Chinese Students at Vanderbilt Dissent As Xi Reaffirms His Power


Alex Mormorunni, Contributor

Image credit: “Great Hall of the People by Night” by Reinhold Möller is used with permission.

“Destroy the old world, create a new world,” reads a handwritten message on a pin-up board in Stevenson Hall. The line is an old Chinese Communist Party (CCP) slogan from the Mao era, but used here in protest of the very party of its origin.

The 20th Party Congress, which ended last Saturday, was a five-day affirmation of Xi Jinping’s control over China. During the Congress, messages of protest appeared in Beijing and across the Vanderbilt campus. 

Protesters atop Beijing’s Sitong Bridge unfurled banners criticizing President Xi just before the Party Congress began. In the moments before they were torn down by police, the banners preached a striking message: “We want food, not coronavirus tests; reform, not Cultural Revolution. We want freedom, not lockdowns; elections, not rulers. We want dignity, not lies. To be citizens, not slaves.” Public acts of dissent rarely breach the tight grip of the CCP’s public monitoring network, and the timing of this one made it particularly noteworthy.

Xi’s complete control over the CCP is now overtly clear. On the final day of the event, he had former president Hu Jintao dragged from the Congress while journalists were still present. Such a display of power, against such a public figure, and in such a public setting leaves no doubt that power over the CCP now rests fully in Xi’s hands. In his nearly two-hour long political report at the Congress, Xi laid out his policy plans for the next four years. His speech emphasized national defense, signifying that the CCP’s strict monitoring of China’s internet is likely to escalate along with state supervision of off-line life.

The CCP’s steady control over China over the past few decades is largely attributable to its ability to placate the country’s elites. The CCP gave elites influential positions within the party, positions that granted them the power to select or sack China’s leaders. “Turnover was a big part of the way that the regime maintained control over the elites,” said Vanderbilt political science professor Noam Lupu, “the party [could] get rid of the Premier.” By making himself the sole policy maker, Xi has seized this power from his nation’s most powerful citizens, undermining “one of the reasons that people who study China think that [the CCP] has been so successful at surviving”.

While prospects for a less repressive government look bleak following the events of the Party Congress, Xi’s consolidation of power may have counterintuitively brightened the long term prospects. As Lupu said, “personalist dictatorships are harder to sustain, and [China] seems to be moving more in that direction…that’s risky.”

Xi achieving one-man rule does not guarantee government turnover. Mao Zedong, China’s last personalist dictator, ruled for 32 years, until his death. And, should contestation of power among the elites result in a government turnover, another autocratic regime is as likely an outcome as a government tolerant of civil liberties. However, Xi’s dominance does mean that the CCP has become more unstable. 

Though Xi faces the possibility of a challenge from Chinese elites, the clearest present threat to his power is popular unrest, which often coalesces online. “In the Arab Spring, social media played a big role in mobilizing people.” Lupu stated, and argued that the knowledge of this unifying power of the internet is a large reason why Xi’s government “engages in a lot of surveillance on social media.” Xi’s control of social media is an acknowledgment of his own vulnerability to the opinions of the Chinese people. The Sitong bridge protest and the pin-up board posters both reflect what appears to be a growing distaste for Xi’s regime among Chinese citizens. Given Xi’s strict monitoring of online political discourse, expressions of dissent on campus are a rare platform through which Chinese citizens can voice political criticism.