Like most residents of the sun-kissed fishing village of Tanmen, Huang Jie will never forget the day China’s “chairman of everything” came to town. It was the afternoon of 8 April 2013 – just a few months after Xi Jinping had taken power – and he was using one of his first presidential trips to pay a morale-boosting visit to the sailors on the frontline of Beijing’s quest to control the South China Sea.
“He was just over there,” reminisced Huang, the 45-year-old owner of a harbour-side equipment shop, motioning excitedly into the street to where Xi’s motorcade passed by. “The window was half open and he looked out at us and smiled. When he waved, it was as if it was in slow motion – he didn’t say a single word, but I felt so excited.”
Almost five years after his tour of Tanmen, Xi is celebrating what should be the mid-point of a 10-year stint at the helm of the world’s second largest economy. China’s political elite will descend on Beijing on Wednesday to salute a 64-year-old strongman who is now so powerful that a new body of ideology may be written into the constitution, putting him in the same political league as the nation’s founder, Mao Zedong.
For critics, foremost among them liberal intellectuals and human rights activists, Xi’s first term has proved calamitous. Some had hoped he would prove a political reformer. Instead China’s authoritarian leader has waged war on dissent with unexpected ferocity, throwing some opponents in jail and forcing others overseas. Hardcore objectors call him “Xitler”.
Abroad, Xi has also accrued detractors, irking nations large and small for his assertive – some say domineering – foreign policy initiatives. Perhaps nowhere has that swagger manifested itself more clearly than in the politically charged waters around Tanmen, where Beijing is using “maritime militia” groups to push highly controversial sovereignty claims over about 90% of the South China Sea.
But as Xi completes his first term, experts say that many of China’s 1.4 billion citizens see him in a far more favourable light.
“Whatever people may have to say about Xi Jinping, he has actually been a popular leader,” said Steve Tsang, head of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “The economy remains strong … corruption has been contained … China is internationally much more accepted as being in the top league and is calling the shots … In Trumpian terms, he’s managed to make China look great again.”
Cheng Li, director of the Brookings Institution’s John L Thornton China Centre in Washington, said Xi’s popularity is stronger among poorer citizens. “Of course, there is a lot of criticism from intellectuals about the personality cult and the tight control,” he said. “But Xi Jinping’s popularity is solid among the laobaixing[common folk]. They see him as a strong leader … He gets things done. He makes Chinese people proud. There is a tendency to view him as the third great leader since Mao, Deng and then Xi.”
Source : The Guardian