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Photo of Chinese leader Xi Jinping giving a speech at the ​20th congress of the Chinese Communist Party

Xi Jinping giving a speech at the 20th congress of the Chinese Communist Party

Dan Wu

-Essay-

The 20th congress of the Chinese Communist Party ended as we knew it would: with Xi Jinping's well-choreographed anointment for a third term and the naming of a politburo completely loyal to him. The uniformed applause that echoed in the Great Hall of the People, across the party red setting, set the stage for total power in the hands of one man.

But there was, as many saw, one moment that appeared to go off script: the scene when ex-president Hu Jintao was removed from his seat at the closing ceremony. As the worlds' cameras zoomed in, the 79-year-old who was once Xi's boss was led away from his seat. Hu appeared to resist, while Xi remained in his central seat, looking indifferent, and the other top CCP officials sat in silence.

For a Chinese native, who grew up during Hu's reign, watching from afar was a disturbing experience to say the least.


Now Hu Jintao's name is censored on Chinese social media, while the footage of the ex-leader leaving has also vanished.

An age of innocence

Hu’s reign was the age of innocence for me as a child, who knew nothing about what was actually going on under the peaceful atmosphere of a “prospering country.”

The world seemed open.

It was no golden age in itself, but we had hope for a better future. We cheered for the Beijing Olympics, shed tears for the 2008 earthquake, and witnessed the 2010 Shanghai expo. Hu was often on our screens, with his premier Wen Jiabao, and they were men I instinctively respected in my apolitical reality.

The world seemed to open up to China, as China had opened itself to the world.

My political awareness grew over time, of course, in the censored and selected information environment that was already built up. My grandfather would watch the CCTV news with me every day at 7 pm, explaining the names of the CCP officials to me, including Xi, whom he predicted would be the next president far back before 2012.

Yes, if you knew the game of the CCP well enough, you would already see his path up. Grandpa did not have a particularly good impression of him, and said Xi had done pretty much nothing when he was the governor of our province. I remember staring at the face of our future president on the TV screen: he seemed quiet, not much of an interesting character, couldn't even tell if he was clever.

I remember commenting that Xi didn't look like a trustworthy politician, and my Grandpa quickly hushed my 10-year-old self up, and told me that I should never say this in front of others.

Screenshot of Hu Jintao being removed from his seat at the closing ceremony of the Congress.

Hu Jintao being removed from his seat at the closing ceremony of the Congress.

Screenshot

Internet stars

We didn’t know what to expect after 2012, but Xi's start in power was impressive. He frequently appeared in the media with his ex-singer wife, who is a household name. On the internet, they were called "Papa Xi and Mama Peng" with much made of Peng's fashion style, Xi's favorite foods, and their respective biographies.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was widely praised, and my mother credited the new president when she did not need to bribe my school teachers anymore. It seemed that he had won the people's heart.

But the man's real image began to reveal, even for those of us who were far from the centers of power. In 2014, fellow Christian people we knew began to be arrested, churches were knocked down, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong was crushed, and propaganda in schools began to expand.

I left China when my high school had become too overwhelming for me to study, with the suffocating atmosphere rooted in the "Xi Jinping central ideology", and when I was asked to sign a disclaimer that I had "no religious beliefs."

In 2018, I decided to study politics in France when Xi modified the constitution. Even though I was already out of China, I wanted to observe and to at least hope that one day we could embrace real liberation, in thought, in our beliefs, in our dignity.

But what I have witnessed from afar is that the lie of "prosperity and peace" is a tool for a regime that does not listen to the cries of its people.

Ultimate authority exposed

Now is indeed a historic moment, and I have never ever felt more strongly as “a person without a country,” a wanderer who has long since lost her homeland.

When the ugliness is placed on the table.

Even my mother language is slaughtered, as censorship and extreme nationalism have never worked so well together with the development of technology.

When Hu was forced to leave his seat, I knew we had truly reached the limit: this 79-year-old ex-president could be so easily humiliated in broad daylight. What about the other hundred millions who are already silenced in today’s new “Chinese dream”? It is like a passage from Animal Farm, when all the ugliness is placed on the table, and the leader no longer intends to hide his ultimate authority.

I still have my Chinese passport, which sends a shiver of fear every time I look at it. I cannot imagine the next time I would step on China's soil again, as I fear for the cost of living under Xi's "common prosperity," the "peaceful unification" of Taiwan he vowed to take place, and the sacrifice to "security" that all 1.4 billion population have to make.

When the 20th Congress came to end, after Hu had vanished from our screen, it was hailed as a "successful conclusion." I have never felt such fear for the future.

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