Xi Jinping Targets China’s Academia, Social Media: Orders Rigid Ideological Control
China seems to be witnessing a phase, that of wresting back absolute control of academia and social media, primarily through means of reasserting ideological control wherein liberalism, freethinking, and expression are being brutally repressed and crushed by China’s state machinery. In a very flagrant public declaration, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the highest echelons of the Party and Heads of Universities recently during a two-day Congress on “Ideological and Political Work” in Beijing, stating “… higher education … must adhere to correct political orientation.” The message makes it amply lucid that atmospherics of higher education all across China are progressively becoming unyielding and stiffer. The speech was nothing short of being a blunt message that Chinese authorities need to further tighten ideological control over academia, and ensure, that Chinese “universities must be transformed into strongholds that adhere to party leadership,” and a source of staunch support to the Party’s governance, as per a Xinhua release.
With Xi’s latest dictate, education in China will become far more politicized, apart from the fact that it already is the case, by and large. This can also be interpreted as the most recent attempt by Xi to rein in opposition to his rule. Xi’s political standing and control at present pronounces him as China’s most powerful ruler since Deng Xiaoping, and possibly even since Mao Zedong. It simultaneously brings to light the nation’s turbulent political past when Chairman Mao’s reign was notoriously reminiscent of the turbulences of a dictatorship. The demeanour of Xi Jinping spreads far and wide – of smiling and laughing in public, cuddling babies, enjoying sports, shunning the state limousine motorcade and opting for a mini-bus to travel with the masses instead, self-serving a bowl of dumplings at local restaurants, and having a meagre traditional meal in a farmer’s hut in the countryside. The Chinese Communist Party is finally being associated singularly with the face of its leader, Xi Jinping – who seeks to strike a chord with the Chinese public and keeps track of public opinion, to the extent that he is often referred to nowadays as “Xi Dada” in local Chinese media.
Growing self-censorship in China has been in the spotlight for many decades, albeit, more so since Xi Jinping took over the reins of power in 2012. Professor Qiao Mu at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, known to be candid in his views has questioned whether Xi’s latest sway would result in any substantial impact on the campus life across China, and on the potential influence of Communist party officials working in universities. Incidentally, Qiao has been at the receiving end of the crackdown on academia and warns that it is not socialism, but social media, which has taken over as the single greatest influence on today’s Chinese youth.
In addition to academia being targeted, the latest manifestation of the crackdown against social media comes in form of a website, zhongmu wang – China’s most popular online communities for Muslims getting blocked and eventually shut down, following a letter to President Xi Jinping, challenging “crimes of totalitarian system”. The site which functioned as an ‘online network of Muslims sharing Islam’ since 2003, apparently posted a petition urging Xi to put a stop on his “brutal suppression” of activists, and the immediate release of the activists who were still being held by the state. The online petition stated, “… you are not responsible for all of the crimes of the totalitarian system, but as the totalitarian system’s head and its commander-in-chief of repression, you must take responsibility for the blood and tears which now flow…” What needs to be noted is that this website had previously hosted sensitive discussions, including those on China’s persecution of Muslim dissidents.
The recent reaffirmation of Xi Jinping’s political authority, proclaiming him China’s “core leader” of the Party, makes it hard for one to fathom that within a span of four years, especially in the context of a large nation like China, Xi would be able to establish, what perhaps has been China’s most tight-fisted socio-political control since the era of Mao Zedong. Interestingly, this is not the astounding part. While leaders in democracies around the world have certain commonalities in terms of their approach and consequent connect with their masses/electorate, the case of China is different for evident reasons.
In backdrop of the above, it appears that the winds of Chinese politics are taking a gradual, yet definitive bend. While popularising his image among the Chinese masses, Xi is making an astute and deliberate attempt to strengthen his grip on power, especially by placing effective checks on the power elite. Noteworthy is that no member of the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee is exclusively responsible for domestic security, and it remains Xi Jinping’s fief. For that matter, even the People’s Liberation Army owes open allegiance to Xi Jinping with state-run and controlled newspapers carrying full-page expressions of absolute loyalty by military commanders across regions – a palpable attempt to quell any form of rift between the Party and the PLA, as has been debated frequently.
Owing to his political capital, his association with the PLA and having witnessed military diplomacy up close, Xi’s control over the PLA is far greater than both Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, who struggled to coagulate their authority during their respective tenures. Xi Jinping has given out a clear message on who calls the shots in China, unlike his predecessors. Xi Jinping is sparing no political elite when it comes to charges of corruption, and by doing so, in effect, is neutralising all potential political rivalry that could threaten his power and control, in any way. However, although, Xi Jinping is attempting to add a dash of populism to his rule, the concurrent tightening of control on academics, online social networks, and brute crackdown against political dissent and activism shall blemish the very idea of being “Xi Dada” – which he would like to be remembered for.