‘Xi Dada’ to ruler: China president embodies his authoritarian era

In his first years as China’s leader, Xi Jinping paid for his own steamed dumplings in a cheap diner, casually rolled up his trouser legs to avoid splashes in the rain, and was serenaded with sugary pop tunes. His image-makers cast him as “Xi Dada,” the people’s firm but genial “Uncle Xi. ”
A decade on, Xi looms over the country like a stern Communist monarch, reflecting on China’s fallen ancient dynasties and determined to win its lasting ascendancy. Chinese officials praise his speeches like hallowed texts, professing loyalty with a fervor that sometimes echoes Mao Zedong’s era. Privately mocking Xi can lead to prison.
A Communist Party congress opening on Sunday is shaping up to be Xi’s imperial moment, strengthening and extending his rule, while also intensifying the long-term hazards from his singular dominance. At the meeting in Beijing, he seems sure of winning a third term as the party’s general secretary.
The evolution of Xi’s public face has paralleled his transformation of China into a proudly authoritarian state, scornful of criticism from Washington, increasingly sure that Western democracy has lost its allure, and impatient for a bigger say in shaping the 21st-century global order.
The party congress will be Xi’s stage to demonstrate that he remains undaunted, despite the recent economic malaise, Covid outbreaks and increasing animosity with the US, which has labeled China a national security threat. He is likely to tell the 2,296 congress delegates that his government has saved many lives through its “zero Covid” policy; shifted the economy onto a path of cleanerand more efficient growth; raised China’s international standing; and made big strides in military modernisation.
“He wants to show that he’s determined to do big things,” said Neil Thomas, an analyst of Chinese politics for the Eurasia Group. “He sees his historical role as breaking the historical cycle of dynastic rise and fall so the Communist Party remains in power pretty much forever. ”
Xi, 69, presents himself as the history-steeped guardian of China’s destiny. He cites the toppling of China’s ancient empires, determined to ensure that it does not again fall prey to political decay, revolt or foreign aggression.
Xi is looking well beyond the next five years, trying to build a lasting edifice of power and policies. He is fleshing out his own creed and promoting cohorts of younger protégés, technocrats and military commanders who may advance his influence for decades.
Surrounded by deferential functionaries, Xi may become more prone to swaggeringoversteps. Unanswered questions over how long he will stay in power, and when he will name a successor, could unsettle officials, investors and other governments. Most experts believe he will not assign an heir at this congress, wary of undercutting his authority.
In Xi’s worldview, the party is the custodian of traditional Chinese hierarchy and discipline, set against the dysfunction of democracies. He argues that the party’s centralised power can mobilise China to accomplish feats beyond the grasp of Western countries, like cutting rural poverty, leaping into new technologies, or efficiently halting the spread of Covid.
But by the time Xi called together officials to hear plans for the congress, the public mood in China had shifted. The government’s measures against incessant outbreaks have fed rising frustration. China’s economy has been caught in a painful slowdown, brought on by the pandemic restrictions and steps to rein in big tech firms. And Xi’s fellow strongman, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been mired in the floundering Ukraine invasion.
Xi rarely singles out the US by name, but his warnings are clear. Rifts with the Trump and Biden administrations over technology sales, human rights and Taiwan appear to have hardened his distrust of Western intentions. President Joe Biden’s new national security strategy is likely to intensify Beijing’s wariness.
As the congress has neared, Chinese officials have garlanded Xi, the “core” leader, in vows of loyalty. “At all times and in all circumstances, trust the core, be loyal to the core, defend the core,” said one.

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