Big science and technology projects, acquiring innovations from abroad are not novelties – all his predecessors since 1978 have pushed these. But Xi has seized the digital and AI revolution, and promoted these tools for control. One big problem of the Chinese state was its weak presence at the grassroots – not enough financial or human resources. Mao made up for this with mass movements, enlisting "activists" and splitting the population into adversary categories. Even that was not so original, Mao learned it from the Peasant Movement Training school where he taught in 1926 – based on the textbooks of the Krestintern, the rural arm of Moscow’s Third International. Instead, Xi emphasizes digital control, for repression and for wider goals. In the first category, Xinjiang and the mass surveillance, re-educative internment and jailing of Uyghurs and Kazakhs stand out as a totalitarian experiment. Electronic surveillance, predictive algorithms, and pre-emptive action support the Party: who needs Mao’s Red Guards and mutual spying when digital techs do the job for you? Social credit schemes have a wider impact. They are effective tools to reward compliance with laws and regulations, and to punish errant behavior: the recipe is good for companies as for individuals. In a society that underwent collectivization and mass campaigns, trust is very low. Digital technologies replace trust, and bring security and stability to the individual – as well as to the Party-state, of course.
Digitalization has not stopped there. It has transformed China’s distribution sector and communications, once backward and ineffective sector, into the world’s largest e-commerce and social media: every Chinese made an average 50 mobile cash payments in 2018, and the dominant social media platform, WeChat, has 1,1 billion users. Even with the difficulty of analyzing such raw data, it means that the economy and society are becoming transparent to whoever controls the digital tools. In China, it unequivocally means the Party-state, and Xi sits at its apex.
This strength could also be his weakness. There is a surfeit of control from the center. Xi had himself designated as the "core" of the Party, and now receives the same honorary title for "leader" that was once Mao’s privilege. Every cadre, official, entrepreneur, expert or teacher is vulnerable to an accusation. NGOs are shriveling. The best recipe for longevity in Xi’s China is "not to stick out as a nail", as a Chinese proverb goes, but instead to live and work in obscurity, blending with the political environment.
Xi Jinping may use a Marxist title and use a Leninist vocabulary, but he also wears a Brezhnev longcoat. So long as growth continues, it provides de facto legitimacy to his rule. As growth falters, Xi will have to summon all the resources of nationalism to justify a regime that is both rigid and highly intrusive on one of the most individualistic populations on earth.
Copyright : Greg BAKER / AFP