While the world’s gaze is focused on the shift of power in Singapore, Southeast Asia and North Korea, Xi Jinping is forging an image of himself as one of the world’s most powerful leaders.
Using social media and offline events with crowds of everyday citizens, Xi is underscoring a new national identity that his Red Guards are taking on. The message is clear: Who is the boss in China?
“On my road with the town people, I noticed there were so many orders here and things like that, that if I were a bandit, I would not want to be here. They’re as obedient as ever,” Xi said during a meeting with middle school students in Tianjin, according to the state-run news outlet Xinhua.
In addition to a troop of high school students, Xi has also dispatched a special travel team to the south of the country to get the message across, local newspapers reported.
Poverty, environmental degradation and other social ills were said to be responsible for China’s economic struggles in recent years. Xi’s new mission is to forge a more transparent and orderly society, Xinhua reported.
“(China’s people) are becoming more and more focused on leadership and less on material wealth,” said Andrew Liao, a professor at the American University of Beijing.
Xi’s new anti-corruption drive aims to eliminate a “deep-rooted leadership problem” that is less about discrediting the Communist Party than about removing potential rivals, said Shigeki Sato, an economics professor at Japan’s Keio University. The party is “worried about who might have the most influence” among ordinary people, and that could mean police and courts in cities where Xi is visiting won’t be fully staffed and resourced, he said.
That poses a challenge to the president and to the Politburo Standing Committee on which he sits, said Sato.
“(Xi’s) inability to get close to the base are certain to push him to build his leadership more according to tradition, which means he will become more authoritarian,” Sato said.
That authoritarianism will be on display as Xi leads the Communist Party’s 111th national congress this month and next.
“It’s quite shocking that he could do this without a thumb on the scale in his favor. But he is also driven by fear,” said Willy Lam, a politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Xi is implementing a sweeping program to create a more prosperous society that’s also cleaner, better educated and more prosperous. In doing so, he may be positioning himself to handle any succession of power after he leaves office in 2023.
The primary instruments of Xi’s reform project are the restructuring of state-owned enterprises, a renewed focus on improving education, a push to achieve clean air and water and a plan to allow all Chinese citizens to exchange their personal cars for public transportation in 2025.
Since being made president in 2012, Xi has pursued his wider agenda in ways that have already helped lower income levels, said Tang Jingling, a sociologist with the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Xi also opposes the traditional emphasis on development, which many scholars say is possible only through economic growth, Tang said.
“We’re changing from a top-down model in which the management of enterprises was and remains determined by the party to a more equal distribution of power,” Tang said.
That doesn’t mean that Xi’s broader program to modernize China is popular. The state-run media have always been Xi’s megaphone, and as he campaigns for economic growth through planned urbanization, the media push should never be underestimated, Tang said.
“In our society, ‘people magazine’ — which is the closest to news — has pretty much always come from the state,” he said. “In the past 20 years or so, the problems that the party faced were the problems of the government, so it wasn’t that difficult for them to mobilize interest groups and the people.”
With assistance from Nan Xiang, Leo Shane Iii, Lynn Hirschberg, He Wei, Munir Ahmed, Yu Wing-Man, Lucy Danziger, Arthur Lim and Mark Leonard