Hong Kong: Chairman Xi Jinping continues to tighten his grip over every facet of Chinese society, whether it be top members of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), those who enjoy playing online computer games or students attending tutorial classes. All do so only with the express permission of China's authoritarian leader.
On 6 September, Xi as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) presided over a ceremony in Beijing promoting five members of the PLA, the world's largest military. The five lieutenant generals were promoted to general, the highest active-duty rank in the PLA.
The newly minted generals are Wang Haijiang, Commander of the Western Theater Command; Lin Xiangyang, Commander of the Central Theater Command; Dong Jun, Commander of the PLA Navy; Chang Dingqiu, Commander of the PLA Air Force; and Xu Xueqiang, President of PLA National Defense University.
The case of Wang Haijiang is an interesting one. Born in Sichuan in 1963, Wang took up his position leading the Western Theater Command last month. Prior to that, he headed the Xinjiang Military District, and before that he was deputy commander and then commander of the Tibet Military District.
Significantly, there has been a rapid turnover in the Western Theater Command, with four different leaders since the violent standoff with India of mid-2020. General Xu Qiling had been put in charge of the Western Theater Command as recently as June/July, and it is not immediately clear why he has been moved on so quickly. Prior to him, General Zhang Xudong had been given that post on 19 December 2020 after a predecessor retired.
Wang, a decorated combat veteran of the war with Vietnam, and promoted to lieutenant general in 2019, is obviously trusted to lead the PLA in that region at a time of increased tensions with India. Furthermore, his remaining in that western part of China for so long goes against the grain of PLA policy to shift commanders around different regions to give them wider experience and prevent them from developing cabals of supporters.
Wang's promotion will naturally open the way for other promotions too, as his previous position as head of the Xinjiang Military District will have to be filled. This post will be important given recent border tensions with India in Eastern Ladakh.
Quite apart from tensions with India, Xinjiang is featuring more highly in the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) thinking because of the American and NATO pullout from Afghanistan. Beijing is paranoid about Islamic terrorism spreading from Afghanistan into Xinjiang.
Exiled Tibetan and Uyghur sources believe Wang will support the oppressive surveillance and incarceration policies in Xinjiang. With his previous experience in Tibet and Xinjiang, he is familiar with Chen Quanguo, party secretary in Xinjiang and the architect of repressive policies against Muslims.
It is possible that other figures such as the heads of the Joint Logistics Support Force, Northern Theater Command and Eastern Theater Command will also be promoted within the coming year.
Xi has chaired the CMC since 2012, and in the intervening passage of time he has held court over 13 different promotion ceremonies for senior PLA members. That has seen approximately 66 lieutenant generals promoted to generals.
This means Xi has installed numerous top generals within the PLA, and who now owe him personal loyalty and will doubtlessly follow Xi's bidding without hesitation. One of Xi's priorities since taking over the helm of China has been to bring the military and paramilitary establishment to heel. This includes pushing out those loyal to Xi's predecessors.
On 28 May last year, the outspoken former Lieutenant Colonel Yao Cheng of the PLA Navy stated that high-level power struggles within the CCP impinge upon China's ability to invade Taiwan militarily: "The internal problems of the PLA are serious and it is unable to attack Taiwan." According to Yao, PLA officials are not "falling in line", despite Xi's repeated demands for loyalty. There is apparently a key reason for this. Every change of CCP leader inaugurates a purge of the ranks as the newcomer seeks to stamp out fealty to their predecessor. This means it is risky for senior military officials to wholeheartedly endorse reigning leaders, as it makes them susceptible to purges later on. Instead, such pragmatists might be more likely to stand on the sidelines and observe.
Xi has in fact been more successful in molding the PLA into his image, in large part thanks to his anti-corruption campaign. This initiative has snared numerous high-ranking PLA officers, and removed them as points of resistance.
As Xi attempts to assume full control over the upper echelons of the PLA, he is attempting to do the same with just about every aspect of society. After years of economic growth in sectors such as education, property and technology, the CCP is reigning it all in so as to exercise total control. It has clamped down on tech giants such as Alibaba and Tencent, for example, and made examples of high-profile figures like Jack Ma.
Xi is pushing for "traditional family values", and earlier this year the Ministry of Education complained about the "feminization" of young men. Indeed, the National Radio and Television Administration has now published a notice that, among other things, bans "effeminate men" from screens and promotes the correct aesthetic of acting styles, costumes and makeup. The government is increasingly cracking down on lesbian and gay groups too. In August, Shanghai University asked for a list of LGBT students, for instance.
As Yung Jiang and Adam Ni – both affiliated with the Australian Centre of China in the World, and China Policy Centre in Canberra – point out in their most recent China Neican newsletter, "As China becomes more authoritarian, it is attempting to enforce a degree of conformity on individuals by eliminating diversity in culture (Uyghurs), sexuality and gender expressions." The Cyberspace Affair Commission is also tightening regulations on celebrity fan culture. This includes instructions to "resolutely boycott immoral actors" and those with "incorrect political stances".
Neican said: "Actors and celebrities are not only expected to toe the party line as before, but now the pressure is on for them to actively promote it at every opportunity. Anyone who dares to deviate from the 'correct political stance' would suffer severe consequences and be boycotted by government order. When it comes to power between the state and celebrities in China, the state has the absolute upper hand." Celebrities will obviously have to rein in their self-indulgent and luxurious lifestyles. Additionally, shows and movies will now contain more nationalistic elements, of course including ardent praise for the CCP.
China Necian commented: "The government has taken a paternalistic approach on a number of social issues, from gaming to the entertainment industry. While many people in China believe that the government is acting to curb 'vices', such as gaming addictions and celebrity idol-worshipping, it is unclear whether they would agree that the government should play an active role." Furthermore, where will such social conditioning end? "While most people may have applauded the crackdown on party and state officials committing vices, it is another matter for them to enforce their 'morality' on everyone in the country. Again, legislating 'morality' is the sort of thing that right-wing governments have done around the world.
Ultimately, such paternalism shows that the CCP does not trust the Chinese people to make their own decisions without the party's guidance." This is reinforced by another heavy-handed dictate handed down in late August, where new rules prohibit those under 18 from playing online video games for more than three hours a week. The government warned of a "spiritual opium" of young people addicted to gaming. The rules cover phones and computers, and youths will only be allowed to play computer games from 8-9 pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. As a bonus, they can play for an hour on public holidays.
The global gaming industry relies heavily on China (USD45.6 billion in revenue in 2021, according to Newzoo analytics), so this represents a huge blow to them, as well as to Chinese youths who play these games. A National Press and Publication Administration spokesperson said, "Teenagers are the future of our motherland. Protecting the physical and mental health of minors is related to the people's vital interests, and relates to the cultivation of the younger generation in the era of national rejuvenation." Previous rules introduced in 2019 limited under-18s to 1.5 hours daily of computer games, or three hours on a holiday. Education is being reformed too. In July, China introduced sweeping new regulations regarding private tutoring. As elsewhere in Asia, private tutoring is a huge industry, where it was estimated to be worth USD120 billion annually in China.
New rules bar commercial tutorial teaching in core school subjects, the reasoning being that the authorities want to lower family living costs and consequently boost the birth rate. China has progressively raised the child limit per family from one to two to three, but the country's birth rate remains alarmingly low.
Many went into shock at the announcement, in a society where competition is intense and parents are willing to sacrifice all to give their children an advantage such as tutors. The regulations mean all tutorial schools will be re-registered as non-profit organizations, and no new licences will be granted. Huge amounts of capital have been invested into private education, and the new rules scuttle those ambitions.
For instance, the US-listed TAL Education Group said it expected the rules to have a "material adverse impact on its after-school tutoring services … which in turn may adversely affect" its operations. Tutoring will also be prohibited on weekends, public holidays and school vacations.More than 75% of Chinese students in the 6-18 age bracket attended tutoring classes in2016, according to the Chinese Society of Education.
As for adults, the CCP is also attempting to stifle grassroots labor movements. Neican again: "The government is worried about anything that can potentially organize and challenge state power, from religions/cults to celebrities, and to labor organisers. To deal with these forces, it uses both co-option and crackdown. In the case of the labor movement, it is cracking down on leaders and co-opting the masses through unions." All in China must conform to the ideal Han standard too. On 23 July, the Ministry of Education published its Notification on the Children Speak in Unison Plan, implementing a Mandarin mode of instruction on every preschool/kindergarten in China. Young children in ethnic and minority areas – such as Tibet, Xinjiang or Inner Mongolia – will thus use Putonghua language and script for their learning.
Alexander Grey and Gegentuul Baiuod wrote for The Jamestown Foundation: "If the Plan disincentivizes or even disables minority language school education, it will further reduce the value that parents and county-level school funders can see in terms of minority languages helping their students one day get university degrees/jobs." The net result is that the use of minority languages (there are 55 official minority groups in China) will shrink.
Inner Mongolian citizens protested last year about bilingual education reforms, but the state's omnipresent propaganda campaign and threats have silenced dissent this time around. Languages such as Mongolian will thus retreat from public to private spaces, as part of Xi's Han-centric racial state building pogrom.
Xi and his CCP cohorts like to tell the world that he is "fostering a harmonious environment for development to benefit all people in the world" and he proffers "a shared future for mankind". However, his view of a "common destiny" is a sinister Orwellian one, where all must conform to the unyielding regulations of an authoritarianism state that controls and micromanages every aspect of an individual's life.
That is why the world needs to guard against China's shared vision for the world, where militant nationalism is prioritized and where every aspect of social life is devoted to the great national rejuvenation of China alone.