In 2016, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corrupt officials, dissidents, activists, and civil society grew ever more brutal. He consolidated his power to an unprecedented level not seen for decades on the eve of a major leadership reshuffle next year. Riding a wave of growing nationalism at home, his government is taking on a more assertive global role, emboldened by events abroad like Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory.
Chinese artist Badiucao captured Xi’s year in a series of drawings, recognizable for their strong lines and use of red and black. One of China’s best-known political cartoonists, the native of Shanghai, now based in Australia, confronts a variety of social and political issues in China.
“There’s no other image that can better reflect the Chinese government’s arbitrary governance than those that show Xi Jinping wielding great power,” said Badiucao. Authoritarian leaders shape themselves into “great, glorious and righteous” figures to prove the legitimacy of their rule, he said, but satirical cartoons, which are almost non-existent in China, look beyond the facade and “completely tear apart the emperor’s new clothes.”
Badiucao highlighted two of Xi’s nicknames. One is Xi Dada, or Daddy Xi; the other is Xi Baozi, or Steamed Bun Xi. Both terms lend Xi an air of familiarity, but are also little more than political posturing.
“In Xi Dada’s China dream, all steamed buns are made of human flesh fillings,” said Badiucao.
Five Hong Kong booksellers disappeared last year, and are widely believed to have been kidnapped by Chinese authorities for selling books critical of the Communist Party, including one with the tentative title The Lovers of Xi Jinping. Earlier this year, all of them resurfaced to confess their crimes, but Lam Wing-kee, owner of Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Bookstore, came forward after his release in June to expose the chilling details of his abduction from Hong Kong to mainland China.
Their abductions have effectively muted free speech in the city’s publishing industry, according to a recent report by the PEN American Center, a New York-based writers’ group.
Hong Kong is a key part of Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative—a land-and-sea version of the fabled East-West Silk Road trading route—at least according to Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying. The city’s deeply unpopular top official championed repeatedly the idea that Hong Kong would benefit from the trade program connecting China to the world, exacerbating public sentiment that he is nothing more than Beijing’s lapdog.
In February, Xi took a high-profile tour to three state mouthpiece news outlets including the People’s Daily, Xinhua news agency, and China Central Television (CCTV), demanding absolute loyalty from them.
During his visit to CCTV, Xi, flanked by other officials and CCTV staffers, sat on the anchor’s chair for the broadcaster’s evening news bulletin—which is essentially a roundup of Xi’s and other top officials’ movements of the day.
Badiucao recreated a shot of Xi trying out the anchor chair in a cartoon, depicting those accompanying him as monkeys and snakes, a pun on ”mouthpiece,” or houshe in Chinese.
Over three dozen people linked to a mother-and-daughter team selling illegal vaccines worth $90 million nationwide for five years were arrested by police in March. Amid public anger over China’s drug safety, Badiucao argued: let Xi take the vaccine shots first.
The now defunct Chinese digital news outlet Wujie published in March an anonymous letter calling for Xi’s resignation. The letter, signed by ”loyal Communist Party members,” detailed exhaustively Xi’s domestic and foreign policy mistakes, from sidelining premier Li Keqiang to allowing the US’s rebalance to Asia.
In 2015, Xi banned golf among all 85 million party members, for fear that it was a gateway to corruption. In 2016, he okayed the sport for government officials, as long as they play it for themselves.
This year’s Panama Papers leak revealed that at least eight top Chinese officials are linked to offshore deals through associates. Xi’s brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui, was the sole director and shareholder of two British Virgin Islands-based shell companies, which were dormant in 2012 before Xi became the party chief, according to the documents.
In April, a 21-year-old college student died of a rare form of cancer, after choosing a problematic treatment displayed in the search results on Baidu, China’s version of Google. The incident forced the Chinese tech giant to overhaul how it handles paid advertising results, which makes up nearly all its revenues.
Badiucao mocked that when Xi searches “how to cure the party”on Baidu, he is basically getting the wrong diagnosis.
After Taiwan’s new president Tsai Ing-wen took office in May, a column published in a state newspaper attacked her for being single. Wang Weixing, head of Beijing’s semi-official agency for handling Taiwan affairs, said that Tsai, whose Democratic Progessive Party has espoused pro-independence views, is “emotional” and “extreme” thanks to her unmarried status.
Badiucao wondered whether a married Xi or a single Tsai is the real evil.
Xi loves to boast about his reading habits and quote from classic Chinese literature in public. During his keynote speech at September’s G20 summit, Xi confused the word “agriculture” with “clothes” in Chinese when quoting a Chinese saying relating to easing trade and agricultural restrictions.
Xi erroneously pronounced the idiom 通商宽农, or tongshuang kuannong, as 通商宽衣, or tongshuang kuanyi, perhaps because the Chinese characters “农” and “衣” look similar. His slip of the tongue soon became a joke—and then got censored (link in Chinese)—on China’s internet, as 宽衣, or kuanyi, also means “undress” in Chinese.
Ahead of a major leadership reshuffle next year, Xi won the title of being the party’s “core,” putting himself on a par with previous leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. It is yet another sign of Xi consolidating his power—or even intending to linger after his term ends.
In 2016, “China is perhaps the biggest winner” has become a clichéd headline in the Chinese media as seismic events shook the rest of the world—there was Brexit, Trump’s election victory, the demise of the TPP, and so on. Badiucao portrayed Xi as a winning dinosaur, with the Chinese word for dinosaur, kong, a play on the word for “fear.”
Both love building walls and both display authoritarian tendencies, but Xi no doubt has a good fight on his hands against Trump over the next four years. We’ll wait and Xi in 2017.