China's president and party leader Xi Jinping seems to be in complete control as Beijing prepares for the opening of the Winter Olympics next week. According to the party, political stability is paramount. This has allowed for economic growth that has improved lives and set the nation on the path to become a global power.
Although many have benefited economically, those who want more freedom paid the price, from the ethnic groups in Tibet and Xinjiang, to the largely student-led protestors in Hong Kong in 2019, which was dominated by students. When a previous generation of student protesters seized control of Beijing's Tiananmen square in 1989, the party leadership was split. The party's strategy has been guided by this fateful decision: the hardline leaders won, and the protesters were crushed.
"The world assumed that China would prosper if it engaged economically with China. This would lead to a strong middle class which would then give birth to a civil society, which in turn would give rise to a democracy which would make China a responsible participant in the global arena." Wu'er Kaixi, a former student at the University of California, was a leader in the 1989 protests. He now lives in exile in Taiwan.
He added that this assumption was naive, and it was wrong.
Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, which gave hope that reforms could be in the works. This would allow for more freedom of speech, independence of labor unions, and protection of cultural and religious identity of ethnic groups. Tibetan groups protested in China and elsewhere, interrupting the torch relay.
The reality is very different now, almost 15 years later, just as the Winter Games are about to begin. Tibet is still under Communist Party control. The government launched a brutal crackdown on the Turkic Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang in 2017. In response to violent protests in 2019, new laws and loyalty requirements were enacted to drive out opposition in Hong Kong.
Xi, who was elected to power in 2012 has repressed dissident voices and those who challenge its version of events. This includes a #MeToo movement which briefly flourished, to citizen journalists who exposed Wuhan's chaos during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Xi is expected to be reappointed to a third five year term as the general secretary of the ruling party this fall. This will cement his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Xi is free to remain the leader of China for as long as he likes, without any term limits and with no clear rules regarding succession.
Xi arrives at the party meeting bolstered and encouraged by a strong economy and the end of separatist violence in Xinjiang, as well as the passage of a sweeping law on national security and electoral changes in Hong Kong which have eviscerated political opposition in the territory.
Joseph Cheng, a political scientist from Hong Kong and a veteran pro-democracy activist living in Australia, said that Xi Jinping wanted to be a leader like Mao. Mao Zedong, who founded China's communist government in 1949, ruled the country for more then two decades.
Cheng stated that Xi and his party have maintained relative prosperity and a rock-hard political control. They are not under pressure and do not feel the need to make concessions.
"There are no checks or balances both domestically and internationally." He said that this has led to an increase in authoritarianism.
The end of 1980s political liberalization was marked by the suppression of Tiananmen's protests. The ruling party was already convinced by the chaos and violence of 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and the fall of the Soviet Union that political stability must be preserved at all costs.
The only way to maintain Communist Party control and achieve what Xi called the "Chinese dream", which was to restore China's global position, was through the use of tanks and assault troops. China still holds 1989's events as a taboo subject.
In the years to come, advocates for civil rights and free expression will continue pushing the boundaries. Beijing responded to some appeals and released pro-democracy activists in exile.
The party also opened up new opportunities for education and employment, eased restrictions on the private sector, and welcomed foreign investments. The political turmoil of previous years was unknown to a new generation of Chinese youth. They had high expectations for their future and were unaware of it.
Despite their reservations about the crackdown in China, China's booming economic growth was too compelling to ignore. Western democracies quickly reengaged with the regime during the 1990s, 2000s.
The U.S. has been increasingly hostile to China in recent years, seeing it as both a competitor and an opportunity. China's policies on Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as on human rights generally, have resulted in financial and travel sanctions from the U.S. on officials and companies.
Beijing responded with disdain and dismissal. Beijing reacted with disdain to the U.K.'s announcement of a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics.
China has sought to define human rights as improving the quality of life and cites economic growth as the true determinants. China has dismissed the efforts of foreign politicians, trade organizations and companies to boycott cotton products and other products from Xinjiang because of allegations about forced labor.
China refers to such claims as "the lie of century", although experts believe that it may have been prompted by bad publicity to close its prison-like system internment camps.
However, activists have not responded to calls for the Olympics to be moved out of China. The athletes will continue to compete despite a diplomatic boycott. Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, stated that the International Olympic Committee has lost credibility in promoting human rights since choosing Beijing to host the Winter Games.
Kaixi, a former Tiananmen protester, and an ethnic Uyghur said that China would not have been able to resist without the support of the international community.
He said, "China cannot get away with this because the rest of the world is giving up."