As billions across China celebrate National Day on October 1, Chinese society finds itself amid a government-led re-engineering effort on a scale not seen in decades.
Over the past year, the government has targeted major sectors of society from China’s wealthy and powerful tech barons to education, celebrity culture and even citizens’ private lives under the banner of “common prosperity”.
The precise reasoning and timing behind the sweeping crackdown are unknown, but theories include that some regulatory action may have been delayed by COVID-19 or the government may be preparing for next year’s National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
Held once every five years, the 2022 summit will be unprecedented.
After the removal of term limits in 2018, President Xi Jinping is heading into a third term and could rule China indefinitely.
“(Xi) wants to prove his leadership in almost every sphere of China, whether it’s international relations, domestic affairs, corruption issues, cultural issues, which is new, and so, therefore, you see all the sort of movements happening almost simultaneously, possibly in preparation for next year’s big events,” which include the 2022 Winter Olympics in addition to the party congress, said Lim Tai Wei, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore.
Many date the start of the crackdown to October 24 last year, when Alibaba founder and tech titan Jack Ma publicly criticised China’s regulatory system during a speech in Shanghai. Shortly after the event, regulators forced Ma’s fintech company Ant Group to suspend its anticipated $37bn IPO, sending shockwaves through the global business community.
The tycoon disappeared from public view for three months and since January, has kept a low profile as Beijing turns its attention to the country’s other tech giants.
In July, regulators pursued the popular ride-hailing app Didi over concerns that its user data could be breached by United States officials following its listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Didi was removed from app stores and its stock plummeted in value, raising fears about the industry’s future.
Concern about oligarchs
Over the past year, China has also passed new legislation protecting user data privacy and targeting monopolies held by companies like Ma’s Alibaba and the equally powerful Tencent. Meanwhile, the taxman has taken aim at some of China’s most famous celebrities, some of whom owe tens of millions in unpaid taxes, in an extension of a greater anti-corruption campaign that began after Xi first took office in 2012.
“It’s not unlike the 1890s in the US during the ‘robber baron period,’ and then you had (President) Teddy Roosevelt’s anti-trust movement. Both of those periods had new industries which had, to use the Chinese term, ‘barbaric growth’ and then the state and politicians stepped in to change the rules of the game because they thought it wasn’t healthy for economy,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and author of Xi Jinping: The Backlash.
“Obviously, there’s an element of state control and party control. The party has always been concerned with the growth of an oligarch class that happened in Russia in the 1990s and became politically active and politically powerful.”
Unlike the US during the Gilded Age, however, many of China’s wealthy are now being asked to donate to a “common prosperity fund,” described by some as a black box although it is meant to address widening inequality amid concern it could one day lead to social unrest.
Closing social gaps is also widely believed to be the reason behind the government’s crackdown on for-profit private tutoring centres that until recently were a ubiquitous part of life for many students hoping to compete in China’s ultra-competitive school system.
‘Xi Jinping thought’, Xi’s political ideology which was enshrined in the constitution in 2018, will also be added to the national curriculum and taught in schools, from primary to senior level.
It is a social engineering effort on a scale unknown since Mao Zedong was China’s supreme leader, but it remains unclear whether it is all down to Xi.
“We don’t know what comes from the top and what is different agencies delivering what they think Xi Jinping wants. The progressive left-wing politics in the West is socially liberal, but the left wing in China are socially conservative, neo-Maoists, anti-sissy men, anti-gaming, anti-celebrity culture. Xi is obviously worried about private entrepreneurs. Is he personally worried about effeminate pop culture? I doubt it,” said McGregor.
Whatever the motivation and whoever is pulling the strings, the slew of announcements caught many by surprise.
Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, says recent crackdowns highlight the “continued unpredictability” of the Chinese government’s rule.
“A lot of people have characterised the Chinese government in more recent years as a more institutionalised form of governance despite the fact that it’s a dictatorship,” Wang told Al Jazeera.
“I think the sweeping changes that are being brought on as part of Xi consolidating power asks to what extent that understanding of the Chinese government is accurate.”