The Communist Party also has Xi Jinping in its grip.
Westerners might see Chinese President Xi Jinping as the personification of tyrannical one-man rule, and they would be right.
Since taking charge of the Chinese Communist Party ten years ago, he has stopped party factions from sharing power. This has turned one of the largest political parties in the world into a single entity where his words, thoughts, and face are everywhere. In 2016, he said that the party was China's "east, west, south, north, and centre." This was a phrase that Mao Zedong had used before. He might as well have talked about himself.
Mr. Xi is now ready to start his third five-year term as supreme leader at the Communist Party Congress, which starts on Oct. 16. This is the first time that has ever happened.
Some people were surprised and even upset that he was able to gain so much unquestioned power. People thought, and rightly so, that China was too complicated, too big, and too capitalist to not have some kind of political pluralism. Social media, a growing middle class, and modernisation in general would all lead to that. Instead, Mr. Xi has taken China in the opposite direction and seems to be able to spread his influence even outside of China.
But how could this have happened with so little trouble and no one getting hurt? It can't be because of the whims of just one person.
Even though everyone is so interested in Mr. Xi, his life, work, and politics are not really about him. The Communist Party is the topic. There is an autocrat in charge of modern China, but Mr. Xi works for the party, not the man. In a weird way, he is just as much a captive of the party as the rest of us.
His place in Chinese history depends on whether he can make sure that party rule will last long after he leaves, so that the party can achieve its main goal, which is to return China to its ancient role as a great country that lives up to its name, "Zhongguo," which means "the central country."
Since Western countries hurt China in the 19th and 20th centuries, followed by the fall of China's imperial rule in 1912 and Japan's brutal wartime invasion, this mission has been in the works. The Communist Party put the pieces of a broken country back together again. Mr. Xi's power comes from the party's nationalist goal of getting rid of China's past shames and reclaiming "lost" territories like Taiwan. Revanchism may be what drives Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it's what keeps the Chinese Communist Party alive.
Mr. Xi is the son of a former elite leader, Xi Zhongxun, from whom he learned at least one thing: No matter how the party treats you, you should always have faith in it.
Mr. Xi's father was put under house arrest for many years because he was caught up in one of Mao's purges. He was only able to go back to work after Mao died. During the Cultural Revolution, Maoist student militants broke into Mr. Xi's family home and killed one of his sisters. When he was made a public enemy of the people, even his own mother had to say bad things about him. Mao told people to "learn from the peasants," so Mr. Xi was sent to live in the countryside for seven years.
Even though the experience made Mr. Xi more cynical, he didn't lose faith. In those troubled times, a friend of his remembered a young man with an air of destiny, a Communist "princeling" who thought being in charge of the party was his birthright and had his "eyes on the prise," according to a secret report written by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 2009. His old friend said that Mr. Xi could not be influenced by money because he was sure that only the party could make China strong again. The question was whether or not he would let power get to him.
China's transition to capitalism was done by the time he took power in 2012, but new problems had arisen. Under his predecessor Hu Jintao, a lot of chances were lost and the big goal of national restoration seemed to be forgotten. Local officials who were corrupt ran their areas like small tyrants, and protests broke out over the government's heavy-handedness, rampant corruption, bad working conditions, and huge amounts of pollution.
People often thought that Mr. Xi's anti-corruption campaigns, which took place during his first few years in power, were just a way to get rid of his opponents. But he was mostly driven by a bigger goal: to make the party more effective and improve its reputation.
It is surprising how little real opposition he has faced. Mao was a powerful man, but even he had trouble with his destructive utopian policies. Deng Xiaoping's market reforms were met with opposition, and Jiang Zemin had to deal with groups that wanted even more reform. But almost no one has left the party because of Mr. Xi, though there have been rumours of internal grumbling and a few low-level defections.
Part of the reason is that the nationalist mission is strong and appeals to Chinese people much more than the cold logic of Marxism-Leninism. Last February, when the U.S. and other countries blamed China for the pandemic, the country's pride in its country was real, as were its feelings of hurt anger. Even if they don't like the Communist Party, Chinese people still love their country.
Mr. Xi has been lucky to be able to improve on what his ancestors did. But he has also been smart. The internet could have been a threat to centralised authoritarian rule, but Mr. Xi's government has used algorithms, face recognition, and mass electronic surveillance to spread party power more widely. China was a technological backwater for most of the 20th century. Now, it has the most advanced technocracy in the world.
Mr. Xi's style is very strong, but it's not all about him or his own goals, ambitions, or ego (while he may certainly have these). China is strong again, and Mr. Xi's only job is to keep it that way. And that's why he doesn't take many risks as a leader and tries so hard to shut down people who disagree with him. The systematic repression in Xinjiang is the most extreme example of how much he wants to keep things stable, even if it means facing criticism from other countries and suffering at home. The same is true of his strict "zero-Covid" policy.
These and other examples of discipline and control are like the orders of a commander getting ready for the last and most important battle before victory, which would be China becoming a great power again and maybe even passing the U.S. as the world's largest economy. Mr. Xi and the other people in his party know that one mistake could destroy everything.
Mr. Xi will, of course, die one day. But his leadership philosophy, which is a huge project to build up the public image of the current Chinese leader, protect it from all threats, and keep a laser-like focus on making China strong, respected, and even feared, will stay. Too much has been put into it already.