The BBC’s profile of Chinese President Xi Jinping is almost as lengthy as the one published by China’s state-run Xinhua news service, and it is considerably flashier in its multimedia presentation style, but also a good deal more skeptical.
The BBC sees a vast cult of personality developing around China’s leader, nourished by the full power of the Chinese state. History has yet to provide an example of a cult of personality with a happy ending.
His background positions Xi as a redemptive figure for Chinese Communism, the man who can finally make the ideals of the revolution work in a high-tech future without the irrational excesses of Maoism or the self-indulgent kleptocracy of more recent governments. He is the hard-working, no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone technician who rewrote the buggy code of 20th Century Communism to create a more efficient and user-friendly version for the Information Age.
In that sense, Xi’s cult of personality is really a story China is telling itself about itself: a nation becoming powerful, but also stable and reliable in a new century of global disruption.
Xi’s personality cult is protected by pervasive censorship, which the Chinese government justifies as vital to preserving national unity and social harmony against the anarchic tides of the Internet. In practice, it includes a great deal of thin-skinned pettiness, such as banning pictures of Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger because online rags compared the cartoon duo to portly Xi walking alongside tall, slender U.S. President Barack Obama.
The core of the ideological menace China represents to the values of the Western Enlightenment is captured by a passage halfway through the BBC’s massive Xi profile:
China’s leaders have always prioritized the control of sensitive information. But until Xi, the underlying assumption of many communists during the reform era was that a complex and dynamic modern economy would need decentralized decision making and that this would ultimately mean more internet freedoms.
Xi has a different vision – of a China, rich, united and strong under a disciplined one-party narrative. Wherever ideas are formed and transmitted, he has worked to recapture control.
When he toured the Beijing headquarters of state TV, a giant screen behind him flashed the message “absolute loyalty” and “our surname is the Party”.
On university campuses, Party leadership is being “enhanced” and academic textbooks scoured of Western influence. Private companies are eagerly announcing internal Communist Party cells, with even Shanghai’s Disney Resort enthusing that “some really good ideas come from the Party committee”.
The Chinese have been perfecting the tools of Information Age censorship for decades, carefully studying events from the Tiananmen Square uprising (the birthing cry of the online revolution, delivered mostly by fax machines) to the Arab Spring. They are currently working to seal the few cracks remaining in their Great Firewall, stamping out the techniques used by dissidents to evade censorship and turning the billions of connected devices in China into a perpetual security system unlike anything in human history.
The visionaries of the computer revolution imagined mankind liberated by the free flow of information. China leads the way in turning personal computers and the Internet into tools of repression.
Its techniques and attitudes are clearly having a profound effect on Western tech companies that do business with Beijing. The free world is not nearly frightened enough by the implications for the decades to come. From the BBC article:
When Xi visited Seattle in 2015, America’s technology giants allowed themselves to be summoned.
The bosses of Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, IBM and Amazon all stood alongside Xi in the front row of a group photograph. All have since embarked on multiple partnerships with China despite its commitment to perfecting internet censorship.
Also prominent in that photo was Mark Zuckerberg, but despite a charm offensive which included inviting the Chinese Communist leader to suggest a name for his baby, and praising Xi’s book on governance, Facebook is still barred from China. Google’s founders were not even invited to be in Xi’s photo.
Xi has ambitious plans for control of the internet and that means leverage over foreign companies.
“To fully control China’s cyberspace, Xi has had to take action against the world’s,” the BBC concludes.
The deeper problem is that China is not just imposing authoritarianism to protect its ruling party agenda. It is exporting authoritarianism, and there are willing customers. Other authoritarian states draw upon Chinese expertise to control their own digital space. China is very determined to spend the first half of the 21st Century proving that its model of centralized control and vigorously enforced national unity is superior to classical liberalism and free-market capitalism. There will be plenty of customers for their exported authoritarianism, not just in the Asian quarters of the Western sphere of influence, but within Europe and America themselves.
“A nation of active citizens is Xi’s nightmare,” the BBC writes. “Christians, Muslims, labor activists, bloggers, reporters, feminists, and lawyers have been jailed for speaking or acting on their convictions. In some cases, they have also been paraded in televised confessions.”
The BBC profile concludes by noting China faces deep problems Xi cannot spin away with political finesse, such as slowing growth, mounting debt, and a hard core of resistance to ideological control among the growing middle class. Xi projects confidence above all else, but he is really a gambler, betting he can achieve his geopolitical goals before a vital fuse blows somewhere in the system he presides over. The clock is ticking.