Jerome A. Cohen, an adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, is founder and retired faculty director of NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.

Despite President Xi Jinping’s efforts to expel supposedly pernicious Western influences from his country, the People’s Republic of China, like much of the world, will celebrate Father’s Day on June 18. Many Chinese recognize that the holiday is a bourgeois commercial import designed to enhance gift-giving and the hum of merchant cash registers. Yet, the Western-style Father’s Day (along with Mother’s Day) has long been a Chinese family favorite, even among many Communist Party members.

Indeed, given the party’s surprising resurrection of traditional Confucian philosophy a couple of decades ago, there has probably been increasing social support for Father’s Day in China. Filial piety, especially the principle of obeying and honoring one’s father, is a central tenet of Confucianism. During the past decade of his unchallenged rule, to bolster the spirit of Chinese nationalism, Xi Jinping has frequently endorsed Confucianism despite its feudal origins and has rendered many tributes to his father, the veteran first-generation Communist leader Xi Zhongxun.

Xi’s father had run afoul of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong in 1962 and been subjected to 16 years of harsh internal exile before being allowed to return to a prominent position in the party leadership after Mao’s 1976 death ended the Cultural Revolution. Xi Jinping has occasionally dropped hints that his father might deserve a place in Communist history equal to Deng Xiaoping’s.

Xi Zhongxun was indeed broadly respected among the post-Mao elite, not only because of the many years of political suffering to which he had been unfairly subjected, but also because of the wisdom he brought back from exile. His most important contribution was the emphasis he placed on freedom of speech. The party leadership must allow “differences of opinion,” he repeatedly preached, if the party hoped to achieve its goals. People should be encouraged to think, speak out and act, and the party should respect their views and criticisms, he maintained. His words offered strong support for many of the exciting liberal political, economic and social reforms that struggled for recognition from 1978-1988.

These were not mere platitudes, as Xi Zhongxun’s actions often showed. While leading Guangdong Province in 1978 before his return to Beijing, he publicly commended a local prosecutor who had been bold enough to criticize him, and urged all officials to study the prosecutor’s example. He worked to overturn the criminal convictions of many Cultural Revolution victims who had been prosecuted for expressing their political opinions.

He helped secure the release from prison of three lawyers who had been detained for four years because of their vigorous legal defense of a defendant charged with rape. He promoted enactment of the People Republic of China’s first administrative litigation law to make it possible for people to challenge official conduct in court.

And he warmly invited Western multinational companies to invest in the innovative special economic zones that he and Deng Xiaoping established in Guangdong and neighboring areas. To make this happen, he helped establish attractive conditions to assure foreign companies that they would not be subject to unpredictable and arbitrary interference by a party too often dominated by officials more concerned about security than development.

Yet, Xi Zhongxun’s wisdom and his admirable record are precisely what his son has refused to emulate. Xi Jinping has ruthlessly suppressed the slightest dissent or disagreement among the party elite as well as the masses, and he has crushed the human rights lawyers so essential to the protection of free expression. He has also cracked down on both foreign and domestic business enterprises in ways that obviously impair the nation’s development in favor of security.

Why has he contradicted his father’s ideals and practice? Given his family background and his own behavior as a local and provincial party chief, his Stalinist, centralizing, repressive exercise of national power has surprised those who supported his designation as China’s party chief, president and military commander.

What factors might explain this dramatic shift in values? Was it a perceived need to replace the policies and methods of the preceding Hu Jintao regime, which was widely criticized within China for its lack of unified leadership and its failure to stamp out corruption? Were there also complex personal factors involved, such as a determination to steer clear of implementing his parent’s ideals to avoid a similar fate?

We might never know the answers to these questions, and no one in contemporary China is likely to dare discuss this obvious paradox in public. But perhaps, in the privacy of his home and his heart, Xi Jinping himself contemplates them, as he remembers his father on Father’s Day.

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