Xi Jinping’s quest for total control of China is just getting started

Chinese President Xi Jinping stands in front of a painting of the Great Wall during a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2018. (Pool/Getty Images)
14 min

As the summer of 1989 approached, a 35-year-old official in southern Fujian province named Xi Jinping was scrambling to contain local offshoots of nationwide protests that would become the biggest crisis for the Chinese Communist Party since Mao Zedong’s rule.

Students were calling for democratic freedoms. They wanted an end to official corruption and censorship of the press.

Xi, the Ningde city chief, and other Fujian officials struggled to figure out what to do as some 100,000 people took to the streets over several months starting in April, fired up by reports of students occupying Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Some piled into the railway station in Fujian’s provincial capital, bringing trains to a standstill. Fujian police arrested thousands, according to local official histories. But more kept coming.

By the time Xi emerged 23 years later in 2012 as China’s top leader, many thought he represented a party that had mellowed in its advancing years. Since 1989, the Chinese leadership had moved toward what outside observers saw as a more stable system of collective rule. To prevent Mao-style personality cults, senior leaders shared power and the head of state was confined to two five-year terms. Xi, they prophesied, would be a liberal reformer.

These predictions proved badly misguided.

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Rather, the party was seriously concerned about its survival. Under the lax leadership of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, rampant corruption, factionalism and mounting social discontent were undermining legitimacy. Xi was brought in to clean up the mess.

Over the last decade, Xi has reversed political changes of the 1980s designed to prevent over-centralization of power. He has done away with presidential term limits, reasserted party control and elevated his personal status to a level unseen in at least 30 years, if not the Mao era.

At a crucial party congress beginning Oct. 16, Xi is set to complete his elevation to uncontested paramount leader. “Xi Jinping is somebody who has spent years making the whole ideological apparatus say that the party only works with him as leader, and only his way of thinking about things is accurate,” said Joseph Torigian, a China historian at American University in D.C.

From early in his career, including in Fujian, Xi demonstrated a commitment to defending the party from perceived threats. After taking power, he launched a cleanup campaign that mirrored the party’s actions following Tiananmen, when it slammed the brakes on political change and rallied around a strongman leader, Deng Xiaoping, to steer the nation out of crisis.

Now, it is increasingly unclear when Xi will consider his role as savior of the party completed. He speaks regularly of a world undergoing “changes unseen in a century” and warns of the grave dangers of relaxing political authority. Only with the party in command, Xi says, can China achieve its “great rejuvenation.”

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It won’t be easy. As he begins his third term, he must contend with a severe economic slowdown and spiraling tensions with the United States and its allies. And many of the challenges Xi faces are related to his choices.

Strict “zero covid” policies have hammered the economy. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, his close partnership with Vladimir Putin has fueled concern in Western nations over Beijing’s intentions, following harsh security clampdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. And China’s military aggression toward Taiwan is threatening to destabilize the region and bring tension with the United States to a head.

But early indications suggest Xi is preparing to ramp up, not tamp down, his policy ambitions after the meeting. In the last year, Xi has intensified policy initiatives to promote China’s vision of global development and security as well as an ambitious drive to deliver “common prosperity” by tackling inequality at home.

Aside from being reappointed general secretary of the party and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission (and therefore almost certainly staying on as president from early next year), analysts predict that Xi will probably achieve a “supermajority” of politicians within his network on the 25-member Politburo that sits at the apex of power. Pekingologists are watching to see if he receives a new official title such as “people’s leader” or “party chairman.” Few expect a successor to emerge at the twice-per-decade conclave.

“Counterintuitively, the more problems that the system faces, the more of a case that Xi Jinping can make that it was right” for the party to give him broad decision-making powers and authority as the “core” of the leadership, Torigian said.

China’s State Council Information Office and Foreign Ministry declined to answer questions for this article.

Party man

In 2012, as Xi was preparing to be confirmed as China’s next top leader, the party was struck with one of the largest political earthquakes it had faced since 1989. Bo Xilai, a contemporary of Xi’s and contender for a top leadership position, fell from power in a scandal that revealed deep fractures and glaring abuses of authority in the senior ranks.

As the Arab Spring was deploying social media and promises of democratic reforms to topple authoritarian regimes, official corruption was everywhere in China. And an angry public was increasingly calling it out online, posting pictures of cadres with Rolexes and fueling rule-of-law activism.

As a “princeling” son of a revolutionary leader with a record of loyalty, Xi was brought in to put the nation back on track. “There was a broad consensus that the party was at an existential turning point and that something needed to be done,” said Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and CEO of China Strategies Group.

After taking power, Xi immediately warned officials about the seriousness of the situation. In internal speeches, he said that tackling corruption was a question of survival for the party.

In contrast to other authoritarian leaders including Mao, who occasionally ran roughshod over established institutions to grab power, Xi has largely worked within the party to strengthen its levers of power while placing himself in a unique position to operate them.

One example is how he turned an anti-graft campaign designed to enforce discipline and punish excess after Bo’s downfall into an expanded and permanent National Supervisory Commission, established in 2018. “That’s why he is so powerful now. If he controls that institution, then he can compel consent from colleagues on policies and decisions of his preference with the threat of disciplinary investigation,” said Ling Li, a lecturer on Chinese politics and law at the University of Vienna, adding that the extent to which Xi has achieved complete personal control over the anticorruption apparatus is unclear.

In January 2013, two months before he assumed the presidency, Xi advised against denigrating either Mao or Deng for fear that the People’s Republic could collapse like the Soviet Union. He oversaw a mass education campaign for cadres who watched a documentary about the Soviet regime’s final years. It warned of the need to be “vigilant in peacetime” and spoke of “bitter lessons” from Mikhail Gorbachev’s failure to prevent the party from unraveling.

The moral of the Soviet Union’s demise continues to animate Xi’s leadership today. In July, the docuseries was rereleased by the official social media account of World Socialism Studies, a research institute under the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

After Gorbachev’s death on Aug. 30, Chinese nationalists called him a “villain of history.” The propaganda department of Zhejiang province said that “he did indeed bear unavoidable responsibility” for the Union’s breakup.

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In the name of preventing “separatism,” Xi imposed draconian national security legislation on Hong Kong to end protests over creeping interference from Beijing. He has pursued a policy of mass detention and forced assimilation in Xinjiang, which the U.N.'s human rights commissioner recently ruled may constitute crimes against humanity. He has declared that self-governing Taiwan “must and will” come under Chinese Communist Party rule.

Xi’s dedication to the party is apparent in little-known essays and speeches reviewed by The Washington Post from his 17 years in Fujian — as is his tendency to respond to periods of uncertainty with more-concentrated control.

One lesson Xi took from Tiananmen was that art and literature could be a threat to the party, presaging the shift to stricter censorship under his rule. In October 1989, Xi wrote in local literary magazine “Caibei” that art could not be allowed to be used “as a political tool.” He criticized an avant-garde exhibition held in Beijing before the protests, where one artist had squatted over eggs like a chicken and another washed his feet in a bowl.

Unmentioned by Xi was the most notorious part of the show: A 26-year-old art student had illegally fired a gun, as part of her performance art, after which she was immediately arrested. “It’s impossible for any nation’s government or ruling party to not meddle at all in literature and the arts,” Xi wrote. “The difference is only in the extent of the interventions. Standards vary.”

At the same time as Xi led efforts to tamp down protests in Ningde, the party’s top leadership was creating a hard-line position against political liberalization that would persist until Xi and sharply intensify under his tenure.

“Never Turn Back,” a recently published history of the 1980s in China by Harvard scholar Julian Gewirtz, shows that substantive debates about political reform, led by then general secretary Zhao Ziyang, took place throughout the decade, but hard-liners within the party swiftly ended them after Tiananmen.

Propaganda directives from the time gathered by Gewirtz describe how the crisis awakened the party to the failure of ideological and political work during the 1980s. A report by state investigators noted a “loss of faith” in the party and socialism, prescribing targets for ideology and politics like those for the economy.

To reassert control after the purge of Zhao, Deng was designated as the “core” of the party, a title he conferred to his chosen successor, Jiang Zemin. In May 1989, Deng advised that leaders should “not be dissatisfied with each other, do not deplete your own power. … The key is the leadership core.”

Xi has ruled by that same mantra. He was crowned “core” leader in 2016, a title that eluded his predecessor. An important resolution on party history passed in November secured Xi’s position as the unquestioned leader for the foreseeable future, when it ruled that establishing Xi Thought as guiding ideology and establishing Xi as core of the party “expressed the deepest wishes of the whole party, the whole military, and the peoples of the whole country.”

Ideological focus

Weeks after the Tiananmen crackdown, in July 1989, Xi hiked into the backcountry with a straw hat and walking stick, to visit the impoverished village of Xiadang. Xi had chosen the village, one of the most remote in Ningde, for the center of his poverty alleviation push.

It was the carrot to the stick of a security buildup to tamp down political unrest, as recorded in local gazetteers. Even as Xi hiked the hills touting economic opportunity, the county where Xiadang was based had just built a munitions warehouse and started twice-a-year patriotic training for militias. Soon after, provincial authorities announced police may take anyone who did not produce their national ID card back to a police station.

Xi would report incredibly rapid success: More than 96 percent of destitute people in his district pulled out of abject poverty in two years.

Xi has since brought a similar deal to China’s people on a larger scale. Poverty alleviation has been one of his hallmark campaigns, capped by his declaration in early 2021 that China had eradicated extreme poverty. As with his experiment in Xiadang, the nationwide poverty relief campaign came with parallel measures to quell political dissent, with some of the harshest execution reserved for ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

In Xiadang village today, the myth of Xi the man blends seamlessly into the nationwide initiatives he is credited with creating. Xi’s quotations sprawl across walls and buildings in large, red characters. Local museums show photos of Xi personally leading the charge, walking through fields with a hoe slung over his shoulder.

Central to Xi’s mode of rule is renewed enforcement of the ideological “mass line” within the party — shorthand for following directions set by the top leadership. His eponymous philosophy, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, is taught in schools and pored over by economic planners, People’s Liberation Army generals and diplomats.

“Ideological control is not a supplement, but arguably the foundation of political control, because if an autocrat can control people’s ideas and beliefs, there would be no need for coercion,” said Yuen Yuen Ang, a professor of politics at the University of Michigan.

The fear is that Xi has over-centralized power, making criticism of his policies tantamount to criticism of the party itself. Ang sees this dynamic at play with the sidelining and silencing of voices that criticized Xi’s “no limits” partnership with Russia — a move that escalated Western perceptions of China as a threat.

Taming Taiwan

In 1995, the 42-year-old Xi found himself on the front lines of a different crisis. The United States had allowed Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui to visit, infuriating Beijing, which claimed Taiwan as a runaway province. The People’s Liberation Army mobilized troops in Fujian.

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Xi was head of Fujian’s capital Fuzhou, and also held a military title. While it’s unclear if he was directly involved in the barrages of missiles fired from Fujian into the waters around Taiwan that year, he must have keenly followed events. When Xi was promoted to governor, he ordered a buildup of military installations, citing Lee’s trip and the threat of Taiwan “separatism,” according to an essay he published in 2000.

Since becoming president, Xi has expressed impatience on Taiwan, saying in 2019 “we should not allow this problem to be passed down from one generation to the next.” He has ramped up naval drills near Taiwan, raising alarms that he could be flirting with the idea of invasion.

In August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan, plunging U.S.-China ties to fresh lows. China’s ambassador to France declared that Taiwan’s people would need to be reeducated after unification, in line with Xi’s broader push for ideological allegiance.

Loyalty enforcing mechanisms have been strengthened from the top to bottom rungs of the party. Low-level members are encouraged to attend study sessions where they learn about ideology and pledge fealty. At the highest level, the members of the Politburo since 2018 have been required to present annual reports to Xi for his approval and feedback.

Xi first adopted a similar practice in April 1989 when he set up a “responsibility system” for Ningde officials, including himself. They would be assessed on progress toward self-set goals and be “severely punished” for inaction, according to a front-page article in the official Fujian Daily newspaper from the time.

As students filled the streets in May 1989, Xi called a news conference in Fujian. He reminded local journalists of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and argued that restricting personal freedoms was necessary for society to function. The elision of freedom with lawlessness was an easy one to make, and one that Xi’s party still makes today.

“If everyone just does what they want,” he said, “do you still have guarantees of your democracy and security? Can it really be done this way? So democracy cannot be absolute. It must have certain constraints.”

Dou reported from Ningde, China. Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.