Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Special Reports

China's Iron Fist: Xi Jinping and the Stakes for America. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired November 28, 2021 - 21:00   ET




UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The following is a CNN SPECIAL REPORT.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST (voice-over): China's visionary leader Deng Xiaoping threw open his country's doors to the world with dramatic reforms and a piece of advice: hide your strength and bide your time.

The hiding and biding are over.

The iron rule of Xi Jinping.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Strong man, authoritarian dictator that he has become.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's the most powerful man in the world today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's created a personality cult around himself.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): His vast ambition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Chinese military has grown dramatically over the course of the last few years.

We deserve this. We want this and we are going to take this.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The threat to America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You want to manhandle China?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, none of that is acceptable to the Chinese government.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Controlling the Chinese people. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: East, west, north, south, the party must control


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras and drones.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Big Brother is always watching.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): There is the freedom to get rich.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lamborghinis and Ferraris; a lot of people were getting very, very rich.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): But get too rich and you might disappear.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Publicly criticize the Chinese authorities, you can't do that in China.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Fight the system?

Xi Jinping will meet you with massive force.

Religion can make you an enemy of the state.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cultural genocide going on here.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): What is the end game for China's supreme leader, Xi Jinping?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: China's time is now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: China has risen.


ZAKARIA: Good evening, I am Fareed Zakaria. One in five people on this planet lives in China, 1.4 billion people. And their rise has been remarkable. In just a few decades, cities three times the size of New York sprang up out of dusty farm fields; 800 million people climbed from poverty to the middle class.

Beijing now has more billionaires than any other city in the world. China is, of course, a dictatorship. It forbids political expression, religious freedom; anger the government and you can simply disappear.

But for years this once closed country seemed to be opening up. Not anymore. One man has changed the course of history, China's supreme leader, Xi Jinping.

Should the U.S. be afraid?

Should the world?

Polls show they are already are. More than 80 percent of Americans do not trust President Xi Jinping. The numbers are similar in democracies across the globe. And now new fears about China's growing military might.

Who is Xi Jinping?

What does he want?

Let's start with two crucial days this year.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): The beating heart of democracy, the U.S. Capitol.

The beating heart of Communism, Tiananmen Square.

The certification of the new American president, the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party, a triumphant China bursting with pride, marching as one.

In Washington, Americans at war with each other, tearing democracy apart.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Chinese government saw that.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi Jinping is said to have watched January 6th with revulsion.

IAN BREMMER, EURASIA GROUP: That cannot happen in China. No, none of that is acceptable to the Chinese government.


THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": That was the moment of the Chinese saying, those Americans, they're not who they think they are and they're not who we think they are.

DAVID SHAMBAUGH, DIRECTOR, CHINA POLICY PROGRAM, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: He sees the United States as in a real decline and he sees a lot of dysfunctionality in American society.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Systemic racism, Black Lives Matter, political gridlock in Washington, the Trump years and Charlottesville.

BREMMER: They see themselves as promoting order against the forces of chaos. And increasingly they see the United States as representing the forces of chaos.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): There was a time when Xi loved America, especially the heartland town of Muscatine, Iowa. He started farming there in the 1980s then came back just as he was about to become president of China.

"I feel," he says, "like I am coming home."

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to welcome Vice President Xi to the Oval Office.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi also went to the White House. And in L.A., he took in a Lakers game.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Self-confident, gregarious, even Westernized in his way.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): America was charmed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was inappropriate but I love that man.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): So how did that Xi Jinping, viewed with so much hope, how did he become this Xi Jinping?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Xi Jinping making a veiled threat against the United States.

"Anyone who tries to bully China," he says, "will be banging his head bloody against a great wall of steel."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This indelible phrase that struck people around the world.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Many China's scholars do not recognize the Xi Jinping they see now.

SHAMBAUGH: I didn't see -- I don't think any of us saw the kind of dictatorial, sycophantic control freak that he has become.

BREMMER: China is much more of a dictatorship today because of Xi Jinping.

SHAMBAUGH: That's a recipe for serious danger.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi Jinping is the most repressive leader China has seen since Chairman Mao. In just the last few months, he has handed down dozens of new orders. They see greater state control over everything, from education to technology to entertainment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Things as simple as who you can admire in the movies, every piece of entertainment culture.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): No more effeminate men on television. China calls them "sissy men."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Which rock stars you want to support and how much you want to idolize them.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Also forbidden, karaoke songs that endanger national unity. Many video games no longer allowed.

EVAN OSNOS, "THE NEW YORKER": The Chinese public begins to say, well, hold on.

You want control of what's in my heart and what's in my mind?

What's left for me?

And that's a very dangerous thing actually, a very risky thing for the government to do.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): China has always censored the internet but now it's scrubbing its own homemade entertainment. Popular television shows and movies have disappeared. And, of course, there is no Google, no Facebook, no Snapchat, no Instagram. Some of that predated Xi but he has doubled down on a separate Chinese technosphere.

BREMMER: The Chinese government said we are actually going to separate. We don't want a World Wide Web.

SHAMBAUGH: They have tens of millions of monitors of social media 24/7, watching and taking down postings like Whac-A-Mole.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Step by step over the course of the years that Xi Jinping has been in power, he has been eating away at the domains of autonomy in Chinese life and consolidating it into the hands of the party.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): In fact, the scholar, Elizabeth Economy, describes Xi Jinping as embodying the country's Third Revolution. First came Mao, the founder; then Deng Xiaoping, the reformer; and now Xi Jinping, bringing the Communist Party back into dominance everywhere.

ELIZABETH ECONOMY, AUTHOR: The Chinese government really now controls the physical environment of the Chinese people through hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras and drones, that can identify a Chinese person through facial recognition or even by how a Chinese person walks.


ECONOMY: And all this information is transmitted back to China's public security bureaus instantaneously.

SHAMBAUGH: What they've instituted under Xi Jinping is a kind of artificial intelligence and surveillance system that is unprecedented. This is Orwell on steroids. That includes watching Xi Jinping app on your cell phone.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The Xi app is on many Chinese phones. Its purpose: to help people study Xi Jinping thought. That's right; study what he thinks about everything.

ECONOMY: Xi Jinping's sayings, his speeches, his activities and party dogma and then take quizzes. And they have to report those quizzes to the local party head of their work unit.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): There is even a game show.

"How Much Do You Know about Xi Jinping Thought?"

Much of Xi Jinping thought is Communist ideology and the central role he believes it should play in Chinese life. But there lies a central conflict. He's preaching strict adherence to socialism in a country where capitalism has been exploding for decades.

OSNOS: A socialist economy that was also one of the most ravenous consumers of luxury goods, things like Lamborghinis and Ferraris and Rolexes and Louis Vuitton.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The rich have been getting richer and, in some cases, more decadent.

There is a school for butlers and a finishing school for children of the rich.

Young Chinese billionaires often behave as badly as their counterparts around the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): It's like raising a child. I have deep affection for my dog.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): This young man started a Chinese version of, then used his money to build a mansion for his dog.

Xi is now cracking down on all kinds of private enterprise.

BREMMER: He doesn't have a problem with them getting rich but he wants them to get rich in a patriotic way.

OSNOS: At the point at which it began to feel as if it was brushing up against the outer edges of his power and authority, that's the point at which became intolerable.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): And he may be trying to quell a deeper fear: could Communist China collapse the way the Soviet Union did?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The dying death of the Soviet system.


OSNOS: Always in the back of his mind is the subject of the Soviet collapse.

Why did it happen?

ZAKARIA (voice-over): For Xi, the fall of the Soviet Union became an obsession.

LINGLING WEI, CHIEF CHINA CORRESPONDENT, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Xi Jinping often talks about the fall of the Soviet Union as a lesson for China.

OSNOS: What accounted for it?

What were the stresses?

WEI: Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi's answer: don't try to be too American.

WEI: Even though China has emulated America, China is still, after all, a socialist country.

BREMMER: Whatever economic reforms they engage in, you cannot allow political liberalization to accompany it.

OSNOS: And he would point to the Soviet example as a sign that that's the risk we face.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): And that means the party must be seen as strong, clean and legitimate.

It's ironic because no one has suffered more under Communism than Xi Jinping himself. To understand it, we have to go back to tell the dramatic story of Xi's childhood. It begins in the 1960s, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

Chairman Mao wanted to reassert his control over the Communist Party. He accused it being too liberal. He called for young people to rebel against the elite of their own party.

OSNOS: Basically turned Chinese life upside down. All of the most powerful people found themselves suddenly attacked and criticized, often by some of the least powerful. And Xi Jinping was right at the center of the storm.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): At the center of the storm because he was a son of privilege.

OSNOS: His father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of the leading revolutionaries of his generation, one of the people that created the People's Republic of China.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): So his son had the best of everything.

SHAMBAUGH: He literally grew up in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in the center of Beijing, where all the leaders worked and the most senior ones lived.


SHAMBAUGH: So he had a very privileged existence in a very socialist society.

OSNOS: They used to call themselves "zulai hong (ph)," which means that they had been brought into this world with the expectation that they would eventually lead and would eventually take over the country.

And then it all came apart.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): First, Xi's father was arrested, supposedly for supporting a play and a book that criticized Mao Zedong. His mother was forced to denounce his father. One of his sisters reportedly committed suicide.

OSNOS: Because she was being hounded so much for the family's political problems. And that's a fact that you won't see in the official party histories.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi, still just a child, was forced to fight for his life in the streets of Beijing.

SHAMBAUGH: There was nobody at home. There were no parents for a very young teenager.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): And that teenager was trying to survive in the chaos of a revolution.

OSNOS: The Cultural Revolution was this implosion of Chinese society, right down to the family's level, just this kind of inferno of all of the bonds of trust and hierarchy that organized society.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): In his late teens, the party sent Xi out to work as a peasant in the countryside.

WEI: He spent many, many years in a very poor county in northern China basically doing manual labor, being a farmer, feeding pigs.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): After years spent working as a farm hand, Xi made a decision about his future.

OSNOS: Xi Jinping did a very surprising thing, which is that he applied to be a member of the party. And not just once; he was rejected over and over and over again. He was rejected because his family's name was now poison in Chinese politics for this period of time.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Finally he gained admission to the party and began an almost 40-year climb up the ladder.

But why?

Why would Xi Jinping, a victim of some of the worst cruelties of Communism, devote his life to strengthening the party?

OSNOS: Xi Jinping decided that this response to all of this pain and turmoil was to become, as he said, "redder than red," to become the truest of true believers.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The traumatic childhood of Xi Jinping might have made him softer. Instead, it made him hard as steel.

Next up, China versus the world.


ZAKARIA: China is rising. China is becoming more assertive. And this is scaring countries.

(END VIDEO CLIP) VICTOR GAO, CENTER FOR CHINA AND GLOBALIZATION: When you have the president of the United States in the former president Trump, rallying against China, accusing China of raping the United States, you want to corner China?

You want to manhandle China?

China will stand up.





ZAKARIA (voice-over): In 2017, China fell in love with a new hero. His name was Leng Feng, a veteran of an elite Chinese special forces unit known as the Wolf Warriors. "Wolf Warrior 2" became China's highest grossing film of all time in less than two weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This film broke the domestic box office records.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Raking in close to $1 billion.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: "Wolf Warrior 2" isn't shy about being pro- China.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): It captured a mood in China, a newfound swagger in the world, much like the Rambo films.




ZAKARIA (voice-over): Mirrored the muscular Reagan '80s. China's bold new attitude became known as Wolf Warrior diplomacy.

And its real-life champion is Xi Jinping.

Xi has made a big departure from decades of a very different Chinese foreign policy. To understand how, we need to remember China's first leader, Mao Zedong.

Mao was one of the world's most notorious revolutionaries, hell-bent on destroying Western capitalism.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The (INAUDIBLE) of guerilla wars as accomplished its aim.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Inspiring and aiding insurgencies all over the globe.


SHAMBAUGH: Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They called themselves Marxist-Leninist-Maoists.

SHAMBAUGH: In Latin America, the Shining Path guerilla movement.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Even a nuclear apocalypse was acceptable to Mao in his great struggle.

"If worst came to the worst and half of mankind died," he said, "imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist."

Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, had a polar opposite approach.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Millions in China alone have died for lack of food.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): His main goal was to make his poverty-stricken country rich. So he opened its borders to trade and sought peaceful coexistence with the West.


OSNOS: Deng Xiaoping came up with a theory that he called "hide your strength and bide your time."

Just steadily invest in the Chinese economy and just ease your way into the international system.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The first peacekeeping engineering unit.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): China funded the U.N. and provided humanitarian aid, a remarkable turnaround from the days of Mao.


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: The Chinese Communist Party is about to announce a new leader.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): But when Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: What can China and the world expect from the leadership of Xi Jinping? (END VIDEO CLIP)


ZAKARIA (voice-over): The time for hiding strength and biding time was over.

Xi declared a great rejuvenation for China, a return to its historic place as an undisputed world power. China once called itself "the land between heaven and Earth," outpacing the West with its innovations, like the compass and gunpowder.

ECONOMY: Other countries would come and pay tribute.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): But beginning in the 19th century.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The great city of Shanghai on a September day in 1937.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Foreign powers carved up the country, a period that became known as the century of humiliation.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi wants to move far away from that story of victimization and seize China's destiny as a superpower.

SHAMBAUGH: There is a sense of entitlement that this is our due. This is where we should be.

GAO: Now fate is willing his hand (ph).

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi transformed China's military into a force that now rivals America in the region. And he's not afraid to use it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Two nuclear powers facing off.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): In 2020, China seized about 100 square miles along its disputed border with India.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): And they fought with fists, clubs and rocks.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): At least 2 dozen died in vicious hand to hand combat.

SHAMBAUGH: They built airfields and ports, deployed weapons there.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi's fast-growing fleet has tried to extend its influence into the South China Sea.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Harassing dozens of vessels.

WATSON(?) (voice-over): China is, quote, "not frightened to fight a war with the U.S. in the region.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): And even sinking ships.


BREMMER: The international blowback against China, the willingness to see China as a threat is directly because of Xi Jinping.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi's most defiant move occurred in Hong Kong.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hong Kong belongs to China once again.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Back in 1997, when the British returned the city to China, Beijing had promised the world that it would allow autonomy and freedom there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He repeated reassurances to the people of Hong Kong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Hong Kong residents shall enjoy various rights and freedoms.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Not anymore.


STOUT (voice-over): The political fate of Hong Kong remade by Beijing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hong Kong has changed beyond recognition.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): A sweeping national security law in 2020.

STOUT (voice-over): Forty-seven pro-democracy activists have been charged.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Led to mass arrests of politicians.

STOUT (voice-over): The press literally under attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Journalists are under, say, direct physical threats.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The end of a vibrant free press and an Orwellian network of party informants.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ZAKARIA (voice-over): Just like any other city on the mainland.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: China is flexing its military might.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Many fears that Xi's next target could be Taiwan.

PAULA HANCOCKS(?), CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that needs to be brought back into the fold.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Bringing the island democracy of 23 million under Beijing's iron fist would be a crowning achievement for Xi, the capstone of China's great rejuvenation.

And while the risks of an invasion are sky-high, there are reports that Xi's military advisers have told him it would succeed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This problem is much closer to us than most think.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Could America aid Taiwan?

ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We have a commitment to Taiwan.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Yes. But in more than a dozen war games over Taiwan, authorized by the Pentagon, China triumphs every time.







ZAKARIA (voice-over): It's easy to understand why this man was embraced by the world as a symbol of a new era in Communist China. Meet Jack Ma, the founder of global internet giant Alibaba, China's very own king of capitalism.

Ma rose out of poverty and became the richest person in China. He's the ultimate showman, known for putting on flamboyant, even bizarre performances for Alibaba employees.

Jack Ma became China's first celebrity CEO. He's not only famous inside China --

OBAMA: And I guess you've heard of Jack.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- he was embraced by the world's most powerful leaders.

Jack Ma seemed more popular and admired than Xi Jinping.

BREMMER: Young people across the country would have photos of Jack Ma above their beds in ways that historically you would have seen for Mao.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): To understand how there could be a cult of Ma in Xi Jinping's China, you need to know one thing.

OSNOS: In the beginning, Xi Jinping very much needed Jack Ma.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): China had missed the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and America had invented the internet by the end of the 20th century.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: China was not even connected to the internet yet. We started (ph).

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Two decades after Deng Xiaoping opened China's doors, Jack Ma had his moment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: China is opening, open the door.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): He founded Alibaba in 1999 as an online marketplace for small Chinese businesses.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All of these individual workers and small businesses around the country could suddenly be connected to the rest of the world.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The company became an internet behemoth that sells everything from cars to high-end fashion and offers food delivery and financial services. It's China's Amazon, Google, eBay, PayPal and more.

By 2014, Jack Ma had arrived on the New York stock exchange to ring the bell. It was the world's biggest initial public offering.

ALISON KOSIK(?), CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: It beats out Facebook. It beats out Intel and Amazon, you name it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It unlocked a huge amount of economic potential.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Tech giants like Alibaba showcased China rise to the leading edge of economic and technological power.

When Xi took control in 2012, many expected him to continue to open China's economy, like his predecessors.

BREMMER: There was a belief among all of the leaders in the West that China would continue to integrate toward a private sector-led system.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): After decades of growth, fueled by China's private sector, Xi had inherited the world's second largest economy. But China also faces serious challenges: an aging population, crippling debt and a slowing export machine.

WEI: A big concern for the leadership was how to keep the growth going.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): So they unleashed the tech sector. At first, the company seemed like copycats. That changed fast.

BREMMER: No one out there thought that China today would be at parity with the United States in major technology. They thought these guys would steal stuff but they couldn't really innovate it.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): By 2020, China's tech sector had exploded in size and in impact. In some areas, China's tech was even outpacing the United States.

TikTok had taken the world by storm. China's DiDi beat out Uber in China. Jack Ma's digital payment system Alipay made cash and credit cards in China obsolete. Ant Group, the parent company of Alipay, had grown into a financial giant.

OSNOS: Jack Ma was on the one hand, a great asset to China but also from the Communist Party's perspective, a huge threat.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Only days before Ant Group was anticipated to launch on the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: China putting the brakes on the world's biggest IPO.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is really a stunning turn of events.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Suddenly everything came to a screeching halt.

WEI: What happened?

Based on our reporting, President Xi Jinping himself personally intervened to stop the IPO from going forward.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): With global investors still reeling, Jack Ma seemed to suddenly disappear.

ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: There are growing question about the whereabouts of Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Ma had given a speech, accusing China's regulators of stifling innovation in a room full of government officials only 10 days before Ant's planned IPO.

BREMMER: You can't do that in China.

OSNOS: If Jack Ma believed that he could challenge the Chinese political leadership and ultimately the party itself, well, then, the entire edifice of control in China was at risk.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The Communist Party had allowed Ant Group and other private tech companies to grow largely unregulated for a decade. They had created a capitalist free-for-all, a Wild West, in which the government had little say.

WEI: Companies like Ant are perceived to have amassed huge power. They've got the data, they've got the technology, they've got the capital.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi Jinping decided enough and began the crack down on Big Tech.

OSNOS: It was this sudden assertion of political power in the face of what had felt like this almost inevitable growth of Chinese commercial and capitalist power.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi wants capitalism but with a state that is in ultimate control. When Jack Ma appeared for the first time in a video since his disappearance, he seemed uncharacteristically subdued.

Is this the necessary reining in of an out-of-control system or is it the end of China's capitalist golden age?

OSNOS: Even if it costs them a huge amount economically, that's a risk that he's willing to take.


OSNOS: Because from his perspective the alternative is possibly the collapse of China itself.





STOUT (voice-over): Two vehicles rammed into shoppers on a bustling open-air market.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): May 2014: two SUVs careened down a street, crashing through bodies and tossing explosives, a terrorist attack in China, just one in a series of strikes that rocked the country and killed dozens. The bloodshed reaches China's very heart, Tiananmen Square.


OSNOS: Those attacks really shook Xi Jinping.

STOUT: Xi Jinping is vowing to catch and severely punish those responsible.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The attackers are Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group with its own language and culture.

For Xi Jinping, the Uyghurs become public enemy number one. He launches an unprecedented mass surveillance of their population in China's Xinjiang region, building reeducation camps that have locked up over 1 million people --


ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- and ripped loved ones away from their families.

Former camp prisoners say Uyghurs have been tortured, forced into having abortions and even sterilized. Detainees are brainwashed with Communist Party ideology. They are forced to speak Mandarin rather than their own native language. And they're forbidden from practicing the religion they followed their entire lives.

SHAMBAUGH: There is a kind of cultural genocide going on here.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Why is Xi doing this?

Because he sees Uyghurs as a threat to China's very survival. He's afraid they will split from the country and form a whole new nation. Separatism is one of Xi Jinping's greatest fears because he's seen it bring down a giant before.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The symbol of the Soviet Union fluttered down in a freezing Moscow wind Christmas night. Nothing will ever be the same.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): When the Soviet Union was teetering on the edge of collapse --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Gorbachev has destroyed the whole country.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Many of its republics demanded independence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The delicate fabric holding together the variety of ethnic republics in the Soviet Union is unraveling.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): One by one, those republics --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Moldavia --

ZAKARIA (voice-over): -- each dominated by a different ethnic group, declared themselves free.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The parade out of what's left.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- ninth republic to officially declare --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- the 12th to declare independence.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The lesson Xi took from that: allowing cultural separatism could trigger collapse in China just as it had in the Soviet Union. So he is stamping out diversity in favor of a national Chinese identity, loyal to just one thing:

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love the Communist Party of China this man has written.


ZAKARIA: The accusation is there is a kind of forcible brainwashing of the Uyghurs in detention camps that look a lot like concentration camps.

Is part of the danger, is part of what President Xi worries about a danger of separatism?

GAO: Separatism is a crime in China. If anyone in China wants to split any part of China against China or from China, he or she becomes our public enemy.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Xi and his loyalists often respond with whataboutism.

They argue, what about American human rights abuses?

GAO: If any country has practiced the genocide, it's not China. Even slavery of Negro Americans, for example, for hundreds of years, that's the real crime against humanity.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): China's abuses are mostly hidden from Western eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why you are here?

MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We are here to film what we believe is a camp for Uyghurs.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): CNN journalists have been shut out of the camps.

Xi's war on the Uyghurs is part of a larger campaign to snuff out separatist threats everywhere from Xinjiang, to Tibet to Hong Kong.

It's one of the final pieces of China's revolution under Xi Jinping.

OSNOS: For years, China had had an almost apologetic approach to its human rights abuses. Xi Jinping said that's no longer how we are going to talk about it. We are not going to apologize. They were just going to do it.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): For all the criticism from the West, it's important to understand that, in China, which is more than 90 percent Han Chinese, there is not much sympathy for the Uyghurs.

Populist nationalism has swept the world and China is no exception. Xi Jinping has used that nationalism to keep his and the Communist Party's iron grip in power, no matter what the cost.





ZAKARIA: I want you to imagine for a moment what the world looks like to people living in China today, say, to an average couple.

Their country, home to one of the greatest and most ancient civilizations in the world, long a leader in science and technology, was largely isolated from the great wave of military and technological advancement that began in the West in the 16th century.

It was late coming to the powerful economic gains that began with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. It was dominated by outside powers during the 19th century.

And for the last century, when this Chinese couple's parents and grandparents were alive, China suffered through a collapsing Ching dynasty, civil wars, a brutal occupation by Japan and a prolonged battle between the forces of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong.

Mao won that struggle but then plunged the country into 30 years of highly charged revolutionary experiments, from the great leap forward to the cultural revolution, all of which failed.

China, by the late '70s, was an exhausted, impoverished, isolated country with a revolutionary regime whose Red China cause had lost any global relevance. This Chinese couple's parents were among the poorest people in the world with the fewest options.

Then came Deng Xiaoping. China's policies that opened China up to the market and the world, they have resulted not just in sustained peace and stability but what the economist Jeffrey Sachs has called the most successful development story in world history.

For four decades, China's economy grew at almost 10 percent a year and GDP per capita has jumped more than 25-fold.


ZAKARIA: With this economic progress has come the creation of a new Chinese society, much more open, more ambitious and confident of its place in the world. It's only natural that people in China have a great measure of pride and satisfaction.

And that can sometimes morph into overconfidence and arrogance. And when they hear criticisms of their country in the West, they may well wonder whether foreigners are just resentful of a China that has moved up so fast in the ranks of nations; whether America, in particular, wants to keep China in its place.

It's a fair question. It's always been difficult for the existing superpower to find space for an up and coming one. But it is surely made far more difficult by China's third revolution, the changes that have been wrought by its now supreme leader, Xi Jinping.

Xi has moved China to a greater repression at home, with a smaller role for free markets and a stronger insistence on Communist ideology in every sphere. He has also pursued a more aggressive policy abroad.

The architect of China's opening, Deng Xiaoping, spoke of the need for China to hide its strength and bide its time. But that was not simply a counsel to wait a few decades. Deng understood that China was so large, bordering so many countries with so many border disputes, that it needed to reassure the world.

Winston Churchill once said that Russia was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Well, China is a cornucopia, a vast teeming land full of contradictions. Say anything about China and you can find it in there and its opposite.

Will Xi be able to control the sprawling country and force it along the lines he wishes?

So far, he has succeeded at home. But in doing so, he's making life for that average Chinese couple less open and one in which their country is less admired. Xi has changed China but in a way that makes its rise onto the world stage far more dangerous.

I'm Fareed Zakaria. Thanks for watching.