Who is the strong man – Xi Jinping or Peng Lifa who dared to defy him?

“Brave man” and “hero” were considered sensitive and anyone who used them could be removed and suspended. Before the censors could remove it, he was dubbed “new tankman”, a reference to the lone protester who stood in front of an approaching tank during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. We don’t know the tankman’s name, but we do know the name of the Sitong Bridge protester, thanks to sleuthing by a number of China-watching websites. It’s Peng Lifa.

Remarkably, regime cheerleader Hu Xijin, former editor of the Global timessaw the need to tweet: “China is stable at the moment, especially the capital Beijing.”


IllustrationCredit:Andrew Dyson

President Xi is sometimes described as the “strong ruler” of China. Indeed, this week’s party congress is expected to anoint him for a third consecutive five-year term. To do this, he had to break the party’s constitutional rule that limited a leader to two terms. This rule was introduced to prevent the rise of another Mao Zedong, who ruled unchecked for life while unleashing the chaos and mass death of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Xi has also abolished another restriction, the post-Mao system of collective leadership. He was already recognized all over the world as the most powerful person on earth. Now he is ready to entrench himself, dangerously uncontrolled and unquestionable, as the new Mao.

Why? One word: survive. Xi grew up the privileged son of a high-ranking party leader. He was a revolutionary hero who saved Mao’s life. He also happened to be a political liberalist; he befriended the Dalai Lama and later opposed the Tiananmen massacre.


But when Xi was nine years old, his father faced factional intrigue at Mao’s court amid the madness of the Cultural Revolution. Xi Zhongxun was purged, his family scattered, his daughter killed. At the age of 13, the young Xi was beaten and demoted, paraded on stage at mass denunciations as a “class enemy”. Crowds shouted insults at the boy. His mother joined in to humiliate him to protect herself.

Xi Jingpin was imprisoned several times and sent to the countryside for six years at age 15 as a farm worker. He lived in a flea cave for years: “I was very lonely,” he later admitted. “I’ve thought a lot about whether I should live or die.”

But instead of turning against this monstrous regime, Xi chose to survive by joining it. He decided the party was a “survival system,” according to a friend who knew him as a teenager. A party senior later commented: “Xi Jinping believes that political battles should be won at all costs. His father’s life story taught him that lesson, and it’s etched in his memory.”

He rejected his father’s liberal worldview, revered Mao as a hero, and eventually became as ruthlessly oppressive as Mao himself. In doing so, he persecuted and humiliated a large number of powerful people.


“He knows full well that if he were to leave office, he and his family would be vulnerable to retaliation from his successors,” Kevin Rudd wrote in the American magazine. Foreign Affairs. “So Xi will probably run the country for the rest of his life.” He’s 69.

In other words, he strives for ever greater power for fear of his own survival. He alluded to this in a 2000 interview with a Chinese journalist when he spoke about his view of power: “What I see are not just the superficial things: the power, the flowers, the glory, the applause. I see the cowsheds and how people can blow hot and cold.”

stables? That’s a reference to the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guards converted cowsheds into prisons and torture chambers. Xi is exactly the kind of autocrat Winston Churchill envisioned: “Dictators ride back and forth on tigers they dare not dismount.”

Xi can be powerful. But who is the real strongman – Peng Lifa or Xi Jinping? The brave protester who risks his life for his principles, or the fearful megalomaniac who dares not give his people a voice?

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