Chinese authorities have recently detained or questioned more than 150 human rights lawyers and activists in an unprecedented nationwide crackdown. Some detainees are missing, and a petition is calling on the U.S. to cancel the Chinese president’s upcoming state visit. In his April New Yorker story “Born Red,” Evan Osnos profiled Big Uncle Xi (the state news agency’s nickname for the president), “China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao”:
Before Xi took power, he was described, in China and abroad, as an unremarkable provincial administrator, a fan of American pop culture (“The Godfather,” “Saving Private Ryan”) who cared more about business than about politics, and was selected mainly because he had alienated fewer peers than his competitors. It was an incomplete portrait. He had spent more than three decades in public life, but Chinese politics had exposed him to limited scrutiny. At a press conference, a local reporter once asked Xi to rate his performance: “Would you give yourself a score of a hundred—or a score of ninety?” (Neither, Xi said; a high number would look “boastful,” and a low number would reflect “low self-esteem.”)
But, a quarter of the way through his ten-year term, he has emerged as the most authoritarian leader since Chairman Mao. In the name of protection and purity, he has investigated tens of thousands of his countrymen, on charges ranging from corruption to leaking state secrets and inciting the overthrow of the state. He has acquired or created ten titles for himself, including not only head of state and head of the military but also leader of the Party’s most powerful committees—on foreign policy, Taiwan, and the economy. He has installed himself as the head of new bodies overseeing the Internet, government restructuring, national security, and military reform, and he has effectively taken over the courts, the police, and the secret police. “He’s at the center of everything,” Gary Locke, the former American Ambassador to Beijing, told me.
In Xi’s early months, supporters in the West speculated that he wanted to silence hard-line critics, and would open up later, perhaps in his second term, which begins in 2017. That view has largely disappeared. Henry Paulson, the former Treasury Secretary, whose upcoming book, “Dealing with China,” describes a decade of contact with Xi, told me, “He has been very forthright and candid—privately and publicly—about the fact that the Chinese are rejecting Western values and multiparty democracy.” He added, “To Westerners, it seems very incongruous to be, on the one hand, so committed to fostering more competition and market-driven flexibility in the economy and, on the other hand, to be seeking more control in the political sphere, the media, and the Internet. But that’s the key: he sees a strong Party as essential to stability, and the only institution that’s strong enough to help him accomplish his other goals.”