December 28, 2017 3:28 pm JST

Xi resorts to cameras and clubs to ensure loyalty

Surveillance and servility are hallmarks of China's "new era" as president's aura grows

Nikkei staff writers

The Chinese national flag flies near a security camera on Beijing's Tiananmen Square in May, 2017. © Reuters

TOKYO -- Two months after consolidating power and declaring a "new era" at the Chinese Communist Party's National Congress in October, President Xi Jinping has maintained a high profile, exhorting the country to adhere to the "core socialist values" he outlined in his three-and-a-half-hour speech to the congress.

The president is working hard to spread party ideology to all facets of society, saying that every citizen must embrace the new norm.

Not content with the president's proselytizing, the government has turned to tried-and-true methods to ensure obedience: camera surveillance and China's fawning grassroots organizations.

"This is the reality of the new era," one Chinese intellectual said, lamenting the oppressive mood pervading the country.

Banking on Xi

The president's propaganda is being given full play nationwide. Just one month after his marathon speech, primary school students in Shanghai were busy chanting 12 key words that represent core socialist values, such as "freedom," "fairness," "rule of law" and "patriotism."

No sphere of society seems immune from the hype: There is even a smartphone game that forces users to listen to part of the president's speech before allowing play.

While some are wondering about China's future in such a stifling climate, others yearning to climb the economic ladder are embracing Xi, hoping his strong leadership will improve their plight.

One 27-year-old migrant worker, who left a hard-scrabble existence in rural Hebei Province for Shanghai, described the new mood as she revealed ugly bruises on her calf: "These are leech bites I suffered when I was still a child. I want Mr. Xi to remain the Communist Party's general secretary for a long time."

She recounted the difficulties of farm life, of the leeches that bloodied her legs when she helped out barefoot in the rice paddies during summer, and of the frostbite that numbed her hands in winter, the family being too poor for either boots or gloves.

She is not alone, and wants her piece of the economic pie.

China's meteoric growth under Xi has vast swaths of the population feeling better off now than just several years ago. Moreover, his absolute power seems to resonate with ordinary Chinese, who see his relentless crusade to weed out corruption and fight pollution, along with the firm way he has dealt with political foes, as traits needed in a leader to lift their fortunes.

But the country's torrid economic growth is sure to flag. When it does, the contentment of the relatively well-to-do -- and the aspirations of those still wanting -- may give way to complacency and even dissent. Fearing this, Xi is banking on both high technology and his own charisma to see him through.

Cameras everywhere

While surveillance in China is nothing new, Beijing has taken it to Orwellian heights with its Skynet surveillance system -- millions of security cameras linked to a growing database of faces, IDs, telephone numbers and other personal information.

Checking into a hotel in China now seems to require more than a simple ID and a signature. Visitors at one in the city of Guangzhou are being asked to have their photos taken. The photos, along with other personal information, are then whisked along to a huge public security database containing information on some 1.4 billion people.

This database forms the backbone of the Skynet system that helps Xi maintain his grip on power.

There are currently more than 176 million security cameras in the country, with at least 20 million of them linked to Skynet. This number is expected to skyrocket to 626 million in 2020, with some undoubtedly earmarked for the Skynet system.

The growing network of security cameras, along with GPS embedded in smartphones, digital payment systems and other ways of tracking people online, will make it easy for authorities to keep tabs on the public should it ever grow restive.

Word of mouth

Not content with merely maintaining order, Xi also wants to keep beating the drum, using the country's many grassroots organizations as a platform to drive home his message.

This was evident at the National Congress, where fully one-third of the delegates belonged to small organizations affiliated with the Communist Party. Yang Debing, a 46-year-old migrant worker in Chongqing, was one of them.

"Migrant workers have been encouraged by General Secretary Xi's report," Yang said in reference to the president's speech at the congress.

Since attending the congress, Yang's prestige has grown. The construction worker now finds himself dealing with a flood of speaking engagement at local governments and companies, where he holds his audiences spellbound by his praise for Xi.

Like Yang, many other grassroots delegates who attended the congress are now raving about the president after returning home from Beijing, further bolstering loyalty and the president's aura of determination.

Before the National Congress, Yang's colleagues called him "group leader Yang," merely referencing his position as the head of a construction crew. But after his return from Beijing, he is now "delegate Yang."

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