This is a piece that was waiting to be written. But until now I’ve been reluctant. I’ve been reluctant to believe that the past has so powerful a pull. I’ve been reluctant to believe that China like Russia would regress. I’ve been reluctant to believe that leadership can so quickly and completely turn bad. Until now.
Now though the evidence is conclusive. Now though we know that China’s President Xi Jinping is a dictator. He is not an imperial president. He is not a strongman. He is a dictator.
What is the evidence? What does a 21st century dictator look like? What does a 21st century dictator do to keep total control?
- He precludes unfettered access to the internet.
- He precludes unfettered access even to virtual private networks.
- He decimates the opposition, if necessary by prosecuting, punishing, and putting away those who publicly disagree with him.
- He turns his enemies into public enemies. (China’s ostensible recent anti-corruption drive has led to the arrest or punishment of more than a quarter of a million communist party members, including roughly 50 of ministerial rank or higher.)
- He shrinks the number of decision makers.
- He consolidate his personal political power.
- He controls security – domestic security, national security, cybersecurity, and military security.
- He controls the media.
- He controls members of the military, gets them publicly to swear their allegiance, makes them responsible directly to him.
- He controls public policy including domestic policy, foreign policy, and economic policy.
- He control the police, and the secret police, and the judiciary.
- He centralizes both political ideology and moral authority – in this case in a revived Communist Party.
- He cultivates his image.
- He controls his image.
- He brooks no dissent – by any individual or any institution.
Briefly, it seemed that China might be headed in a different direction. Activists dared to take to the streets to protest, and on China’s once lively internet were alternative political voices. But in the less than two years since he took office, President Xi has clamped down. He has taken to ruling with an iron fist. There is no gainsaying this. It is what it is. So I have had to adjust to the idea that China has regressed to autocracy rather than progressed toward democracy. And so will American policy makers have to adjust to the idea that dealing with Xi is dealing with a leader who smacks more of China’s poisonous past than its promised future.