Xi unambiguously opposes American democratic notions. In 2011 and 2012, he spent several days with Vice-President Joe Biden, his official counterpart at the time, in China and the United States. Biden told me that Xi asked him why the U.S. put “so much emphasis on human rights.” Biden replied to Xi, “No President of the United States could represent the United States were he not committed to human rights,” and went on, “If you don’t understand this, you can’t deal with us. President Barack Obama would not be able to stay in power if he did not speak of it. So look at it as a political imperative. It doesn’t make us better or worse. It’s who we are. You make your decisions. We’ll make ours.”
As the historian Mi Hedu observes in his 1993 book, “The Red Guard Generation,” students at the August 1st School “compared one another on the basis of whose father had a higher rank, whose father rode in a better car. Some would say, ‘Obey whoever’s father has the highest position.’ ” When the Cultural Revolution began, in 1966, Beijing students who were zilaihong (“born red”) promoted a slogan: “If the father is a hero, the son is also a hero; if the father is a reactionary, the son is a bastard.” Red Guards sought to cleanse the capital of opposition, to make it “as pure and clean as crystal,” they said. From late August to late September, 1966, nearly two thousand people were killed in Beijing, and at least forty-nine hundred historical sites were damaged or destroyed, according to Yiching Wu, the author of “The Cultural Revolution at the Margins.”
The following year, when Xi was thirty-three, a friend introduced him to Peng Liyuan, who, at twenty-four, was already one of China’s most famous opera and folk singers. Xi told her that he didn’t watch television, she recalled in a 2007 interview. “What kind of songs do you sing?” he asked. Peng thought that he looked “uncultured and much older than his age,” but he asked her questions about singing technique, which she took as a sign of intelligence. Xi later said that he decided within forty minutes to ask her to marry him. They married the following year, and in 1989, after the crackdown on student demonstrators, Peng was among the military singers who were sent to Tiananmen Square to serenade the troops. (Images of that scene, along with information about Peng’s private life and her commercial dealings, have been largely expunged from the Web.) In 1992, they had a daughter. As it became clear that Xi would be a top leader, Peng gave up the diva gowns and elaborate hairdos in favor of pants suits and the occasional military uniform. Fans still mobbed her, while he stood patiently to the side, but for the most part she stopped performing and turned her attention to activism around H.I.V., tobacco control, and women’s education. For years, Xi and Peng spent most of their time apart. But, in the flurry of attention around Big Uncle Xi, the state-run media has promoted a pop song entitled “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama,” which includes the line “Men should learn from Xi and women should learn from Peng.”
By the end of 2014, the Party had announced the punishment of more than a hundred thousand officials on corruption charges. Many foreign observers asked if Xi’s crusade was truly intended to stamp out corruption or if it was a tool to attack his enemies. It was not simply one or the other: corruption had become so threatening to the Party’s legitimacy that only the most isolated leader could have avoided forcing it back to a more manageable level, but railing against corruption was also a proven instrument for political consolidation, and at the highest levels Xi has deployed it largely against his opponents. Geremie Barme, the historian who heads the Australian Centre on China in the World, analyzed the forty-eight most high-profile arrests, and discovered that none of them were second-generation reds. “I don’t call it an anticorruption campaign,” a Western diplomat told me. “This is grinding trench warfare.”
Although Vladimir Putin has suffocated Russian civil society and neutered the press, Moscow stores still carry books that are critical of him, and a few long-suffering blogs still find ways to attack him. Xi is less tolerant. In February, 2014, Yiu Mantin, a seventy-nine-year-old editor at Hong Kong’s Morning Bell Press, who had planned to release a biography critical of Xi, by the exiled writer Yu Jie, was arrested during a visit to the mainland. He had received a phone call warning him not to proceed with publication. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, on charges of smuggling seven cans of paint.
A prominent editor in Beijing told me that Chinese philanthropists have been warned, “You can’t give money to this N.G.O. or that N.G.O.—basically all N.G.O.s.” In December, the Committee to Protect Journalists counted forty-four reporters in Chinese jails, more than in any other country. Well-known human-rights lawyers—Pu Zhiqiang, Ding Jiaxi, Xia Lin—have been jailed. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch called this the harshest suppression of dissent in a decade.
A decade ago, the Chinese Internet was alive with debate, confession, humor, and discovery. Month by month, it is becoming more sterilized and self-contained. To the degree that China’s connection to the outside world matters, the digital links are deteriorating. Voice-over-Internet calls, viral videos, podcasts—the minor accessories of contemporary digital life—are less reachable abroad than they were a year ago. It’s an astonishing thing to observe in a rising superpower. How many countries in 2015 have an Internet connection to the world that is worse than it was a year ago?
The film raced across social media, and by the end of the first week it had been viewed two hundred million times—a level usually reserved for pop-music videos rather than dense, two-hour documentaries. The following weekend, the authorities ordered video sites to withdraw the film, and news organizations took down their coverage. As quickly as it had appeared, the film vanished from the Chinese Web—a phenomenon undone.
In February, Chinese video sites posted a privately funded documentary, titled “Under the Dome,” in which Chai Jing, a former state-television reporter, described her growing alarm at the risks that air pollution poses to her infant daughter. It was a sophisticated production: Chai, in fashionable faded jeans and a white blouse, delivered a fast-paced, TED-style talk to a rapt studio audience, unspooling grim statistics and scenes in which bureaucrats admitted that powerful companies and agencies had rendered them incapable of protecting public health. In spirit, the film was consistent with the official “war on corruption,” and state-run media responded with a coördinated array of flattering coverage.