China’s social media was briefly aflutter this fall about an impressive feat in the popular online fantasy game Honor of Kings. A player had completed a “pentakill,” or five kills in a row, but something just smelled wrong: The user in question was 60 years old, according to the verified account information—hardly the type to be an expert gamer. Even more mysterious, why was this person brandishing digital weaponry at 3 a.m.? Was the player in fact a teenager sneaking online in the wee hours of the morning?
Under normal circumstances, the speculation might have ended there. But these days are far from normal in China. Deeming video games a distraction from the hard work of serving the motherland, President Xi Jinping’s government mandated in August that youngsters could play just three hours a week, and only at specified times. Thus, the anonymous gamer, whoever he or she was, might have been violating the law and the great leader’s wishes. The matter got so much attention that the game’s operator, the Chinese tech giant Tencent, investigated and in a formal statement confirmed that the game-obsessed insomniac was indeed a perfectly legal 60-year-old. (The company employs facial-recognition software to match users to their accounts.)
The episode would be humorous, if it weren’t so frightening. China today is in the grip of the most concerted government campaign to assert greater control over society in decades, perhaps since the tumultuous days of Mao Zedong. The edict restricting when kids can play video games is just part of a barrage launched by Xi’s administration in recent months across both business regulation and mundane daily life. Chinese companies face more hurdles to listing on public stock markets abroad and education providers are no longer allowed to offer online lessons run with foreign teachers, while local television bars men whose hairstyles are deemed insufficiently masculine.
Taken together, this deluge of dictates can be viewed as one element of Xi’s broader agenda to mold a new Chinese society that will be instilled with proper socialist values—as he defines them—purged of corrupting individualism and other bad habits that have seeped in from foreign (read: Western) cultures, and thus girded for the next phase of national struggle: the quest for global greatness.
Xi’s campaign should be seen as “an exercise in nation building, and that means defining … what is the Chinese nation and who are the Chinese,” Regina Abrami, the director of the Lauder Institute’s Global Program at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. And, according to Xi, “the Chinese are not people that play video games all day,” Abrami said.
This grand experiment in social engineering has tremendous implications for China’s future, and the world’s. It comes at a critical moment, when China is attempting that decisive but often elusive leap into the ranks of the world’s most advanced economies. Yet in many respects, the underlying thrust of Xi’s campaign—toward greater state control—is a reversal of the winning formula of recent decades, and risks undercutting the entrepreneurship and innovation needed to propel the economy forward. If Xi’s new society fails to take China to the next economic level, the country’s ambition to supplant the United States as the world’s dominant superpower will founder as well, with possible negative consequences for Xi and the Communist regime.
Xi likely believes the exact opposite—that his program will ensure China’s future, not risk it. To him, a bracing infusion of stricter discipline, greater party direction, and deeper ideological conformity will strengthen and prepare the nation for the onrushing stage in its resurgence: competition with the United States. What’s about to unfold, therefore, is a contest between liberal and illiberal beliefs about how best to achieve national success.
Xi’s campaign is in many ways a return to the norm. Meddling with society is in the Chinese Communist Party’s DNA, and it has been itching to remake China. Marxism, after all, is about destroying a corrupt, unjust world and replacing it with a utopia of egalitarian camaraderie. A century ago, when the CCP was formed, this ideology appealed greatly to young radicals who sought to strengthen a China laid prostrate before imperial powers. Chen Duxiu, one of the party’s founders, wrote that China must be purged of its entire traditional civilization if the Chinese people were to rise again. “I would much rather see the past culture of our nation disappear,” he wrote, “than see our race die out.”
In the first decades of the People’s Republic, Mao attempted to fulfill the Communist vision. No element of Chinese life was safe from revolutionary fervor, including the family farm and women’s hairstyles. The height of society-altering zeal was the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, during which troops of youthful Red Guards sought to eliminate the “four olds”—old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits—which entailed beating up their teachers and ransacking the country’s most prominent Confucian temple. Though the reformers who claimed power after Mao’s death downplayed revolution in favor of a pragmatic quest for wealth, they, too, intruded into Chinese households, including their bedrooms, with the disastrous one-child policy.
Now Xi is tapping into this storied legacy of social intervention. Anthony Saich, a professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party, believes we’re witnessing Xi’s “attempt to completely recast the economy and society to push it in a more socialist direction.” The campaign, he told me, “fuses with … key elements of Communist Party practice historically,” including “a deep strain of paternalism.” The party, he said, “sees itself as the moral arbiter of state and society.”
The current stage in Xi’s campaign began, oddly enough, with a stock-market listing. The ride-sharing app Didi Chuxing ran afoul of Chinese authorities by debuting its shares on the New York Stock Exchange in late June, despite Beijing’s concerns that the public offering could allow U.S. regulators to access sensitive data about China and its citizens. That led to new rules that will likely constrain the ability of Chinese tech companies to raise funds abroad. The government then added tighter protections on consumer-data privacy.
That proved to be just the start of a rolling snowball of regulation. The next target was private education companies that offer after-school tutoring classes, which are popular among students seeking to pass competitive college entrance exams. In July, the companies were barred from providing for-profit classes in core subjects and online sessions with foreign teachers. August brought a mandate for all schools to provide instruction in “Xi Jinping Thought,” a compendium of his sayings and teachings and an echo of Mao’s famous Little Red Book.
But wait, there’s more. The same month, Xi told a high-level committee about the importance of “common prosperity,” which he called a requirement of socialism. To combat income inequality—a serious problem in China—the meeting participants pledged to promote rural development, improve social services, and “adjust excessive incomes,” according to Xinhua, the country’s official news agency. Quick to sniff the political winds, the rich and mighty began opening their wallets. Companies such as Tencent and the e-commerce outfit Alibaba pledged fresh billions to Xi’s cause.
Xi’s assault on “celebrity culture” has also drawn the entertainment industry into his crosshairs. Popular Chinese stars will face greater scrutiny of their income and taxes, while some fan-club accounts have been shut down on social media and “effeminate” men (for instance, those who copy the styles of beloved Korean boy bands) have been barred from local television.
In sum, the individual edicts form part of a larger, more important shift. For much of his rule, Xi has worked to reassert the power of the state and party, which had somewhat receded during the decades of reform. Cold political calculation may be Xi’s primary motivation. He continually stresses the primacy of the Communist Party and its leadership, and some of his moves—such as the crackdown on Big Tech—might be aimed at squelching potential independent sources of power that have the wealth and influence to challenge authority. The timing, too, may not be coincidental. Xi is about to enter a particularly sensitive political period: A year from now, at a Communist Party congress, Xi will almost certainly attempt to break with modern precedent and stay in charge for a third five-year term. That’s still controversial in Chinese politics, so Xi may feel that having greater control might improve his chances. His new commitment to “common prosperity” could also be a way to appeal to the public as a defender of the people, a populist ploy to garner support at a crucial moment in his political life.
We can’t rule out, however, that Xi sincerely believes in the course he’s taking. (Indeed, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive.) It’s easy to discount the CCP’s Marxist pronouncements as a necessary but rhetorical cover for the country’s raging capitalism, but Xi regularly reminds the nation that it is socialist, and praises the successes of China’s version of the ideology. That’s why he may also find certain social practices—conspicuous displays of wealth, for instance—morally unacceptable. A U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, which was written before Xi became China’s paramount leader, paraphrases a professor and former friend of Xi’s who described him as “repulsed by the all-encompassing commercialization of Chinese society, with its attendant nouveau riche, official corruption, loss of values, dignity, and self-respect.” The professor speculated that if Xi gained power, “he would likely aggressively attempt to address these evils, perhaps at the expense of the new moneyed class.”
Xi most likely isn’t done. Officials are investigating Chinese state banks and other financial firms in search of ties to private companies that the government would consider too close, and a policy plan on women’s health care raised fears that Beijing plans to limit abortions as a way to slow the nation’s demographic decline. Penn’s Abrami thinks that this current movement could follow those of the Communist past, which had “a pattern of first cracking down on whomever is identified as the corrupt, and then cracking down on whomever is identified as the impure, and then widening the lens to a more broad mass movement.”
Xi’s goals for his campaign may extend beyond China, and into his widening confrontation with the United States. Xi and his propaganda machine are presenting China’s authoritarian governance as a more appropriate model for the world than democratic capitalism, better able to create a more harmonious, just, and prosperous society, and more capable of achieving great tasks, such as conquering the coronavirus pandemic, than a dysfunctional, decadent, and declining America. His new decrees could be part of this ideological offensive. As Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a recent essay, Xi “may believe the recent wave of crackdowns is necessary to bring about socialism at home to differentiate from capitalism as practiced in the West.”
That raises the ugly prospect of the competition between the U.S. and China becoming more like the Cold War—a battle between ideologically opposed political, economic, and social systems. That is, if Xi’s new China succeeds. By attacking the wealthy, constraining private enterprise, and strangling education, Xi could discourage entrepreneurship and independent thinking, the magic ingredients for technological breakthroughs and innovative products. Starting a company is already a risky business. Why attempt it if you’ll end up in trouble? By experimenting with Chinese society, Xi is gambling that his bid for social control won’t smother the incentives and initiative that the economy requires to excel.
It’s important, though, to realize that Xi isn’t likely to see things this way. The West is convinced that political and social freedoms and economic progress are inseparable. Xi and his Communist cadres do not agree, and, in their minds, they have China’s four-decade record of triumphs to prove their point. China’s leader appears to believe that greater top-down control will ensure his country’s continued ascent, not derail it.