Nestled along a river in Beijing are a cluster of buildings, guarded by soldiers at the main entrance and plainclothes officers on nearby street corners.
A black saloon car with special military red-and-black plates whizzes into the complex through a back gate.
Tall signs loom at the front: “Chinese Academy of Governance Central Party School”.
Inside, elite Chinese officials gather here to study party history and political doctrine, at the core of which are the ideas of the country’s leader: the increasingly powerful Xi Jinping.
Since taking charge in 2012, Mr Xi has pushed the party and its ideology to the heart of Chinese society, cracking down on anything that might pose a challenge, including by jailing political rivals and silencing dissent.
Now his plans are gathering pace.
Xi Jinping delivers a speech in July looking remarkably like Mao
Recent months have seen a spate of regulations and censorship bans affecting celebrities, online gaming, private education, billionaires, and tech firms – many of which are headquartered just a few miles from the party school.
The crackdown has drifted into all corners of Chinese society.
In recent weeks, men deemed too effeminate were banned from TV shows. Children have been limited to gaming for only three hours a week.
Authorities have even gone after celebrity fan clubs.
Odd as some of them may seem, the changes impact every part of daily life – with the government at the centre, deciding everything from what’s allowed in pop culture to how people spend their time.
The often dramatic and sudden policy moves have prompted comparison with the Cultural Revolution that purged capitalist remnants from society and remade China in Chairman Mao’s image up until the 1970s.
Keen China watchers say it is part of a power grab ahead of next year’s 20th party congress.
Mr Xi has spent the last decade setting the stage, building a personality cult in the vein of Mao. If he retains his role as paramount leader of China – as is expected given that he abolished term limits in 2018, – he may rule forever.
The last party congress in 2017 saw the emergence of his own doctrine – dubbed ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, which just last week became part of the curriculum for children as young as seven.
The turning point of the latest crackdown can be traced to October last year after China’s richest man, billionaire tech tycoon Jack Ma, disappeared.
Jack Ma at his apex in 2019
He had given a speech that was highly critical of Chinese regulators, blaming them for stifling innovation in the financial industry. So Mr Xi stepped in personally, according to the Wall Street Journal, to halt a lucrative deal to publicly list one of Ma’s companies.
It was a remarkable takedown of one of the country’s most well-known and respected entrepreneurs.
Speculation ran rampant that Mr Ma had subsequently been detained by the authorities – imagine if people feared Richard Branson had been secretly jailed if he made no public appearances for a few weeks.
Mr Ma later re-emerged, but nearly a year later, he’s keeping his head down.
The message was clear: Nobody could be bigger than the ruling Communist Party, nor dare to challenge it in any way.
Since then, major Chinese tech executives have taken a step back, relinquishing titles and rushing to support government initiatives. Meanwhile new regulations hurt Chinese tech stocks, which lost more than $1 trillion in value since a February peak.
Last week, tech firm Alibaba, founded by Mr Ma, pledged to spend $15.5 billion fostering social equality – in support of Beijing’s “common prosperity” campaign.
But Mr Ma’s disappearing act may be eclipsed by Actress Zhao Wei, the star of China’s most successful television series, the 1990s My Fair Princess, and one of the most high profile victims of Mr Xi’s crackdown.
Zhao Wei poses on the red carpet during the 36th Hong Kong Film Awards in Hong Kong
It’s unclear what exactly she did to fall foul of party authorities. But whatever the reason, any mention of her, including her movies and television shows, were all erased by censors as if she had never existed. It is rumoured a nationalistic row over a selfie in Japan may have contributed to her fall.
Outside of the big names, other profitable industries have taken a hit, too. A ban on for-profit tutoring brought down China’s multi-billion dollar private education industry nearly overnight.
Authorities said this would allow for more equal opportunity among students, and lessen the financial burden on parents at a time when the government is pushing women to have more children to head off a demographic challenge. Officials said tech firms had to be scrutinised more to protect the data of Chinese citizens.
While that’s likely part of the calculation, the fact the party could do all this in one fell swoop highlights its tight grip on every part of Chinese society.
Banning tutoring streamlines what Chinese youths are learning and limits the chance that they may be led astray from the party by foreign teachers in after-school enrichment programs.
Starting this year, children are now required to learn about “Xi Jinping Thought.”
The party building comprehensive training center of Jiangsu Electric Power Party School
A crucial tool in Mr Xi’s new crusade are the cadre training institutes like the Central Party School – 3,000 of them across the country – that indoctrinate apparatchiks and shore up loyalty, before returning them to their posts to implement Mr Xi’s policies.
“Xi Jinping is more of a control freak than any of his predecessors, apart from Mao,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
Propaganda – disseminated via state media, state museums and on red banners across the country – consistently put him at the centre and laud his leadership on everything from quashing coronavirus to apparently alleviating all poverty.
Behind the attacks on big business is Mr Xi’s eagerness to tackle China’s massive wealth gap that formed after decades of growth turned China into the world’s second-largest economy, and that means the latest clampdown round is far from finished.
Mr Xi’s latest mantle – to achieve “common prosperity,” a campaign aimed at greater egalitarianism, tries to do just that by using regulations to limit opportunity for the privileged.
Inside China, the regulatory flurry has been met with confusion and criticism.
Two essays that circulated online over the last week – one from Li Guangman, a retired editor of a lesser-known state newspaper and a rebuttal from Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of major state outlet the Global Times – put the debate on very public display.
Mr Li penned a diatribe praising the crackdown against Mr Ma and China’s tech sector as part of a “profound revolution.” The piece was republished widely on prominent state media – a sign that Beijing agreed with its sentiment and tone.
But then, Mr Hu rebutted in a separate piece, saying that a huge overhaul wasn’t necessary.
People pose for pictures in Beijing
On the streets of Beijing, people are also split in opinion about the changes under Mr Xi.
“The broader environment is getting too extreme,” said one man, 29, who requested anonymity over fears of repercussions. “Personal freedom of expression is more tightly controlled.”
“The government is making policy too uniformly rigid and not allowing for flexibility,” said Shi Daizong, 36, a salesperson, of the crackdown on pop culture.
Others praised the policies: “One-party rule is an advantage – epidemic control is very good, while other countries are chaotic,” said Gao Xia, 45, a pharmacist. “China is becoming more and more strong, and provides a stable and comfortable environment for us.”
Beijing seems to have clocked the uncertainty, this week trotting out vice premier Liu He, who vowed “unwavering support” of the private sector in China in a video speech for a conference in an attempt to assuage concerns.
Still, it hasn’t been enough to provide clarity on who or what might next be caught in the crosshairs.
Mr Xi “risks things backfiring as his reforms created resentment within the party and indeed amongst sections of society who oppose Xi’s authoritarian turn,” said Aleksandra Kubat, an expert on the Chinese Communist Party and cadre training at King’s College London.
But that’s where classes at party schools like the one in northwest Beijing come in handy – to drill loyalty and ideology into cadres. One of China’s most outspoken officials – foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying – studied at the institute before taking up her current post, in which she daily denounces the West and praises the party.
Lower-level officials will likely implement Mr Xi’s “common prosperity” to the best of their ability ahead of the 20th Party Congress next year, as many will be aiming to put their best foot forward in hopes of a promotion.
If party officials have learned anything in their training, it’s that the “standards of cadre work have shifted significantly back toward the political,” said Ms Kubat.
“No one really knows how much tighter they’re going to be,” said Mr Chorzempa. “But it’s pretty clear that they’re not going to stop here.”
Additional reporting by Wen Xu