In mid-January, when Xi Jinping made his debut at Davos, the head of the Chinese Communist Party and president of the PRC took pains to appear as a self-confident leader determined to guide his country into a high-tech, globally interconnected future. He wanted the world to think that China had put far behind it the century of oppression by foreign powers that preceded the founding of the PRC, during which time, so goes the national myth, the country had been poor, weak, and badly governed. He wanted, too, to show that China had moved on from the ideological upheavals, irrational personality cult, and global isolation that characterized much of the era of rule by Mao Zedong (1949–76). This image of Xi, taken at face value in some international press reports, has stayed in the news via reports of such things as his championing of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, presented as a 21st-century reboot of China’s economic integration with the global community.
Recently, however, we have seen abundant and dispiriting evidence that there is a second, very different Xi to reckon with—one who wants to close off rather than open up China and who heads a government that makes moves eerily reminiscent of those associated with dark parts of the Mao era. Six months after the first Xi made headlines in Davos, this second Xi was refusing the requests of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo to receive life-saving treatments overseas, leaving him to die a prisoner of conscience. The first Xi speaks of global human rights, but the second has overseen an escalation of Internet censorship that has reached new extremes in the wake of Liu’s July 13 death, and, in a throwback to the guilt by blood-and-marriage ties that characterized the Cultural Revolution, he continues to persecute the prisoner-of-conscience’s wife, Liu Xia.
It was also the second Xi who went to Hong Kong at the start of this month to preside over a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the day that Hong Kong transitioned from a British Crown Colony to a Special Administrative Region of the PRC in 1997. The July 1 pageantry was filled with military symbolism, including not just a review of troops but also a visit to the harbor by an aircraft carrier. During his visit, each action and word signaled to residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region that, in the “One Country, Two Systems” formulation that characterized the 1997 agreement, the former must always trump the latter.
Lest this not be chilling enough to those fighting to preserve the 50 years of autonomy promised in 1997, within two weeks of Xi’s departure, and just one day after Liu Xiaobo’s death, a legal ruling stripped a total of six pro-democracy office holders of their positions in Hong Kong’s legislative council because they had shown insufficient solemnity during their swearing-in ceremony. Two were known for embracing extreme positions, and thus a rejection of their oaths was expected. But the essentially equal judgment passed on four more moderate figures clearly showed that, for this second Xi, there is no gray zone.
For people who teach and write about China for a living, as we both do, the conjuncture of July events has been deeply disturbing. This is not just because of the contrast between the moves the second Xi has been making and the speech he gave six months ago, but also because of the contrast between the hopes of a decade ago and the realities of today.