On November 12, 2012, Xi Jinping became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, the highest-ranking position in China. Five months later, on March 14, 2013, Xi also took on the title of President of the People’s Republic of China.
In less than a decade as president, Xi has become a figure that inspires mixed responses around the globe. Some respect his leadership while others deride his party’s strict control over the internet as authoritarian.
With China firmly established as one of the biggest players in global politics, Xi’s presence on the world stage is likely to remain prominent for the foreseeable future.
The political ascendancy of Xi Jinping
Xi’s life has been closely tied to China’s Communist Party from the beginning. Born in 1953, his father, Xi Zhongxun, was a leader in the communist revolution of the 1940s during the nation’s civil war. That war would lead Mao Zedong to proclaim the People’s Republic of China, thus establishing modern China as a communist country and Mao as its head of state.
As a teenager in 1969, Xi was part of Mao’s “Down to the Countryside Movement” which aimed to drive urban, educated youth to farmlands to learn about rural life. That generation of young people who were forced to leave their homes and bypass higher education has been dubbed by some as the “lost generation.”
For his part, Xi joined the Communist Party in 1974 and studied chemical engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing in the late 70s. In the 80s, Xi began his ascent through the party ranks, first by serving as a public official across multiple provinces.
Xi didn’t enter national politics until 2002, when he joined the Communist Party’s Central Committee. This led, a few years later, to his entrance into the Politburo Standing Committee, which is made up of top leadership from the Communist Party.
In 2008, Xi became vice president of the People’s Republic of China, a post he held until becoming president in 2013. He was also named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2010, another position he held until his presidency.
In 2010, with then-President Hu Jintao’s term about to come to an end, Xi’s presence as the presumptive head of the party led the New Statesman to list Xi number four on their list of “50 People Who Matter.”
Becoming the General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012 made Xi the most powerful political figure in China, a one-party country.
Xi Jinping, the most powerful leader
In 2017, The Guardian labeled Xi the “most powerful leader since Mao” after the president changed the nation’s constitution to include a part bearing his name.
The inclusion of the passage, entitled “Xi’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” didn’t enact any new powers for the president, but it did elevate Xi alongside party founders like Mao.
The inclusion of the passage was also seen as symbolic evidence that Xi intended to remain in office past 2022, which would mark the end of his second five-year term.
However, Xi’s enforcement of strict control over Taiwan and Hong Kong, which have led to mass protests, has led many to label him an authoritarian whose leadership has placed China back on the global stage. Others fear that Xi is hurting relationships that China built with western countries over the previous couple of decades.
The popularity of Xi Jinping
Xi currently enjoys widespread popularity within China, at least in part because of his marriage to Peng Liyuan. Peng, who is a folk singer and considered by many to be a fashion icon, has a large fan base that refers to her as “The Peony Fairy.”
Xi and Peng married in 1987. They had a daughter, Xi Mingze, in 1992.
For some in China, Xi is known as “mighty Uncle Xi,” an indication of his popularity and status as the central figure (or “core”) of the Communist Party.
Notably, Xi’s government has worked to tamp down the “cult of personality” that has arisen around him, even banning affectionate songs about the president that pop up online.
- China’s internet crackdown
Xi’s efforts to limit internet access in China has been a well-documented part of his presidency, which has come to be known as the “Great Firewall.”
Facebook, Google, and Dropbox are among the biggest websites that are blocked in China. In 2019, it was reported that the Chinese government was blocking access to Wikipedia in all languages
In 2019, the Chinese-based TikTok, one of the fastest growing social media apps in the world, was accused of censoring a teenager who discussed human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China. The account of that teenager, Feroza Aziz, was suspended, but TikTok denies the suspension was due to her video about Xinjiang or was enforced at the behest of the Chinese government.
Still, the Communist Party’s tight control on both the internet and media that is allowed to appear in China has led many companies in the West to censor their content as not to be banned by Chinese authorities.
China, with its population of 1.3 billion, is a market that both Hollywood and Silicon Valley are eager to hold onto.
- Anti-corruption policies
When taking office, Xi promised to crack down on corruption, which had grown substantially nationwide since economic reforms began in 1978. This promise was also a cornerstone of Xi’s political philosophy as he made clear in his inaugural speech as General Secretary in November 2012.
Xi then removed officials and civil servants accused of abusing their power, referring to them as “tigers and flies.”
In total, over 100,000 individuals, ranging from the senior management of state owned enterprises to military officials, were indicted and removed.
This is especially notable as an unspoken rule of “PSC criminal immunity” had existed within the government since the end of the Cultural Revolution. This rule largely granted criminal immunity to political incumbents and high ranking political and military figures. This made Xi’s crackdown more significant and bolstered his political reputation.
In October of 2017, President Xi’s political philosophy was enshrined into the Chinese constitution, making Xi the first active leader to have his political ideology included in the country’s constitution since Mao. (Deng Xiaoping’s name was included after his death in 1997.)
The amendment, titled “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” was unanimously approved by the party and set forth as a guiding principle of the nation.
- State media
As reported by the Chinese state-run media outlet Xinhua, “The Congress holds that the leadership of the Communist Party of China is the most essential attribute of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and the greatest strength of this system; the Party exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavor in every part of the country.”
Months prior to the constitutional solidification of his reign, Xi had formed a tighter grip on state media, with cyber laws put into place to control material distributed online by the general population.
One example is Article 246. Section 1 of the Criminal Law states that unlawful posts that are shared over 500 times or seen over 5,000 times will result in the poster being charged with up to 3 years in prison.
In early 2014, Xi established a new Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization. This new group, chaired by Xi Jinping himself, has the primary responsibility for regulating online content.
- “One China”
Under the Xi Administration, the relationship between mainland China and regions operating under the one country, two systems framework have been rocky.
The “One China” policy acts as a formal acknowledgement of the existence of only one Chinese government. Regions that operate under the “one country, two systems” administration include places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. Conflicts over the past year in Hong Kong enraged the Xi administration as Hong Kong protestors expressed their dissatisfaction with their lack of sovereignty and suppression of identity.
Included in the Chinese constitutional amendment is the following:
“Comrade Xi Jinping has set forth a series of important ideas and viewpoints on strengthening national defense and the armed forces, ethnic unity, “one country, two systems” and national reunification, the united front, and foreign affairs…”
In line with these “viewpoints,” the Communist Party gathered in October 2017 to discuss their plans to push mainland China towards “great rejuvenation.”
In a subsequent report, Xi stated that, “We [China] have the resolve, the confidence, and the ability to defeat separatist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form. We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China!”
- Presidential term limits abolished
The following year, presidential term limits, which had limited a president’s time in office to a maximum of two terms, a total of 10 years, were abolished.
“The Communist Party of China Central Committee proposed to remove the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China ‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms’ from the country’s Constitution,” read the Xinhua statement.
- Mysterious disappearances
Under Xi’s rule, there has also been a noticeably decreased tolerance for public political dissent.
More recently, Ren Zhiqiang, a property tycoon in Beijing who ran an online blog read by tens of millions, disappeared. The businessman wrote that President Xi was a power-hungry “clown” and that the government’s ban on civil liberties associated with the West, such as freedom of speech, had exacerbated the coronavirus pandemic.
This is not the first disappearance that has been tied to the Chinese government.
In 2015, five staff members of Causeway Bay Books, which sold content describing the salacious activities of mainland Chinese politicians, were held in captivity for months.
Following these abductions, Philip Hammond, a former British diplomat, stated that the involuntary removal of these Hong Kong citizens “[constituted] a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong.”
The Chinese government responded by stating that “the Sino-British Joint Declaration – as a historical document – no longer has any practical significance” for the relationship between Hong Kong and China.
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