other American technology giants, and the legendary Robert Kahn, electrical engineer and a founding father of the internet. The World Internet Conference, which Wuzhen hosts every year, is China’s foremost technology convention where internet governance and policies are discussed. Xi was surprisingly absent this year, but he had dispatched the senior official to deliver the inaugural address on his behalf.
The official, Wang Huning, had for long been part of the Communist Party of China’s top rung of leaders, but few people outside the country knew him. At Wuzhen, he was making his first public speech to a global audience in decades.
Wang began his address by suitably paying obeisance to Xi (“the chairman has important thoughts”; “he wishes for accelerated development of the digital economy”; “he has an accurate grasp of cyberspace development”; and so on), and then went on to explain the CPC’s technology objectives. It wanted to absorb more internet-related innovations, build China into a cyber superpower, harness big data and artificial intelligence, and propagate Xi’s concept of cyber sovereignty—a euphemism for an international legal framework that would allow governments to curb internet freedoms as they saw fit.
This last demand went against the norms and spirit of the internet, but China was in a position to press for it. Its economy was on pace to overtake the US, market forecasts remained rosy, and long-term stability seemed guaranteed under Xi, who had just begun his second five-year term as president and CPC general secretary. The US, meanwhile, resembled a china shop that had let in a rampaging bull: Donald Trump was yet to complete a year as president, but the damage he had inflicted on America’s domestic stability, international standing and economic influence was considerable.
It was the perfect time for Wang to emerge from Xi’s shadow. Wang had predicted the Trump moment as far back as the 1980s, when he was a visiting scholar at some 20 American universities. A keen observer of American culture and politics, he had been to more than 30 cities and interacted with the cream of American intelligentsia. He had attended George H.W. Bush’s presidential inauguration in January 1989, admiring the peaceful transfer of power and envying the robust institutions that enabled it. But it was the US’s weaknesses that had struck him most. In America Against America, which he published after returning to China, Wang almost ruefully predicted that the US was destined to fall because of one reason—it was a liberal democracy built on individualism rather than collectivism, on identity politics than class consciousness.
Wang, who was born in 1955, was 30 when he became the youngest ever professor at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai. A former student once recounted that Wang’s appetite for books was such that he forgot to buy flowers for his fiancée on the eve of their wedding and turned up instead with a shopping list of books. Apparently, the wedding survived.
Wang’s reputation as Fudan’s most formidable intellectual made Jiang Zemin take note of him. Jiang, a Shanghai party boss who had succeeded Deng Xiaoping as head of the party in 1989 and as president in 1993, made Wang part of his core group of advisers. Jiang held Wang in such high esteem that he once boastfully told president Bill Clinton that he was fortunate to have one of the world’s foremost intellectuals by his side. Clinton replied that he had Samuel P. Huntington, the political scientist who wrote The Clash of Civilisations. In the 1990s, Huntington’s theory that future wars would be fought between cultures, and not between countries, were becoming a key pillar of US policy in the Middle East.
“Wang Huning’s career is very important,” said Jabin T. Jacob, associate professor, department of international relations and governance studies at Shiv Nadar University in Delhi. “He has served three general secretaries, and has for long been trying to strengthen the communist party rule, to push for what you might call a form of authoritarian benevolence. [His line is that] China could only progress if it had strong authoritarian capacity at the top and it could not afford democracy.”
At Wuzhen, Wang was essentially asking doyens of the technology industry to assist him in his mission to offer an efficient and benevolently authoritarian alternative to liberal democracy. Wang’s presence at the conference itself had much meaning and symbolism. Wuzhen is in Zhejiang, Xi’s political home. His successful stint as Zhejiang governor from 2002 to 2007 was a key factor that helped Xi become China’s paramount leader. Currently, the CPC’s most powerful faction is the ‘Zhijiang New Army’—Xi loyalists with ties to the province.
“The nature of China’s political system is such that geography determines political seats. Therefore, the natural institutional factions that emerge are clustered around geographically centred forms of power,” said Tristan Kenderdine, a China scholar who has taught at the Australian National University in Canberra and is research director at the international consultancy Futurerisk. “The Zhijiang New Army—Zhijiang is a river in Zhejiang; the name is a poetic allusion—was formed around Xi’s time in the area, drawing trusted colleagues closer to him.”
A prosperous province, Zhejiang is home to Alibaba and many other Chinese internet giants. It was under governor Xi that Alibaba’s Jack Ma, a former English teacher, became the poster boy of China’s tech revolution and later the country’s richest man.
The meaning of Wang’s presence in Zhejiang went deeper still. The province is home to a large number of officially acknowledged descendants of Confucius, the most famous of Chinese sage-politicians. Wang himself has an obvious Confucius connection. Although he was born in the slick and bustling Shanghai, Wang traces his roots to a serene, sleepy province called Shandong—where Confucius was born and laid to rest. Wang’s given name, Huning, is noteworthy: Hu is the short name for Shanghai in Mandarin, and ning means tranquillity. At Wuzhen, Wang embodied the spirit of Shanghai tranquillity that had come to define China’s holistic objective under Xi—consummating a difficult marriage of the modern and the ancient, of capitalism and communism, of technology and spirituality.
“The heyday of Confucian revival was a decade ago,” said Easten G. Law, assistant director for academic programmes at Princeton Theological Seminary in the US. “What Xi has done is to amplify the CPC’s doctrine alongside this revival…. He wants Chinese citizens to have greater ‘faith’ in the party and the nation.”
Weeks before the conference in Zhejiang, Xi had inducted Wang into the CPC’s seven-member politburo standing committee, the elite party body that runs the government. Wang was the only committee member who had no administrative experience. He had never governed a province nor managed an important economic portfolio—the only two ways by which one could become a top leader in China.
It was only after, and not before, Wang entered the committee that he finally got his own ship to steer—the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilisation, which under Xi has become the country’s central ideology lab.
All this gave Wang a unique position in the Zhongnanhai, the CPC headquarters near the Forbidden City in Beijing. If Xi was the uncrowned king, Wang was the cardinal of China’s Kremlin.
“The ‘power behind the throne’ analogy is apt for Wang,” said Kenderdine. “He is the ideological architect of the previous three administrations, and he is at the helm now.”
ANTS IN THE PANTS
Around 80km south of Wuzhen is Zhejiang’s capital, Hangzhou. It is home to Alibaba and its affiliate Ant Group, which together dominate China’s e-commerce and digital payment domains. In October 2020, weeks before Ant Group’s initial public offering was to raise a record $37 billion from Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges, Jack Ma delivered a speech criticising the CPC leadership for “stifling innovation”. He accused the state-run Chinese banks of having a “pawnshop mentality” that severely affected entrepreneurs. The banks had long been pumping money into underperforming state-owned entities, forcing more and more entrepreneurs to rely on capital markets abroad. The “outdated supervision” of financial regulators, Ma hinted, was threatening China’s financial stability.
The government’s response was swift. Ant Group’s IPO was suspended, and Ma was forced to disappear from public view. He had to lay low in Hangzhou for months before he was allowed to speak in public again.
Ma’s speech had hit a raw nerve because Beijing had been struggling to address the issues he had pointed out. Forced to find money abroad, Chinese non-financial corporations had run up huge external debts that equalled 161 per cent of China’s GDP—much higher than normal. China’s combined public debt, nearly 300 per cent of the GDP, was the highest among major economies.
Recognising that this had the double effect of threatening the party’s hold on the economy and making billionaires beholden to foreign interests, the CPC cracked the whip. Companies that relied on foreign capital or technologies—such as the ride-hailing app DiDi, food delivery platform Meituan, and even online giants like TenCent and Baidu—were told to offload debt or suspend IPO plans. After Ma was banished to Hangzhou, there was bloodbath in the domestic tech industry.
“Gradual decoupling from the US bubble and creating a China bubble remains Xi’s ultimate goal,” said B.R. Deepak, professor of China studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. “Whether China will succeed in the long run is a million-dollar question. The crackdown on big tech has already eroded more than a trillion dollars from markets, and has had a very negative impact on growth. It has certainly marked the end of laissez-faire growth in China.”
The tech crackdown has geopolitical aspects as well. One of them is to shift resources towards developing cutting-edge technologies indigenously. Western sanctions against telecom giant Huawei had left China with an acute shortage of essential integrated chips and semiconductors. Xi does not want a repeat of that.
The problem is that only a small number of players—such as Intel, Samsung and TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company)—have the sophisticated know-how to manufacture semiconductors. And China is yet to master all three phases in manufacturing semiconductor chips, which are design (the cutting-edge research phase), chip fabrication (capital-intensive), and assembly and testing (labour-intensive).
“Assembly and testing is right up Beijing’s alley,” said Pranay Kotasthane, deputy director of the Takshashila Institution in Bengaluru. “China’s SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation) could have caught up in chip fabrication, had the US not categorised China as a strategic adversary. But now China has to develop their own stack. With its Chip Fund, China is putting a lot of resources into it; but again, that requires technology transfer and cooperation with US companies.”
Xi is desperately attempting a socialist reconstruction of China’s technology sector. This means that workers must try harder than ever to meet the various goals set by the government. The situation has so disillusioned the youth that countercultural movements—like the tangping movement (lying flat on one’s back and wasting time)—are becoming popular. “Chinese millennials have refused to become money-making machines for the ruling class and are resorting to not getting married, not having children, not having a job, not owning property, and consuming as little as possible,” said Deepak.
The government has cracked down on these movements by terming them “spiritual opium”. It is up to Wang, and his Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilisation, to prescribe antidotes.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN BEIJING
In February 2020, real-estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang publicly criticised Xi for his shoddy handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Nicknamed ‘Big Cannon Ren’ for his outspoken posts on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, Ren said there was a “crisis of governance” within the CPC, and that he saw “not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being emperor”.
Ren disappeared weeks later and was sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges after a one-day trial in September 2020. Since then, Xi has doubled down on his mission—centralising power, purging rivals and initiating a plan to forcibly redistribute wealth through his much-hyped ‘common prosperity’ programme, unveiled in June. The objective is to preserve the CPC’s legitimacy to govern the country, but Xi is struggling to uproot rival factions and powerful vested interests.
“Looking from the outside, you would think: he has rewritten the constitution, he is going to be leader forever,” said Valerie Tan, analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “That is not exactly true. The fact that he hasn’t left the country shows how precarious his position is.” Xi has not stepped out of China since the pandemic began; his last foreign visit was to Myanmar in January 2019.
The reason is that the party congress—the CPC’s most important meeting held every five years to fill China’s top leadership positions—is due next year. Apparently, Xi wants to rule out any chance of him being side-lined. “A lot of activity doesn’t really happen at the congress, or the meetings before the congress,” said Tan. “It happens way before. And that is why we see the stepping up of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. He has got rid of some of the so-called enemies, but you can never say for sure.”
With Wang’s help, Xi scored a major victory recently. On November 11, he pushed through a resolution on party history at the sixth plenum of the incumbent central committee (the committee is a 200-member, parliament-like body that is formed and dissolved every five years).
“The third plenum and the sixth plenum are very important occasions,” said Jacob. “It was in the third plenum of the 11th CPC central committee in December 1978 where Deng Xiaoping launched economic reforms. So, the third plenum is the special occasion where they make decisions on economic issues. The sixth plenum is similarly noted for addressing big questions of leadership, and for historical and political assessments.”
Xi’s resolution at the sixth plenum was just the third such resolution in the party’s 100-year history. “The first was the resolution in 1945, in which Mao established his dominance in the party. The second resolution was in 1981, in which Deng dealt with the question of Mao’s place in Chinese history,” said Jacob.
Mao’s policies, such as the disastrous cultural revolution in the 1960s, had left millions dead and the economy in ruins. Deng himself was purged twice, before he was rehabilitated. He took control of the CPC, replacing Mao’s designated successor, Hua Guofeng. Deng could have done what Nikita Khrushchev had done to Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union—denounce his dead predecessor as a murderous villain and initiate course corrections in decision-making.
“But they came up with a resolution where they said Mao was mostly right, but he made certain mistakes; that Mao was right 70 per cent of the time and wrong 30 per cent. And therefore, we shall take what was right,” said Jacob.
China owes its place in the global order today to that resolution 40 years ago. It was after that plenum that it opened its economy to foreign investment, became a manufacturing powerhouse, rescued hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty, allowed nearly 700 people to become billionaires, built megacities and sent people to space. No country, except perhaps post-World War II Japan, has managed such a quick turnaround of its economic fortunes.
“China’s reality is more like Japan’s than Russia’s. And yet the party seems to insist on running an alternate history simulation, putting themselves in the Soviet place against the US,” said Kenderdine. According to him, Xi’s campaign for a third term may be settled early next year. “The lead-up to the congress will either be a quiet plod towards a hard codification of power around a third term for Xi, or a rapid de-structuring of Xi’s political world if a viable alternative can somehow achieve enough intra-party political capital to force a radical change,” he said.
With the sixth plenum, though, Xi seems to have moved one step closer to being China’s leader for life. The resolution says that both Mao and Deng’s paths, while divergent, were right, and that it served China well at different times and contexts; that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is the correct road that has led the country toward development and prosperity; and that time has now come for the Xi Jinping Thought, which will guide China in a post-capitalist era of new realities.
Jacob pointed out that the term ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ refers to the efforts of the CPC to redefine Marxism to suit China’s national conditions. “The last party congress in 2017 took on board a new formulation—Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era. Now that’s a mouthful,” he said. “What the plenum does is a sort of confirmation of the shorthand, the Xi Jinping Thought. Mao is the only other leader with a ‘Thought’ system in his name. Even Deng Xiaoping only has ‘Theory’. Thought is the highest form of any sort of intellectual framework in China, and Xi has created such a framework for himself.”
Xi Jinping Thought, however, is not framed for just China. “By saying that everything [including Marxism] has to be modified according to [China’s] national conditions, it is also suggesting that the Chinese model is something the world should take a look at as an alternative’,” said Jacob.
On November 18, the propaganda department of the Chinese government published Xi Jinping: The Governance of China, the first volume in a planned series of books on the new Xi doctrine, in Hindi, Pashto, Dari, Sinhalese and Uzbek.
It is the latest victory in Wang’s ongoing mission: to offer a benevolently authoritarian global alternative to the crisis-ridden liberal democracy.
SONGS OF WAR
In June 1989, a column of tanks of the People’s Liberation Army rolled into the Tiananmen Square in Beijing to crush thousands of students who were protesting for greater political freedom. One of the incident’s most iconic images is of a lone man resolutely blocking the way of the tanks. The ‘Tank Man’ remains anonymous even now, but a Tank Woman is much more famous, albeit in a different context.
She is Peng Liyuan, and she hails from Wang’s home province of Shandong. A soprano, Peng was 26 when the protests happened. She had sung at the square, not for the students but for rows of rifle-bearing PLA troops who had cleared civilian protesters from Tiananmen, which in Chinese means “gates of peace”. Her services won her a civilian rank equivalent to a major general in the PLA.
Peng has also been Xi’s wife for 34 years. The couple, who married in 1987, have a daughter, Xi Mingze, who studied at Harvard under a pseudonym, and, according to The Washington Post, once even attended a discussion about “the political tumult convulsing China’s ruling communist party”. Xi Mingze is 29 now, and apparently as fashion-conscious as her celebrity mother; Peng’s love for designer clothes has landed her in Variety magazine’s best-dressed list.
The love for couture and the arts run in the Xi family. Xi himself is a big fan of Water Margin, a classic Chinese tragedy set in the background of the 12th-century Song imperial dynasty. His favourite character in the novel is the legendary outlaw Song Jiang, who is said to have rebelled against the powerful dynasty in Shandong. Song’s seditious poem in Water Margin goes thus: “Just like a ferocious tiger hiding in the hills, sheathing its claws and jaws while waiting and enduring… If one day I can redress my grievances, the Xunyang river will be filled with blood!”
An enduring grievance that the CPC wants to redress is China’s ‘century of humiliation’—the time from 1839 to 1949, when the Chinese empire under the Qing dynasty was invaded and brutalised by the US, Japan, Russia and European powers. China’s official history says the century of humiliation ended when the People’s Republic was founded under Mao’s leadership.
Since assuming power, Xi has repeatedly spoken about restoring China’s past glory. The party has officially adopted his “China Dream”—which Xi describes as “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. The dream is to bring back the millennia-old concept of tian xia, which means “all under the heavens” is within the influence of the Chinese empire.
Experts say that Xi, through his aggressive foreign policy, may be trying to revive this Sinocentric order. Or at least establish a similar order in the Indo-Pacific, where Tokyo, Seoul, Hanoi and Bangkok were once submissive to the emperor in Beijing. “That is exactly what we are trying to resist,” said Narushige Michishita, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, the Japan government’s premier national university and think tank. “We are not living in the 19th century, and we will do our best to defend our values and way of life…. While we prevent China from expanding the Sinocentric order, we must keep encouraging the Chinese leaders and people to build a country that is great and respected at the same time.”
Xi has been stepping up his aggressive rhetoric against Taiwan, but the real flashpoint could be the Senkakus, a group of uninhabited islands held by Japan but claimed by China as part of the old Qing empire. “Japan is capable of defending the Senkaku Islands militarily,” said Michishita. “But if China succeeded in taking Japan by surprise through the combined use of disinformation and propaganda campaigns, cyberattacks, psychological warfare, grey-zone campaigns and military coercion, Japan might lose control of the islands without really fighting. That is something that we really work hard to avoid.”
Like in Water Margin, in which Song Jiang ends up killing his own unlovable wife, Xi’s policies also appear to show little mercy to even those countries that are ideologically aligned with China. Vietnam, for instance, has had a tough decade, even though it is a socialist country with close ties to Beijing.
“Vietnam and China have always had an uneasy relationship,” said Duy D. Trinh, specialist at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University. “Many in Vietnam, including the general populace as well as a sizeable proportion of political elites, perceive China as the number one security threat. Memories of the border skirmishes in the 1970s and the 1980s as well as territorial disputes in the South China Sea are still fresh in the collective consciousness.”
Trinh, however, pointed out that the two countries still remain close allies. “Very few countries, if any, are as closely aligned to Vietnam as China,” he said. “China was Vietnam’s first ‘comprehensive strategic partner’, which is the highest and most intimate tier of bilateral relationship under Vietnam’s foreign policy framework. Only China, Russia and India are in this tier, and the remaining two became such partners much later than China.”
Xi’s ambition to establish a Sinocentric world order extends to Africa, where China has pumped in nearly half a trillion dollars through loans, financial aid and Belt and Road Initiative-related development projects. China has considerable mining, industrial and banking interests in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy. Critics have been pointing out that Xi’s external policy of non-interference—which conveniently allows China to fund autocratic regimes—is saddling African economies with an enormous amount of debt that future generations cannot hope to pay off.
“Nigeria and other African countries do not have the political or economic savvy to see the problematic nature of Chinese loans and help,” said Oluwatosin Adeshokan, a Lagos-based analyst and journalist. “A lot of African economies—Nigeria’s especially—are not currently configured in a way that will allow for long-term prosperity. There is potentially a future generation of African citizens that will have problems paying back these loans and wondering why they were taken in the first place.”
Nigerians, however, see great value in China’s efforts to help develop their country. “Because Nigeria was colonised by the British, and Nigerians lived like British subjects for a long time, there is a sense of discomfort looking at China’s human rights record,” said Adeshokan. “But there is a question they ask, though: ‘What has the US or the UK done for me?’ The number [of people who ask this question] is growing, and that is why we can see the US starting a new initiative to counter China’s Confucius Institutes in Nigeria.”
With the US struggling to contain China’s rapid rise, where does India stand in the new great game? “India is one of the most important partners of Japan militarily,” said Michishita. “While defence spending of the US and Japan stagnates, that of China and India is increasing dramatically. We know that unless we have India as a partner, we will not be able to maintain the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.”
India’s efforts to rival China in East Asia had begun as far back as 1991, with the Look East policy initiated by prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. But the policy has under-performed. “In recent years, India has been considered a possible alternative by [East Asian] countries that seek to diversify its trade portfolio and reduce its reliance on export and import with China,” said Trinh. “But the appeal of India as a trade partner vis-a-vis China is still limited. This is understandable, given that India’s economy remains much smaller than that of China, and its growth rate has been short of impressive. India’s disastrous handling of Covid has put another dent in its image as a stable market alternative to China.”
The crucial difference is that India still does not have its own visionary Wang Huning. And perhaps, that is a good thing.
“We should not forget that the CPC is running an authoritarian system where a small circle sets the rules for more than a billion people—all of whom have a mind of their own,” said Jacob. “We don’t need to be like communist China, even though we are similar in many ways and have similar development problems. But we do not need to go down the authoritarian route. We are a democracy—one that can be better than what the Americans have.”