Ram Madhav
February 24, 2024

Big Uncle Xi

(The article was originally published in Indian Express on February 24, 2024 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

People in China have just returned to work after a week-long annual Spring Festival celebration that started on February 10, marking the beginning of the Lunar New Year. In a rare public appearance, President Xi Jinping, who, according to the official Chinese media “highly values culture” and has “a profound understanding” of it, arrived at Ancient Culture Street, a Qing-era business street in Tianjin city, about an hour’s drive from Beijing, on the afternoon of February 1 to oversee the preparations for the festival. Walking along the antiquated surroundings, Xi stepped into shops and chatted with the overwhelmed shopkeepers.

Later, delivering his New Year message from the Great Hall in Beijing on February 8, Xi claimed that his government has “made solid progress” in building a “modern socialist country in all respects”.

In the Chinese zodiac, the incoming year is that of the dragon — it symbolises fire and fury and is the quintessence of hard power and ferocity. China has long identified with those qualities of dominance and authority. But Xi insisted that the Chinese dragon is “strong, fearless and benevolent” and embodies the spirit of pursuit of “self-improvement, hard work and enterprise of the Chinese nation for five thousand years”.

Many ordinary Chinese believe that the year of the dragon, which comes once in 12 years, is auspicious, and the children born that year will have better prospects in life. Many women plan to have deliveries during the dragon year. China is currently facing a serious demographic challenge with the median age going above 39 years as against India’s 29. The devastating effects of the “one-child norm”, introduced in the 1980s, continue to haunt China. In 2011, it had 13.27 births for every 1,000 population. Ten years later, that dwindled to 6.39 births. The government was compelled to revise the population policy in 2015 to allow two children, and in 2021, to three children per family. It is hoping that the dragon year will see a boom in childbirths in the country. But demographics is not the only headache for Xi. The bigger one is about the economy.

Xi wears many hats today. He is the head of the state, head of military and also head of the Party. Inside the party, he heads many important committees, including those dealing with foreign policy, Taiwan, internet control, government restructuring, national security, police, secret police and even judiciary. He proved himself adept at successfully administering most of these departments. But, to his chagrin, one department is proving to be a disaster — the economy. The Chinese economy, which experienced three decades of unrelenting GDP growth of above 10 per cent, is today struggling to maintain even half of it. Predicted not long ago by the IMF to overtake America by 2028, it is stuck in the spiral of deflation, shrinking markets, dwindling exports, and staggering bad debts.

Many experts blame Xi for this debacle. His paranoia about an imminent conflict with the West drove him to prioritise national security over the economy. A heady cocktail of economic inexperience and ideological overdrive resulted in reckless actions against big-tech companies, both domestic and international. Episodes involving real estate giant China Evergrande Group and Jack Ma of the successful Alibaba Group are examples of Xi’s malicious ways of functioning.

Premier Li Qiang, who led a big delegation to Davos earlier this month, claimed that China’s economy was growing at 5.2 per cent. But the situation on the streets of Shanghai, Beijing and other cities tells a different story. Shops and business establishments are empty as fears about economic downturn led to the world’s largest and most prosperous middle class shying away from domestic spending. Tens of thousands of employees heading home for the Spring Festival were told by their employers not to return. Unemployment rates are at an all-time high. All these indicate that the actual GDP growth may not be more than 1.2 — 1.5 per cent. As the economic woes grow, Xi appears to be turning increasingly to Mao. When things were not going right, Mao decided to experiment with fanciful ideas like the

Great Leap Forward in 1958, followed eight years later by the Cultural Revolution, resulting in disastrous consequences for the economy and humongous human suffering. As people suffer from the economic decline, Xi too is resorting to clumsy rhetoric.c“We have more deeply realised that building a strong country and realising national rejuvenation on all fronts through a Chinese path to modernisation is not only a bright road for the Chinese people to pursue a better and happy life but also a just way to promote world peace and development,” he pontificated.

Xi is doing one thing right though — continuing his iron grip over the party and the country. The Soviet communist leader Vladimir Lenin had once advised that “for the centre to actually direct the orchestra, it needs to know who plays the violin and where, who plays a false note and why”. Xi has gained such absolute control — the kind that never happened, even during Mao’s era. All the seven members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Standing Committee are loyalists of the leader.

A study conducted during Xi’s second year in office found that he was appearing in papers more than twice as often as his predecessors. The state news agency, Xinhua, adopted a nickname for the leader: “Xi Dada” — Big Uncle Xi. Thousands of art students applying to the Beijing University of Technology had been judged on their ability to sketch Xi’s portrait.

Xi assumes that all this is his strength. But tragically, it could be his weakness too. With no leader in the party and government to differ with him and offer valuable suggestions, this self-absorption may precipitate an economic collapse, leading to the same disastrous consequences that Mao had inflicted on the hapless citizens in the form of famines, plagues and purges seven decades ago.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

Calling China's Bluff

Calling China's Bluff

February 24, 2024
Looking at 2047 and Beyond

Looking at 2047 and Beyond

February 24, 2024

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

one × five =