Party of One: The Rise of Xi Jinping and China's Superpower Future
“Wong’s book helps us understand China, the CCP, and Xi as the new Cold War heats up in the western Pacific.”
In the introduction to Party of One, Chun Han Wong writes that “[u]nderstanding China has never been more essential” because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under the leadership of Xi Jingping “reaches around the globe, and its decisions affect politics, business, and ordinary lives just about anywhere.” Wong’s book helps us to better understand China, the CCP, and Xi as the new Cold War heats up in the western Pacific.
Wong covered China for the Wall Street Journal from 2014 until he was forced out of mainland China in 2019, after he wrote an article about one of Xi’s cousin’s alleged involvement in organized crime. A native of Singapore, Wong speaks both English and Mandarin Chinese, and studied international history at the London School of Economics. His book is based on his five years of reporting from Beijing and Hong Kong, interviews with CCP insiders, diplomats, businessmen, and ordinary Chinese citizens, and a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, including Xi’s speeches, memoirs of some of Xi’s friends and associates, archival papers, and state-media reports.
But as Wong notes, “any attempt to examine the party’s inner workings can yield only partial glimpses of a complex picture” due to the CCP’s “secretive Leninist system.” And it is a system that has been made more opaque by Xi Jinping who has acquired more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
Wong’s book is part biography—Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was Mao’s propaganda minister in the early 1950s, joined the Central Committee in 1956, and became vice-premier in 1959. But during the Cultural Revolution, Xi’s father fell from grace, was abused by Red Guards, and endured struggle sessions, while his family was forced to leave Beijing. Xi Jinping, too, suffered imprisonment and was subjected to struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution.
After Mao’s death, Xi Zhongxun was rehabilitated and Xi Jinping began his rise within the party system. He enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as an aide to one of the leaders of the Central Military Commission. Xi later rose through the ranks of local government in Zhengding and later Fujian--the province situated across the strait from Taiwan. He was selected to serve on the Central Committee. His last local job was as party boss in Shanghai. He was selected to the Politburo in 2007, and five years later became the party’s general secretary, the country’s president, and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Wong provides important context to Xi’s rise to power. After Mao’s death, China under Deng Xiaoping experimented with state capitalism, setting in motion China’s economic rise and easing up a bit on totalitarian rule. But economic liberalization did not lead to widespread political liberalization, though Wong notes that the party experienced internal divisions that continued through the regimes of Deng’s immediate successors.
Perhaps the defining moment in post-Mao China was the Tiananmen Square revolt in 1989, which occurred just as the foundations of the Soviet empire began to give way in Eastern Europe. Deng forcibly crushed the uprising--there would be no Chinese Gorbachev. Chinese officials, Wong writes, “obsessed over the causes [of the Soviet collapse] and debated ways to avoid a similar fate.” Xi Jinping later called the crumbling of the Soviet empire a “warning from the past.”
After taking over the chairmanship of the party, Xi quickly moved to consolidate the party’s control over state and private apparatuses of power, and to enlarge the scope of his personal power over the party. Potential opponents were purged in “anti-corruption” campaigns. Private enterprises were made to submit to CCP oversight and ultimate control. Party discipline was tightened. And most importantly, Xi assumed greater control over the PLA and security forces--all had to serve the interests of the CCP.
Wong has separate chapters in which he describes Xi’s and the CCP’s uses of the law, businesses, the media, the military, and security services to crack down on internal dissent and expand the party’s control over virtually every aspect of Chinese society. He has revived Marxist and Mao Zedong thought, and institutionalized “Xi Jinping thought.” He has conducted an aggressive and ambitious foreign policy, repeatedly rattling the saber in the South China Sea and on the border with India. He unleashed “wolf-warrior” diplomats to challenge the United States and bully smaller countries. He crushed political opposition in Hong Kong. He continues to engage in cultural genocide against the Uyghurs. He launched the Belt and Road Initiative to extend China’s economic and political influence across Eurasia and in parts of Africa.
It is all part of what Xi calls the “China Dream,” the fulfillment of which includes reunification with Taiwan and replacing the United States as the world’s leading power. Wong notes, however, that in his pursuit of the China Dream, Xi now confronts a bi-partisan anti-China policy in the United States and opposition from regional powers in east Asia and the western Pacific. If war breaks out in the western Pacific, Xi’s China Dream might become the world’s nightmare.