Signs Show “Core Leader” Xi Facing Domestic Reproach
Months after Xi Jinping’s campaign to consolidate power appeared to have reached its pinnacle with the announcement of the successful abolition of presidential term limits and an unprecedented government restructuring plan, there are growing signs of domestic dissent to Xi’s policies. A recent vaccine scandal, ongoing trade dispute with Washington, embattled stock market, and international opposition to Beijing’s recent foreign policy assertiveness have emboldened some in China to voice their discontent. Last week at The New York Times, Chris Buckley reported on a wave of rare domestic reproach facing Xi:
“People nationwide, including the entire bureaucratic elite, feel once more lost in uncertainty about the direction of the country and about their own personal security, and the rising anxiety has spread into a degree of panic throughout society,” Professor Xu [Zhangran, a Tsinghua law professor] wrote in an essay that appeared on the website of Unirule Institute of Economics, an independent think tank in Beijing that was recently forced out of its office.
[…] Professor Xu urged Chinese lawmakers to reverse the vote in March that abolished a two-term limit on Mr. Xi’s tenure as president. That near-unanimous vote of the party-dominated legislature opened the way for Mr. Xi, in office since late 2012, to retain power for another decade or longer as president, Communist Party leader and chairman of the military.
[…] Other less damning criticisms, petitions and gibes about Mr. Xi’s policies have also spread, often shared through WeChat, a popular social media service. But this long, erudite jeremiad from a prestigious professor has carried more weight.
[…] The undercurrent of discontent does not pose any immediate threat to Mr. Xi’s hold on power. He and the Communist Party remain firmly in control. And many Chinese people endorse his tough campaign against corruption and his vows to build China into a great power that will not compromise over territorial disputes.
But party insiders and foreign experts said misgivings about Mr. Xi’s hard-line policies appeared to be building among intellectuals, liberal-minded former officials and middle-class people after the recent misfires. A former official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that many former colleagues had shared Professor Xu’s essay. [Source]
Xu’s essay, and the growing criticism from public intellectuals and academics that it represents, are blamed by some to be responsible for a newly launched “patriotic education” campaign for China’s intellectual class.
At Bloomberg, Peter Martin and Alan Crawford describe the role that Xi’s assertive foreign policy has had on fomenting domestic dissent, noting signs that the Xi administration may be attempting to downplay it, and contrasting Xi’s leadership style with that of Deng Xiaoping:
[…] “The trade war has made China more humble,” says Wang Yiwei, a professor of international affairs at Renmin University in Beijing and deputy director of the institution’s “Xi Jinping Thought” center. “We should keep a low profile,” he says, even suggesting that China should rethink how it implements Xi’s flagship “Belt and Road” infrastructure project.
[…] In May, entering trade negotiations with the U.S., China projected swagger and self-confidence. Xi dispatched Liu He, his top economic adviser, to the U.S. with the official designation of his “personal envoy.” Liu returned to proclaim victory: There would be no trade war, he said in nationally televised interviews. Then came the shock. Trump imposed $50 billion in tariffs on China. That’s since escalated to a threat to impose a 25 percent tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, prompting the country to warn the U.S. against “blackmailing” it over trade. Meanwhile, a slowing economy makes China more vulnerable to damage from a trade war, which economists predict could cut as much as half a percentage point from growth.
[…] China has begun to rein in its swagger, starting with the propaganda system. State media were told to downplay the Made in China 2025 industrial initiative to become the world’s foremost power in 10 important industries, including artificial intelligence and pharmaceuticals, a plan the U.S. has identified as a key threat. They were also instructed to avoid talking about China’s greatness (the Chinese title of one recent blockbuster movie translates as “my country is awesome”). The push is to focus instead on how China has helped other nations, according to a person familiar with the instructions.
[…] After the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, China began a global charm offensive. The mantra then was to follow former leader Deng Xiaoping’s maxim: China should hide its strength and bide its time. Officials and scholars are starting to talk wistfully of Deng’s guidance. That strategy “allowed China to pursue wealth and power in a way that stayed below the radar,” says Crumpton’s Blanchette. “By casting that off so forcefully, it’s exposed China to many of the global forces it’s now being battered by.” [Source]
At Reuters Ben Blanchard and Kevin Yao focus on the role that the trade war with Washington, and the nationalistic posture that Xi and his allies have adopted amid it, has played in exposing rifts within the CCP:
A growing trade war with the United States is causing rifts within China’s Communist Party, with some critics saying that an overly nationalistic Chinese stance may have hardened the U.S. position, according to four sources close to the government.
[…] A backlash is being felt at the highest levels of the government, possibly hitting a close aide to Xi, his ideology chief and strategist Wang Huning, according to two sources familiar with discussions in leadership circles.
[…] Wang, who was the architect of the “China Dream”, Xi’s vision for China to become a strong and prosperous nation, has been taken to task by the Chinese leader for crafting an excessively nationalistic image for the country, which has only provoked the United States, the sources said.
“He’s in trouble for mishandling the propaganda and hyping up China too much,” said one of the sources, who has ties to China’s leadership and propaganda system.
[…] There is a growing feeling within the Chinese government that the outlook for China has “become grim”, according to a government policy advisor, following the deterioration in relations between China and the United States over trade. The advisor requested anonymity. [Source]
At The Washington Post, Chinese legal expert Jerome A. Cohen similarly explains the role that Xi’s foreign policy and consolidation of power plays in hinting “that Xi’s apparently untrammeled power is confronting quiet but growing resistance at home,” and also summarizes Professor Xu Zhangran’s widely-shared (and quickly censored) critique. After pointing to a 2015 essay he published in the Post on how Xi’s repressive policies indicate that he is a far more insecure leader than he is often presented to be in state media, Cohen outlines how Xi’s autocratic policies and manipulation of the principle of the rule of law may be playing a role in his apparently faltering domestic support:
Before the ascent of Xi in 2012, despite the theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism, for more than 30 years Chinese judges, prosecutors, lawyers, legislators, bureaucrats, law professors and even the police were, by and large, educated to respect Western legal values that many Asian nations have come to share. More recently, while purporting to endorse “the rule of law,” Xi and the party have openly denounced these universal values, including constitutionalism, the separation of powers, judicial independence and the crucial role of human rights lawyers. Instead, they have preached and enforced the absolute domination of the party.
Yet party domination has thus far proved to be an inadequate replacement for these international values. The old Soviet justifications of party rule have lost their persuasive force in China, as elsewhere. Moreover, intermittent attempts by Xi to invoke China’s traditions to fill the void with nationalist pride have won little acceptance. The hoary maxims of Confucianist humanism, long denounced by the party as pernicious feudalism but now revived by Beijing, do little to meet contemporary demands. And Xi’s occasional invocation of Confucianism’s foremost opponent — the notorious legalist philosophy of government that featured dictatorial rule over China’s first imperial dynasty more than 2,000 years ago — is too close to today’s reality to do more than enhance the fear that already exists among the increasingly sophisticated Chinese people and even many party members.
China’s continuing struggle to restrain arbitrary power is far from over. [Source]
These signs of faltering support for “core leader” Xi are being reported on as current and former top Chinese leaders are believed to be convening their unofficial annual meetings in Beidaihe, a seaside resort town in Hebei that has long hosted secretive summer discussions for the Party elite. While the internal discussions—and even the actual start of the meetings—are closely guarded secrets, Katsuji Nakasawa looks to evidence that Party elders may currently be voicing their aversion to Xi’s consolidation of power. From the Nikkei Asian Review:
What was not discussed at last year’s Beidaihe retreat was Xi’s ambition to revise the nation’s constitution by removing the two-term limit on the presidency. When Xi this past spring succeeded in this maneuver, he ensured that he would remain in office indefinitely. The change was bulldozed through the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, with little opposition.
Party elders felt blindsided. Now, in Beidaihe, they have the opportunity to register their opposition to Xi’s power play, and they are expected to do so by raising the alarm against the cult of personality that is building up around the president.
Also reporting from Beidaihe, The Economist notes that brief talks with locals and vacationers don’t indicate any faltering public support for Xi. The report also highlights the traps that both opacity and the massive store of power that Xi has gathered and state media has readily publicized set for the top leader during tough times:
This summer’s wildest rumours, involving purported plots against and sackings of senior figures, probably reveal more about the longings of Xi critics than anything else. They also point to the downsides of opacity. Beidaihe’s very agenda is a secret. Comings and goings of leaders must be guessed at from sightings of motorcades and presidential trains, and terse state media reports of side events at the resort. In an age when America’s president tweets his innermost thoughts, China-watchers spent the summer counting fawning references to Mr Xi on the front page of People’s Daily, to see if they had become less numerous (they had not).
It is true that by playing the all-knowing father of the nation, dispensing guidance on everything from military strategy to the building of public lavatories, Mr Xi is vulnerable when things go wrong. It is genuinely damaging that China’s leaders look paralysed in the face of Mr Trump’s attacks over trade. But it is also the case that somebody cannot be beaten by nobody, and Mr Xi faces no obvious single challenger. What he does face is widespread disgruntlement among political and business elites. Mr Xi has not just accrued power for himself, in part by locking up a lot of corrupt officials. He has spent six years making explicit the primacy of the Communist Party, a state-above-the-state that operates a parallel chain of command at every level of government, from the smallest village to the largest ministry or state-owned enterprise. Communist Party secretaries and party committees are increasingly visible, as they sideline bureaucratic figureheads, from city mayors to provincial governors, right up to the premier, Li Keqiang, who runs the State Council, a body that oversees many government ministries and agencies. A recurring theme of Beijing rumours has Mr Li and the State Council apparatus ready to stand up to Mr Xi and his inner circle, and rebuke them for such errors as bungling relations with Mr Trump. That seems a stretch. At any rate Mr Li has been damaged by a scandal involving defective vaccines given to hundreds of thousands of children, dampening such talk. […] [Source]