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The powerful uncle

Frank Sieren / jsJanuary 4, 2015

China's head of state and party leader Xi Jinping is one of the most powerful politicians in the world. In a review of 2014, DW columnist Frank Sieren says Xi's tenure marks the start of a new era in China.

APEC Gipfel Xi Jinping Rede 11.11.2014
Image: Reuters/G. Chai Hin

I have never experienced anything like it in the twenty years I have lived in China. Xi Jinping is cracking down harder than almost anyone before him. President for almost two years, and party leader for more than two, Xi is doing all he can to transform China as we know it. The list of his achievements thus far is impressive, even more so considering how briefly he has been in office - while his top priority remains his anti-corruption campaign. Until recently, only two percent of Germans knew who Xi was, but since the beginning of December his recognition has been on the rise, and not only in Germany.

Harsh crackdown on party officials

Zhou Yongkang has been sitting in prison since then. One of the most powerful men in China until 2012, he was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and a former security chief. There haven't been proceedings against such a high-ranking party member in decades. With them, Xi is proving again that he won't blink when it comes to his fight against corruption, and that he will go after top officials, so-called "tigers," with demonstrative force. At the same time, daily news of the arrests of corrupt party officials show how powerful Xi has become.

Obama mit Xi 10.11.2014 APEC Gipfel
Obama's appearance at the APEC summit was seen as a sign of China's new powerImage: Reuters/K. Kyung-Hoon

In the last few weeks Xi has been displaying this power, not only to his fellow countrymen, but above all to the West. In October, dozens of world and business leaders from the Asia-Pacific region met in Beijing for the APEC summit, and to sign lucrative agreements with China. Even Barack Obama hurried to Beijing for climate negotiations, a gesture that shows that China is now just a few steps behind the US in the current world order.

Expanding economic might

To undertake such an impressive abundance of initiatives and trials so shortly after assuming power, in the way Xi has done, would have been utterly unusual in the past. Until now, the late leader Deng Xiaoping's motto of waiting until the time is ripe before drawing attention to oneself had been the prevailing mode. Since entering office, Xi has also made numerous official trips to Asia, Europe, and Africa, expanding China's economic power.

And when he returned home from several days of traveling in Australia, New Zealand, and the Fiji Islands at the end of November, he handed out many presents. The fact that for the first time ever, constitutional rule of law was a topic at the fourth plenary session of the CPC's 18th National Congress is another one of his achievements. It would have been nice if the Communist Party's anti-corruption campaigns had been used as an opportunity to finally begin conducting transparent legal proceedings that the general population could understand. For me, that would be a great leap forward on the path to constitutionality. Yet it is becoming apparent that more than anyone, party leaders close to Xi don't see things that way. Good intentions get lost when no one can understand who is being sentenced for what. That goes for the "flies," or the little people, as well as the "tigers" like Zhou Yongkang.

China Präsidentenfrau Peng Liyuan als First Lady in Dar es Salaam
Xi's wife Peng Liyuan has helped his popularityImage: Reuters

More pressure on regime opponents

Xi's harshness is also directed at the freedom of expression of those who think differently, and the rights of minorities. Decidedly more people belonging to those groups have been arrested since Xi took power. That is the dark side of his self-assertiveness. There is no transparency in these cases either. Lack of transparency and arbitrary rulings spread fear through the country, a fear that is paralyzing it and could eventually lead to ever more resistance to Xi's otherwise sensible anti-corruption campaign. And even Xi can't win against the country, against the majority of its people. The question: is it good for a country when a politician wields that much power?

One thing is clear: Xi is also using the campaign to get rid of political adversaries. No one ever knows for sure whether those arrested were really corrupt, or just belonged to the wrong clique. All this leads me to the conclusion that Xi Jinping is China's most influential politician since Deng - one could also say its most assertive. He has gotten more done in just shy of two years than many of his predecessors did during their entire tenure - for better or for worse. That could also be because the party has realized that their course is not just going to decide China's future - increasingly, economic and political developments in China impact the fate of countries in the West. With Xi, a new era has opened, one in which China will reposition itself on the world stage. How this era will be received in the West is still to be determined.

Down-to-earth image

I've asked myself, why of all people is Xi so successful? Part of it could be the staff of PR managers the 61-year-old employs to polish his public image. Xi presents a down-to-earth image - we see him eating dumplings in crowds instead of at expensive state dinners, and he prefers to be driven to public appearances by minibus rather than state limousine.

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China
Frank Sieren lives in ChinaImage: Frank Sieren

Born into a political family, he joined the Communist Party at 21 and began a rapid ascent up the career ladder. As governor of the province of Fujian, he drove the economy by luring investors from Taiwan with subsidies. He owes another portion of his popularity to his wife, a famous singer in China who adds to his popularity. One might not quite believe it, but the people like to call him "Uncle Xi."

Biggest upheavals since Deng's reforms

Xi Jinping's crackdown is thus the biggest social upheaval in China since the reformer Deng Xiaoping opened it to foreign investors. Five years ago, if someone had asked me if such an anti-corruption campaign were possible in China, I would have thought it very unlikely. And I wouldn't have been alone. Only in that context can one understand the psychological effect of the campaign.

Our columnist Frank Sieren is one of Germany's leading experts on China. He has been living in Beijing for 20 years.