SHANGHAI — Chinese scholars and Communist Party cadres have a succinct way of describing the tectonic shifts taking place here: Deng Xiaoping made us rich, now Xi Jinping is making us strong.
The phrase sums up China’s economic rise that began under Deng four decades ago, and the hopes for a similarly significant geopolitical realignment under the current president.
Xi has devoted his seven years in power to strengthening the ruling Communist Party, and by extension the country. He has relentlessly quashed dissent, sidelined rivals and demanded absolute loyalty.
After pledging to make the party “north, south, east and west,” he has ensured that it is paramount not just in policymaking but in the military, business, education and the law.
Now, Xi is facing challenges on multiple fronts, and the Communist Party, riven with paranoia at the best of times, is seeing threats at every turn.
He has to contend not just with a slowing economy but also a protracted trade war with the United States that has entered a new confrontational phase with President Trump’s decision to impose more tariffs next month.
He is facing escalating Western criticism of Chinese policies toward ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, where as many as 3 million people have been put into reeducation camps. He is dealing with an increasingly assertive Taiwan at the same time a pro-democracy movement swells in Hong Kong.
All of these loom as dangers to Xi’s authority as the party’s general secretary and are heightening a sense of alarm within a party long fearful of external threats.
“A strong party is the key to a successful China, in Xi’s eyes. It is also the only way to fend off enemies abroad, most notably the U.S.,” said Richard McGregor, an expert on the party and the author of a new book about Xi’s leadership.
Xi is trying to harden the party’s internal resolve to fend off these threats — most acutely, a United States that many observers say seems intent on containing China.
“Xi has a legion of internal critics, including over his handling of relations with Washington,” McGregor said. “One way to bring them to heel is by demanding fealty and loyalty to the party, and by extension, to himself.”
Since taking power, Xi has rewritten the party’s rules — including ending term limits, setting himself up to be leader indefinitely — and launched huge study campaigns to instill his personal ideology across society, starting with toddlers, through schools and universities and through the Central Committee Party School in Beijing. The party has developed an app through which Chinese can study “Xi Jinping Thought.”
The president this past week exhorted party members to “work hard to purify, perfect, reform and upgrade ourselves.”
“No exterior forces are able to take us down, as we are the world’s largest political party; the only one who can defeat us is ourselves,” Xi wrote in Qiushi, the influential publication of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
“We should stay alert to the ubiquitous factors that could weaken our Party’s pioneering nature and contaminate our Party’s purity,” he said. “If we don’t take strict precautions and correct them in time . . . small problems will grow into big ones, minor slips will escalate into an irreversible landslide, probably even leading to a broader and subversive catastrophe.”
Making the situation even more delicate, the party is now entering a sensitive period.
This month, party leaders both current and retired will repair to the beach resort of Beidaihe, about 200 miles east of Beijing, for their annual policy conclave. It was a ritual first begun by Mao Zedong in the 1950s.
The meeting is highly secretive — the state media don’t announce that it has begun or that it has ended, let alone what is discussed — and last summer, Beijing was awash with speculation that party elders had taken Xi to task for mismanaging the trade war.
This year, Trump’s threat to impose tariffs of 10 percent on the remaining $300 billion of untaxed Chinese exports to the U.S. could provide Xi with more cover, said Bill Bishop, publisher of the widely read Sinocism newsletter.
“It should be an easy argument to make that no one can manage Trump and so those trying to blame Xi have other, ulterior motives, and that even if China agrees to humiliating concessions there is no guarantee the U.S. side will keep its word,” Bishop wrote this week.
The other key event that is concerning party leaders is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which Xi plans to mark in October with a massive military parade.
With the anniversary drawing near, Chinese television regulators this past week ordered all soap operas and costume dramas off the air for the 100 days leading up to National Day on Oct. 3, replacing them instead with patriotic shows that engender love for the motherland.
The airwaves with be filled for the next two months with dramas like “Spy Hunter,” a thriller about young Communist agents sacrificing themselves to protect the motherland and fight for peace in 1931. Then there’s “Barley Fragrance,” set in a southern village in the decades after economic reforms began, which tells the story of a veteran soldier and his selfless wife leading villagers to cast off poverty and rejuvenate the local economy.
The relevance of the Communist apparatus to modern Chinese life is not always readily apparent, even to the party faithful.
On a recent rainy Saturday, lines of them were queuing up to enter the site where the first National Congress of the Communist Party of China was held in 1921.
The birthplace of the Communist Party, a set of brick buildings in the financial capital of Shanghai, is now surrounded by glitzy malls and Lamborghini dealers. But school groups and work groups flock here by the busload to learn about the party’s history.
“Stay true to our founding mission and loyal to the party, lead the staff and workers to achieve [new] feats,” read a banner held up by the members of the Lujiazhen Workers Union, who had made the pilgrimage from the surrounding Jiangsu province.
Inside, groups of 20-somethings stood with their fists raised in front of the Communist Party flag, reciting the party admission oath. I will “strictly observe party discipline, guard party secrets, be loyal to the party, work hard, fight for communism throughout my life, be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the party and the people,” they chanted.
Xi’s efforts to bolster the party and his leadership over it are rooted in a sense of insecurity, say longtime China scholars.
“The party system, after all, doesn’t just exist on its own. It operates in opposition to something else: the West and democracy,” McGregor writes in “Xi Jinping: The Backlash.”
China’s leaders have intensively studied the collapse of the Soviet Union — Xi even had top officials watch a four-part documentary about it soon after he came into office — and concluded that Mikhail Gorbachev made a strategic error by opting to liberalize rather than tighten political controls.
The Arab Spring, in which popular revolts forced Middle Eastern dictators from power, added weight to the view in Beijing that it must clamp down and not loosen up. Chinese leaders have been watching events in Venezuela, where the United States has tried to help Juan Guaidó oust authoritarian president Nicolás Maduro.
Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong this summer and Washington’s recent accommodation of Taiwan — notably through renewed arms sales and allowing the democratically ruled island’s president to visit the United States — have only heightened the party’s fears.
Meanwhile, the party’s increasingly repressive actions inside China, such as the crackdown in the Xinjiang region and the growing use of surveillance technology, “reflect heightened fear and insecurity, not a self-confident China aspiring to enhanced leadership in global and regional affairs,” Jonathan D. Pollack and Jeffrey A. Bader of the Brookings Institution wrote in a recent paper.
“Beijing exhibits a narrowness of vision and self-protectiveness, at the same time warily eying America’s increasingly stark and threat-driven characterizations of relations with China,” they wrote.
Because of this sense of insecurity, party leaders view the Trump administration’s declaration of a trade war not as a purely economic matter but as a broader, strategic effort to contain China, according to people familiar with the leadership’s thinking. China’s economy registered its slowest annual growth in 27 years in the second quarter.
This theory got a boost from none other than John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, late last year. “This is not just an economic issue,” he told Fox Business. “This is not just talking about tariffs and the terms of trade. This is a question of power.”
As the trade negotiations rumble on, more people in China are subscribing to the view that the dispute is about geopolitics rather than economics, scholars say. That it’s all about keeping China down.
“I believe that. Xi Jinping believes that,” said one well-connected Chinese academic, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive political issues. “Of course, we have to respond to that,” he said.
The perception gap between China and the United States is huge, the academic said, searching around for the appropriate English analogy before arriving at “women are from Venus, men are from Mars.”
This is because the United States looks at the development and wealth in Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, and at Chinese technology companies like Alibaba and Huawei, and sees an increasingly powerful economic player.
But Beijing doesn’t look at the situation only through the lens of the past few decades, the academic said. It looks at it from the perspective of the past few centuries.
“China can’t back down anymore. If you read the editorials, you see that China is determined,” he said, referring to the strident commentary in state media.
“I think some would even compare it with the unequal treaties of 100 years ago,” he continued, harking back to the British victory in the Opium Wars of the 19th century and the occupations of the early 20th century.
With these old humiliations still raw, party leaders are trying to fuel an inner resolve as the anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China nears but a deal to resolve the trade war does not.
Liu Yang contributed to this report.