Thursday, July 16, 2020
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Xi Jingping’s rise revives memories of dread

Farooq Ganderbali

Chinese President Xi Jingping’s recent anointment as the `President for Life` has sparked old, buried memories of the horrific days of the Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Those were the days, about 52 years ago, when unruly mobs comprising students and soldiers were unleashed on all those who opposed or seen to be in opposition to Mao’s ambition fuelled by paranoia to become the unbridled leader of the country. Many today fear Xi Jingping’s decision to rewrite the country’s constitution to usurp power is no different from Mao’s megalomaniac drive to become `supreme ruler`.

During the Cultural Revolution, as the violent and oppressive drive was labelled, lasted almost a decade, resulting in the death of over 1.5 million people, forced incarceration of several more millions who suffered torture and inhuman conditions in prisons. Millions lost their properties and sources of employment. Children lost their schooling days to run propaganda marches. Women became slaves to ideological monsters. Since then, both the state and people have tried not to look back and if there were some attempts on the part of scholars to probe the past, they were quietly but forcefully discouraged from doing so. The past was buried deep.

The scholars who have been closely studying China’s inevitable rise as a economic and military powerhouse believe that Xi Jingping, although a victim of the Cultural Revolution, has been keen on keeping a tight lid over the disturbing phases of the Community Party’s history, especially the madness wrought on the people by Mao. A leading scholar of China, Frank Dikotter believes that Xi Jingping was more than ever determined to excise true knowledge of the Cultural Revolution and the 1960s from the country’s collective consciousness. He pointed out how difficult it had become for scholars to access people and materials in China to piece together the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution. He cited the closure of two private museums on the Cultural Revolution and shutting down of websites that posted the memoirs of victims of the Cultural Revolution as clear signs of Xi Jingping’s policy.

Xi Jingping is not Mao but he exhibits the same ambition and drive to hold power at any cost. Unlike Mao, who believed in disruption of the status quo, Xi is convinced that he alone can set his country to greater glory and riches. Others in the party are not committed enough to fulfil what he believes is China’s destiny as the global superpower.

Early in his first term itself, Xi Jingping made it clear that he would not be following his two predecessors in handing power quietly after two five-year terms as mandated by the Constitution. This clause was introduced into the Constitution after the disastrous Cultural Revolution. He managed to declare himself a `core leader` of the party and then he set about the party and state machine, including the subservient media, to create a larger than life image of his, as the supreme leader of the party and country. He set aside what warned Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, had warned about building “ the fate of a country on the renown of one or two people`` as ``very unhealthy and very dangerous”. But Xi Jingping’s ambitious drive reached the pinnacle with the addition of "Xi Jinping Thought" being added to the Party constitution in 2017.

But now, Xi Jingping’s grand vision of himself remaining at the helm for a lifetime is somewhere nudging the ghosts of the horrible past to haunt those who never forgot. Li Datong, a former newspaper editor, was quick, and it took lot of courage to do so, the Communist party that it introduced term limits “after the immense suffering [wreaked] by the Cultural Revolution” . In an open letter, he wrote: “China can only move forward on this foundation, and there is emphatically no reason to move in the reverse direction…abolishing term limits would plant “the seed once again of chaos in China, causing untold damage”. During the Cultural Revolution, Li Datong was exiled to Inner Magnolia, his father had his legs broken and confined to cow shed over a decade. But now, Datong said in interview with The Observer, that China was on the verge of an ``even darker and more terrifying situation” than it faced during the Mao-era upheaval. His question that has resonated through the liberal quarters of China is: “How can you allow such a dictatorship to recur?”

With the mighty Chinese state military machine already on an overdrive to squash any squeak of dissent or protest, there is nothing on the surface to detect public anxiety. But like the Tiananmen Square episode, it might erupt anytime in the near future, either on the street or on the cyberway.

But it is not only the people of China who are anxious about their leader’s decision to rule `for ever`, but also the neighbouring countries which have had a troubling experience with Xi Jingping’s military dominance in the recent years. Xi Jingping views himself as a military strongman and has ensured that this message goes out to the countries in the neighbourhood, especially those who have territorial disputes with China. His `great love` for a terrorist-loving, nuclear armed rogue country like Pakistan is no less a cause of worry for the wider international community.

In short, with a military muscleman and politically ambitious Xi Jingping assuming unbridled powers, the world has become an even more unsure place.

(The author is a senior journalist and columnist)

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