It's time to break the news.The Messenger's slogan

A Xi Jinping ‘report card’: Six ways Xi’s decade of crackdowns and campaigns has changed China

On the eve of China’s party congress, a special Grid look at how one of the country’s most powerful leaders since Mao has made his mark.

It’s a moment to take stock of Xi’s tenure and what has without question been a period of staggering change in China. Grid surveyed experts who have watched Xi and China closely, with the aim of assessing where Xi has had the greatest impact on the country he has led since 2012.

“Things have changed dramatically on the social, political and economic fronts,” John Yasuda, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who focuses on China, told Grid. “It is difficult to pinpoint any one particular thing because it has been a sea change in many respects since the Hu [Jintao] years.”

Grid has identified six elements in that “sea change,” and what emerges is a report card that ranges from considerable achievement to major missteps and, in some cases, irreparable harm.

One can certainly argue that under Xi’s tight grip, China has experienced changes for the better: His vast anticorruption campaign has reined in some of the once-ubiquitous graft; his policies have helped lift millions from extreme poverty; and a shift to cleaner energy has significantly improved air quality and helped curb the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet the costs of Xi’s rule have been profound. He has overseen sweeping crackdowns on human rights in China’s Xinjiang province and more recently in Hong Kong. Across the country, new levels of censorship, surveillance and policing have all but suffocated free speech and civil society. On the economic front, Xi’s state-led vision of the economy has punished businesses from real estate giants to the tech sector.

1. Out with the “tigers”: a sweeping campaign against corruption

The campaign left an impression. “It’s political theater in part,” said Wedeman, but he added that initial polling suggested the public approved. “People were pretty impressed with Xi and his willingness to go after corruption at the highest level.”

The main problem with Xi’s campaign? It’s still going, 10 years later. In other words, as more officials are bagged for bribery, year after year, it’s hard to argue that the corruption problem has been settled.

“The more tiger pelts Xi pins up on the walls of Zhongnanhai,” said Wedeman, referring to the government’s Beijing headquarters, “the more people are, I would guess, scratching their heads and saying, ‘That’s a lot of pelts. How many more are still out there?’”

2. Green energy, cleaner skies

“It bolstered this argument from some quarters in China,” Alex Wang, a professor of environmental law at University of California, Los Angeles, told Grid, “that a strong state could get things done — that ‘the war on pollution’ required this strong state, operating from the top down.”

The “war on pollution” is only one facet of a broader push under Xi to elevate the importance of environmental protection, long relegated to an afterthought in the country’s rush to economic development. The U.S. and China helped lay the foundation for the 2015 Paris Agreement, and Xi caught the world by surprise in 2021 when he announced China would reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Beyond the pledges, Xi has shown a clear ambition for China to dominate green technologies of the future and build its reputation as a climate leader on the global stage.

China still has a long way to go on these fronts. And experts warn that the top-down approach to environmental protection may leave the country vulnerable to blind spots. “I think there’s a risk for China because it removes some forms of accountability — eyes on the system to identify problems,” said Wang. “It removes people that can help implement goals.”

Still, when grading Xi’s reign, he gets solid marks for confronting one of the most obvious problems the country faced a decade ago — and beginning to tackle China’s immense climate challenge.

3. Human rights crackdown: Xinjiang, Hong Kong and censorship

Along with Xi’s crackdowns on corruption and pollution has come a dramatic assault on all manner of human rights in China. This change is hard to overstate: The space for civil society has shrunk dramatically in China.

“Civil rights have always been very repressed in China, but in the past 10 years the crackdown on [non-governmental organizations], the imprisonment of activists, the censorship and the surveillance have made it almost, you know — there’s no channel for people to voice their opinions,” Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, told Grid.

While dissent had long been punished, and censorship was a fact of life, the extent of intolerance under Xi means even mild criticisms can be dangerous now. And the government’s ability to track dissent has grown exponentially.

The most obvious impact has been that some of the biggest human rights stories in China have gotten very little attention domestically, while they’ve raised alarm in the outside world.

4. Bringing rural China out of extreme poverty

5. A heavier hand of the state in private enterprise

It’s the crackdown few saw coming — and it’s dragged the economy down.

6. Xi’s zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic

Facing these tough economic straits, the biggest question for many people watching China’s party congress is a simple one: “Will zero-covid end?”

Xi’s signature approach to handling the pandemic — the policy that brought success after the initial outbreak in Wuhan — has become an albatross for the Chinese government. Having relentlessly promoted the success of zero-covid and the need to lock down cities to ensure caseloads remain low, Xi has thus far refused to change course.

For all the profound changes to life in China under Xi, zero-covid may prove to be the policy that has affected people most profoundly — and shaped their view of the government more than any other.

Start your day with the biggest stories and exclusive reporting from The Messenger Morning, our weekday newsletter.
By signing up, you agree to our privacy policy and terms of use.
Sign Up.