Unconstrained by civil society and democratic institutions, Xi Jinping has set China on a dangerous course.
A commentary by Aaron Rhodes and Cheryl Yu
March 9, 2023
In this Oct. 12, 2022 photo, visitors walk past Communist party flags at the Museum of the Community Party of China in Beijing.
Chinese leaders aspire to global economic, political, and even spiritual leadership. But unless the Chinese Communist Party relaxes its suffocating restrictions on civil society, Chinese citizens won’t be able to fulfill their creative and human potential. Without independent assessments of the utility and moral integrity of its policies, no government can understand its errors and make changes, and keep its own power in check.
Free access to information strengthens society, but in 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping explained that “the [CCP] manages the media by putting all media at all levels under the leadership of the party.”
Censorship disadvantages the Chinese people in comparison to their counterparts in democratic societies. They are deprived of full access to scientific facts, historical and social scientific research, and the humanistic contributions and political debates that broaden our thinking and allow informed reflection on the challenges and possibilities of life in society. Instead, most of the Chinese people have access only to what the state allows. All public information and opinion are shaped in ways that putatively ensure the stability of the regime, not reflecting the objective reality of events.
Xi, now safely ensconced in a third term as top leader of the Communist Party, is using this year's session of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, to push structural changes that would tighten party control over security, intelligence, scientific and technological institutions, as well as over financial institutions--consolidating more political power in his hands. This will also choke the flow of information.
In this Oct. 16, 2022, photo, delegates applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of the 20th National Congress of China's ruling Communist Party held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. Credit: AP
In free societies, schools and universities have been incubators for new ideas and techniques, and for the development of individual character. But in China, education and research at all levels has been co-opted to control the people’s knowledge and understanding through propaganda, according to official directives on “adhering to political standards” and “strengthening and improving ideological and political work” at the primary, secondary, and university levels.
Xi’s support for “think tanks with Chinese characteristics” serves as an evidence for the suppression of independent research and thought. According to an Opinion published in 2015, the basic principle is to “adhere to the Party’s leadership.” In August 2019, an independent think tank promoting economic liberalism and constitutional democracy was shut down because it was deemed “unregistered and unauthorized.”
Clearly, the CCP-ruled government is afraid of independent research and thought it cannot control. Since its release in November last year, ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence application, has amassed over 100 million users, and aroused a flurry of activity as engineers race to incorporate AI into their products. In China, Baidu is trying to keep pace with its Ernie Bot. But restrictions imposed by censorship and surveillance put it at a severe disadvantage. China’s industrial sector and overall economy is the loser.
Security officers march in Tiananmen Square near the Great Hall of the People before a session of China's National People's Congress in Beijing, China, March 7, 2023.
What is even worse is how the Chinese state imposes itself on the moral and spiritual life of the people. Despite being peaceful and non-political, religious movements not under state control are ruthlessly persecuted; in 2022, for example, more than 10,000 members of the Church of Almighty God were arrested, with over 3,000 tortured and 14 killed, according the Church’s records. China has become the world’s worst abuser of religious freedom, violently suppressing other minority communities like Falun Gong, Buddhism, and, in a region-wide program of incarceration and torture in Xinjiang, Islam.
Protestant Christianity is growing faster in China than anywhere on Earth, by about 10 percent annually. Today there are about 38 million believers, up from 22 million just a decade ago. If this trend holds by 2030, China could be the “world’s most Christian nation.”
Because the government insists on being the sole source of authority and meaning for the Chinese people, the authorities feel threatened by this dramatic development, itself a sign of the spiritual vacuousness of Marxist materialism. Against the growth of religious denominations, the government has responded with violent crackdowns and persecution, as well as by clumsy efforts to insert state ideology and propaganda into Christian houses of worship.
Following a 2017 regulation, the State should “actively guide religion to adapt to socialist society” and “practice the core values of socialism.” In April 2016, at the National Religious Work Conference, Xi stated: “Providing active guidance for the adaptation of religions to socialist society is to guide religious believers to love the motherland and the people, safeguard the unity of the motherland and… uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system.” At another conference in 2021, Xi stressed the need to guide religious figures and believers to “cultivate and practice the core values of socialism.”
In this June 4, 2018 photo, a painting of the Last Supper is displayed next to posters quoting China's constitution on religious freedom in a house church shut down by authorities near the city of Nanyang in central China's Henan province. Credit: AP
The CCP degrades and subjugates historical faiths, attempting to make them into propaganda tools, as Stalin did with the Russian Orthodox Church. But in claiming to construct a “spiritual civilization,” and pretending socialism is a religion, Xi has drawn upon a language of religious idealism, and thus inadvertently validated their moral power. In Tibet, so many images of Xi saturate daily existence that party bosses claim many Buddhists consider him a living Bodhisattva.
By promoting the belief that he is some form of deity, Xi is mimicking, and revealing his envy of the transcendental faith he has tried to stamp out. But while arrogating to himself unlimited power in both the political and spiritual realm, unconstrained by civil society and democratic institutions, he has also set China on a course that is dangerous to itself, and to other societies.
Aaron Rhodes is Senior Fellow at the Common Sense Society and President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe. Cheryl Yu is Senior Researcher in China and human rights at the Common Sense Society.