The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rise in China has been powered by sexism

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Aug. 1, 2017. (Andy Wong/AP)

Leta Hong Fincher is the author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality” and the forthcoming “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.”

China’s strongman authoritarianism under President Xi Jinping has taken an alarming turn for the worse. With Sunday’s announcement that China’s Communist Party will abolish presidential term limits, Xi is poised to stay in office beyond the end of his second term and likely be China’s paramount ruler for many years to come.

There are many reasons that China’s modern Communist Party has survived for almost 70 years, in spite of the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. But it is impossible to understand the longevity of China’s Communist Party without recognizing the patriarchal underpinnings of its authoritarianism. In short, China’s ultimate strongman, Xi, like other autocrats around the world, views patriarchal authoritarianism as critical for the survival of the Communist Party.

For the first several years of his presidency (until early 2016), Xi was quite literally called Xi Dada — “Big Daddy Xi” — in the state media, which built up a personality cult around him the likes of which had not been seen since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, under Chairman Mao Zedong. This language celebrates Xi for his manliness and upholds the male-dominated family as the basic foundation of a strong and stable state. Propaganda images depict Xi  as the father of the Chinese nation in a “family-state under heaven” (jia guo tian xia). When Xi became president, pop and hip-hop songs emerged idolizing him not just as a father but as an ideal husband, too, such as “Be a Man Like Xi Dada” and one of the most popular songs of all, “If You Want to Marry, Marry Someone Like Xi Dada.”

The Communist Party aggressively perpetuates traditional gender norms and reduces women to their roles as reproductive tools for the state, dutiful wives, mothers and baby breeders in the home, in order to minimize social unrest and give birth to future generations of skilled workers. The party also is carrying out an unprecedented crackdown on feminist activists because China’s all-male rulers seem to think that China’s entire security state would collapse were it not for the subjugation of women.

Xi’s hypermasculine personality cult became so extreme that some Communist Party officials felt it had gone too far and in 2016 urged the state media to drop the term “Xi Dada.” Nonetheless, Chinese state media continue to present the nation as one big family, which needs strong, manly leadership in the form of Xi, the paternalistic patriarch.

Yet just how strong is this strongman in reality? Behind macho propaganda videos, Xi’s hold on power is much more fragile than it appears.

The Chinese government’s backlash against feminism, ever since the arrest of five women known as the Feminist Five in 2015, is a form of state-level, fragile masculinity, terrified at the prospect of emancipated women rising up to challenge the Communist Party’s political legitimacy. Under Xi’s leadership, Chinese authorities have carried out an unprecedented crackdown on feminist activists, making “feminism” a politically sensitive word and even making the #MeToo hashtag against sexual harassment subject to frequent censorship.

China’s economy has entered a protracted slowdown just as the country is beginning to face the severe demographic crisis of an aging population and a shrinking workforce. By most accounts, China’s decades-long “economic miracle” of double-digit growth rates is over. In response to the slowdown, Chinese propaganda under Xi’s leadership has revived sexist elements of Confucianism, in particular trying to push the notion that a traditional family (based on marriage between a man and a virtuous, obedient woman) is the foundation of a stable government.

For example, the official Xinhua news agency ran a long article last year about Xi and traditional “family values” (jiafeng). The article points out that the Chinese word for family (jia) is also part of the compound word for nation (guojia): “Xi Jinping has often stressed the importance of family values. He says ‘little family’ but he has in mind the ‘big family’ [the nation],”  Xinhua said.

Meanwhile, in almost 70 years of Chinese Communist history, there has never been a single woman on the Politburo’s elite Standing Committee. Why? I believe that China’s all-male rulers have decided that the systematic subjugation of women is essential to maintaining Communist Party survival. As this battle for party survival becomes even more intense, the crackdown on feminism and women’s rights — indeed, on all of civil society — is likely to intensify.

This trend is very dangerous for the rest of the world as well, since it is already happening in other authoritarian countries such as the Philippines, Russia, Iran and Turkey, with misogynistic “strongmen” who are rolling back women’s rights as an integral part of their authoritarian repression. We see it even in the United States, with rising authoritarianism and the undermining of long-established democratic norms wrapped up in a strong backlash against feminism.

How do we fight rising authoritarianism in China and around the world? By fighting the patriarchy. Supporting feminist activists and promoting women’s rights are the most effective way to stop the growing, misogynistic assault on democratic freedoms globally.