President Xi Jinping has implemented a range of regulatory overhauls and cultural crackdown in China to re-centralise the Party-state’s society-wide control. These began late last year, but over the last month have significantly ramped up. Many centered around the idea of “common prosperity.” Characterized by a rapid rollback of economic liberalization and crackdown on individual freedom, the “Common Prosperity” campaign aims to address the long-standing issue of income inequality in Chinese society in pursuit of high-quality development.
What is Happening?
Reigning in the Private Sector
In Xi’s attempt to crack down on the ‘disorderly expansion of capital,’ tech companies across all sectors, from ride-hailing services, e-commerce to insurance, have been subjected to harsh regulations and fines.
Superstar billionaire Jack Ma disappeared late last year after he publicly criticised the Chinese financial system, which prompted regulators to shelve the 52-billion-dollar IPO of his financial services company. This April, regulators also imposed a 3 billion dollar fine on Ma’s e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba for monopolistic behaviour.
Cyber regulators removed ride hailing giant Didi from app stores this July and launched an investigation into its compliance with data security laws. This September, ride-hailing companies across China were summoned to the capital and ordered to “rectify” their digital misconduct.
Beyond imposing restrictions, Xi called for high-income enterprises to give more to society via charitable causes in August and wiped out more than 1 trillion dollars from Chinese tech stocks. However, despite the wide-ranging crackdown, Xi has pledged its commitment to protecting foreign capital and the private sector.
Control of the Cultural Sector
From reforming the chaotic celebrity and fandom culture in China, to setting time restrictions for young online gamers, Xi initiated a slew of measures aimed at cultural reform.
Zhao Wei, a famous actress and producer who had drawn the ire of the Party for unclear reasons, was “de-platformed” and essentially wiped out on social media.
The Party boycotted vulgar internet celebrities and censored images of ‘sissy man (niangpao),’ a derogatory term that refers to effeminate men. These trends have become prevailing features in Chinese pop culture and supposedly threaten traditional social values.
Online gaming, one of the country’s most popular pastimes, was another target. Gamers under 18 are banned from playing on school nights, and activity is restricted to one hour a night on non-school days to combat the “spiritual opium” of gaming addiction in China.
Changes in the Education System
Under the hypercompetitive educational environment in China, Xi has banned private for-profit tutoring companies to improve students’ school-life balance and level the playing field by lessening the financial burdens on families. Many regarded the ban as a counterproductive policy that produced mass unemployment in this lucrative sector.
Furthermore, the Party has introduced “Xi Jinping thought” into the national curriculum from primary school up to university to help “teenagers establish Marxist beliefs.”
Why the New Crackdown?
Build Momentum for the 20th Party Congress in 2022
Most academics suggest that the current wave of social and economic tightening and the strengthening of state control links to Xi’s desire to secure a third five-year term at the 20th Party Congress in October 2022. Many of these measures represent a form of economic populism in response to widespread anxiety over inequalities.
A Move Linked to Self-reliance and Demography?
Under the banner of “common prosperity,” Xi pushed for a “New Development Concept” that emphasizes greater equality, reduced vulnerabilities to external influences and greater state intervention in the economy. As President of the Asia Society Policy Institute Kevin Rudd stated, “underpinning this logic is the recent resuscitation of an older Maoist notion of national self-reliance.” Rudd also pointed out Xi’s concern with demography and China’s fertility rate – the measures around “common prosperity” aim to create greater personal disposable income to make raising more kids feasible.
Promote Party Values and Ideology
The cultural reforms echo the Party’s stance on culture as expressed by Xi in October 2014. Artists should not “lose themselves in the tide of market economy nor go astray while answering the question of ‘whom to serve.’” Instead, “the arts must serve the people and serve socialism.”
Overall, Xi’s orders have been sudden and dramatic, standing in contrast to decades of liberalism that opened China open to the world and embraced capitalism and consumerism. It raises debates about where China is today, and what kind of nation China wants to become.
Stella Lee is a freshman majoring in International Studies and Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. She is from Auckland, New Zealand.