The rise and rise of Xi Jinping, who seems set to become dictator for life after the Communist Party of China’s 20th National Congress which began in the Great Hall of the People on October 16, should be seen in the context of two events in the early 19th century.
One was the revolt led by Hong Xiuquan, a prosperous farmer’s son who, after failing the imperial civil services examination for the 4th time in 1843, concluded that he was the son of god and thus the brother of Jesus Christ, sent to overthrow the heathen demon worshippers ruling China. An estimated 20 million people died during the 13 year-long insurrection, called the Taiping rebellion, before it was finally crushed by the Imperial forces in 1864.
The other was the First and Second Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856, to deal with Chinese protests over the massive state-sponsored drug trafficking racket run by the British empire.
This was the beginning of what the Chinese describe as Bǎinián Guóchǐ, or the ‘hundred years of humilation’, which in many ways defines the country’s domestic and foreign policy even today.
The two opium wars saw the better-armed and trained Royal Navy warships blast their way up the Zhujiang and Yangtze rivers, and impose their writ across the land. Hong Kong became a British Territory in 1842, and soon the French, Russians and Japanese got into the act, enforcing trade concessions and treaty ports and occupying large tracts of Chinese territory. And the first Sino-Japanese war saw the Qing lose suzerainty over Korea.
The increasing arrogance and presence of the western powers and Christian evangelists in China led to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, so called because the rebels practiced a martial art which many believed made them impervious to bullets.
Following attacks on foreigners and missionaries and a siege of Peking in June, a multinational force comprising almost 50,000 troops, mostly Japanese and Russian, and the rest from Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and even 5000 American troops invaded China and broke the Boxer siege in August.
The subsequent Boxer Protocol led to further humiliation including massive economic reparations and loss of territory, with the Germans claiming Tsingtao and the Russians occupying Manchuria. A weakened Qing government finally abdicated in 1912, followed by a period of civil strife, the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the rout of the Nationalist Guomindang of Chiang Kai Shek by comrade Mao Zedong’s Communist Party in 1949 and the birth of modern China.
The two main lessons learnt from the Bǎinián Guóchǐ by the CPC and exploited by Mr Xi were: One, crush even the smallest revolt before it turns into an internal insurrection, and two, the only way to prevent further humiliation was to become an economic and military powerhouse.
Hence, internally, the crackdown against the Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the increasingly severe repression of the Uighyurs in Xinjiang, the protestors in Hong Kong and Tibet, and even the regular purges within the party, particularly before every Congress can be traced back to the lessons learnt from Jesus’ brother Hong.
Externally, the increasing military assertiveness and muscle flexing, particularly in the South China Sea, can be blamed on the two opium wars and the successive attacks by other western powers and Japan which were mostly conducted from ships that came in from the Pacific with far more firepower than the Ming could deal with. While the invaders had steamships, with rockets and heavy cannons, and carried soldiers who had long range rifles, the imperial army had mostly antiquated sailing ships and barges, and troops armed with matchlocks that could fire only one round every minute, and were accurate to less than 50 yards.
Today, apart from being a nuclear weapons state and a permanent member of the UN security Council, China has some of the world’s most advanced weaponry including hypersonic missiles and stealth technology. The People’s Liberation Army is increasingly armed and trained to deploy weapons that use artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics.
As for Mr Xi, right from the time he first assumed office in 2012, Mr Xi has made it clear that he sees everything through the prism of internal regime security. He began by introducing a raft of stringent new security laws, which involved increasingly intrusive surveillance and a top-down restructuring of the country’s internal security apparatus. Several senior security officials were jailed or removed from their posts, and fresh repressive measures were introduced on a regular basis.
In April 2014, he announced the formation of a new party outfit called the Central National Security Commission, which would oversee and implement the zongti guojia anquanguan, or “comprehensive/holistic state security concept” with Chinese characteristics. True to its name, it covers “political, military, homeland security, economic, cultural, social, technological, cyberspace, ecological, resource, nuclear, overseas interests, outer space, deep sea, polar, and biological security issues, among others.” And in January 2015, he chaired a high-level meeting of the Party’s Central Committee’s Political Bureau to review and approve the new “National Security Strategy Outline”.
The rare protests against Mr Xi days before the Congress, which saw banners appearing on a busy Beijing flyover calling him a dictator and traitor and insisting people should not be treated like slaves will probably give the party an excuse to add more teeth to its already repressive rules.
Earlier this year, at an Asian forum meeting in Hainan in April, Mr Xi gave his internal security regime a foreign policy spin by proposing a “Global Security Initiative” which seeks to revise and align global security with the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.
Although the events in Ukraine overshadowed this significant proposal, ignoring it would be naïve and dangerous, because it essentially paraphrases Jesus to declare: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
Ramananda Sengupta is a foreign and strategic affairs analyst