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How President Xi Jinping is transforming China at home and abroad

Correction: Some of the images of the Chinese military were incorrect in the original video. They've been replaced.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s philosophy has been written into the country’s constitution. He has sought to raise the standard of living at home, while boosting China’s power and influence across the globe. But critics accuse him of consolidating power and creating a campaign of oppression against the Chinese people -- especially those who disagree with him. Nick Schifrin reports from Beijing.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight, we launch our series "China: Power & Prosperity. "

    With the support of the Pulitzer Center, correspondents Nick Schifrin and Katrina Yu and producers Dan Sagalyn and Eric O'Connor conducted more than 70 on-camera interviews, traveled to eight Chinese cities, and reported from or collaborated with producers in eight countries, to cover everything from trade, to technology, to the lifestyles of the young and rich.

    We begin our series at the top.

    Chinese President Xi Jinping's philosophy has been written into the country's constitution. He has sought to raise the standard of living at home and China's power and influence around the world.

    Critics accuse him of consolidating power and creating a campaign of oppression.

    Nick Schifrin reports from Beijing on the strongest Chinese leader in more than 50 years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Beijing's Great Hall of the People, the people clap in unison for one man. Xi Jinping, Communist Party general-secretary, commander in chief, president of the People's Republic of China, says he's making China great again.

  • President Xi Jinping (through translator):

    The Chinese nation has achieved a tremendous transformation. It has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong. It has come to embrace the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's October 2017, and Xi tells party leaders one of his core beliefs, China's destiny is to reclaim a central role in the world.

  • President Xi Jinping (through translator):

    The banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics is now flying high and proud. It offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Not since Mao Zedong, communist China's founding father, has a Chinese leader suggested so clearly the world could emulate China. Not since Mao has China had a leader as powerful as Xi Jinping.

    If what the party leader says is the bible, the scholars who decipher it study here. The National Communist Party School flies the party flag and teaches the party's version of China, united across 55 minority groups, and the torchbearer of the communist flame.

    Professor Han Qingxiang says Xi inherits that legacy and is now China's indispensable leader.

  • Han Qingxiang (through translator):

    The country's development needs Xi Jinping, and people's happiness needs Xi Jinping. If China wants to become a big, strong country, it will need Xi Jinping.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Xi says his work starts at home. His goal is to double China's GDP and per capita income. He says he wants to increase the prosperity many Chinese already enjoy and now expect, and reduce poverty.

  • Han Qingxiang (through translator):

    Now, in the Xi Jinping era, China has developed. Xi is dealing with making China great and strong.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that strength is also the military. Xi calls for China to — quote — "stand tall in the East." He evokes memories of the Middle Kingdom, a term to describe China's centuries-long role as an international power.

    Xi has dramatically modernized China's army, Navy and Air Force, and opened up China's first overseas base. And, most controversially, China claims almost all of the South China Sea, and has created military outposts, flouting U.S. objections and international law.

    Xi Jinping's China flexes that muscular foreign policy on the world stage and the silver screen. "Wolf Warrior 2" is China's highest-grossing film of all time. Star and director Wu Jing plays Leng Feng, a special operations forces soldier who wins the day for the Chinese military.

    When he's no longer a soldier, trouble comes to him. He becomes a rogue hero, launching a seeming suicide mission against the bad guys and teaming up with fellow Chinese to save the day again.

    If a story about a former-soldier-turned-vigilante who uses bows and arrows and takes a ride in a tank sounds familiar, it is. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. had John Rambo.

    Wu Jing asks, why can't the Chinese have their own heroes?

  • Wu Jing (through translator):

    I think, for Leng Feng, I want him to be a hero for ordinary people. I think human beings need heroes. There are many qualities in a hero, like bravery, selflessness, and dedication.

  • Actor:

    Pass me the flag.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's more than dedication to China. The good guys are the Chinese military.

    The bad guy…

  • Actor:

    Welcome to Africa, son.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … is a violence-loving colonialist American.

  • Actor:

    People like you will always be inferior to people like me.

  • Wu Jing:

    That's (EXPLETIVE DELETED) history.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The film has made Wu Jing rich and famous. He says the film's nationalism is a product of the country's progress under Xi Jinping.

  • Wu Jing (through translator):

    In Chinese modern history, China has been bullied for a long time. When we are rich, our country can protect us. When we feel like when we are in danger, we will be protected by our country, not like before.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Xi Jinping isn't only about protecting the people. He protects and restores the prominence of the Communist Party.

    Xi has reasserted the party into people's lives and private businesses.

    Can you describe these awards?

    Hong Cheng works for the medical and high-tech company Tidal Star, but her main job is to lead the company's Communist Party committee. She shows off her party awards.

  • Hong Cheng (through translator):

    This is for one of the service brands we acquired being in the top 10 of all service brands.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Employees meet in Tidal Star's party room, where Xi Jinping thought is written on the wall, and Hong ensures this private company adheres to party teaching.

  • Hong Cheng (through translator):

    Today, we're going to study an article. Please open the app Study Xi Strengthen China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Under Xi, the party's primacy has increased, and targeted the youngest party members. Employees are encouraged by the company to use the Study Xi Strengthen China app to read about Xi and party leaders and take quizzes.

    And Hong ensures the company's vision aligns with the party's.

  • Hong Cheng (through translator):

    It not only leads our company in long-term development. The app offers our company inspiration.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For a while, that inspiration came from Xi himself. Last year, there was a prime-time TV show studying Xi in the new era

    A robot from a future rejuvenated China challenges contestants on how much Xi Jinping thought they can memorize. The cult of Xi has included propaganda posters in city streets, suburban villages and rural roads. And state media has called him Xi Dada, or Father Xi, a populist who eats like the people and cares about the common worker.

    Xi calls himself Core Leader, just like Mao. And Xi's travels recreate Mao's countryside visits.

    This year, the cult of Xi has become less visible. But in Beijing's largest bookstore, "Xi Jinping Thought," the book, has pride of place. Despite the American celebrities nearby, bookstore manager Qin Hui says Xi's books are bestsellers.

  • Qin Hui (through translator):

    Because we're entering this new era of development, the General-Secretary Xi's "Thought" points a direction for our future. So we have to seriously study the spirit of General-Secretary Xi's speeches.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But fly 1,200 miles south of Beijing, and hundreds of thousands of people reject "Xi Jinping Thought" and everything it stands for.

    Xi Jinping's critics say he's not only spreading his own ideas; he's closing the space for anyone else's ideas, both in mainland China and here in Hong Kong, where these protesters say they feel like the city's independence is being eroded.

    On and off for months, Hong Kong police have clashed with protesters, and many of the protesters connect the crackdown in Hong Kong to the restriction of rights in mainland China.

  • Lee Cheuk-Yan:

    How can we expect that we will have democracy, when the Communist Party is trying to ban all human rights and freedom in China?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lee Cheuk-Yan is a former Hong Kong legislator who's been fighting for democracy for decades. He's protested half-a-dozen Chinese leaders, but says Xi Jinping is the most oppressive.

  • Lee Cheuk-Yan:

    Xi Jinping began to — even more aggressive in suppression. They banned the university professor from teaching about human rights, universal values. And he is trying to, you know, build up his own Chinese dream, which is a total control of people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Under Xi, more than a million Muslim Uyghurs have been detained in camps. Xi's China has created a network of more than 200 million surveillance cameras.

    And Beijing posters have warned the public, especially women, that foreigners could be spies trying to steal national secrets.

    And what the party says is that this is for the strength of China, that, if the party were to weaken, the country would weaken, and there would be chaos.

  • Lee Cheuk-Yan:

    Yes, they are always brainwashing the people that, you know, without a Communist Party, there would be chaos.

    So what they are trying to say, if you have democracy, then there will be chaos.

    We believe in democracy, but they believe in suppression.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Inside mainland China, few critics are willing to echo that language in public. Zhang Lifan is a historian who's made public appearances, but he says surveillance has increased.

    So, we met him in the only place he felt comfortable, inside our hotel room. He wouldn't use Xi Jinping's name.

  • Zhang Lifan (through translator):

    Because the Communist Party of China is unchecked, corruption is widespread within the system.

    So if he wants to get rid of opponents, he can easily do so by finding evidence of their corruption. Therefore, he was able to purge many political opponents with an unstoppable force.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lifan says Xi's eyes are everywhere. Lawyers who have represented activists have been disbarred. Journalists who write critically have been thrown out of the country.

    And as many as two million party members have been investigated for corruption. Xi has replaced collective leadership with centralized authority.

  • Zhang Lifan  (through translator):

    The current leader has changed everything. He first canceled the term limit of the country's presidency, and then re-raised the idea that the party leads everything. As a result, some of the achievements of the political reforms of the 1980s no longer exist.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Xi's reversing those reforms launched by predecessor Deng Xiaoping is a topic even Xi's allies avoid.

    Deng talked about there shouldn't excessive concentration or leadership by one person. Xi has removed term limits. Why has he done that?

  • Han Qingxiang (through translator):

    This is not a problem yet. Not the right time to talk about it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why are the needs of the country so great that Xi Jinping needs more time?

  • Han Qingxiang (through translator):

    It's not the time to answer this question.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And then he says to our off-camera government minder:

  • Han Qingxiang (through translator):

    This is a very sensitive issue.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Xi and China face headwinds both home and abroad. But for the first time in modern history, the U.S. is confronted with an increasingly assertive rising superpower that's integrated with the U.S. economy.

    And as the U.S. puts America first, China is led by a man who believes the future of the world has China at the center.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin in Beijing.

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