In January 2013, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof predicted the newly anointed Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping would spearhead political and economic reform, remove the body of Mao Zedong from its hallowed mausoleum, and release the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo from prison. His “hunch,” Kristof added, “may be wrong entirely.”
Readers: It was.
On February 25, in a stunning turn, the Party abolished the two-term limit for the Chinese presidency, meaning that the 64-year-old Xi could remain in power indefinitely. In December 2012, Xi laid a wreath by a statue of the reform-minded Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and pledged allegiance to the principle of “reform and opening up.” Since then, however, his China has grown more politically and economically repressive. Many Chinese people still revere Mao, and the Chinese leadership still publicly idolizes him. In February 2016, China Central Television, the country’s main broadcaster, published an article titled “18 Famous Sayings by Mao Zedong That Xi Always Quotes.” And in June 2017, Liu was released from prison—into state custody at a hospital, where he died of liver cancer five weeks later.
Kristof was far from the only unrealistically hopeful prognosticator, though he probably has the most experience with the country, and its failed flirtations with liberalism: He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the June 1989 massacre of Chinese pushing for reform in Tiananmen Square. Beijing in year one of Xi’s term, for example, reminded BBC world affairs editor John Simpson of the Soviet Union just before the Berlin Wall fell. Over the last quarter century, many Westerners expected China’s growing wealth and economic openness to lead to liberalism and democracy. Instead, China has grown richer and more repressive.