Michael Schuman: Xi's New China is TerrifyingBreaking News
tags: Xi Jinping, Chinese history
Michael Schuman is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and the author of Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World and The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia’s Quest for Wealth.
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.
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