Recent months have seen increasingly sharp reprisals against prominent critics of Xi Jinping’s leadership. Law professor Xu Zhangrun was fired by Tsinghua University in mid-July after a brief detention and his earlier suspension over scathing written critiques; retired Central Party School professor Cai Xia was expelled from the CCP and stripped of her pension last month after calling for Xi’s removal in a speech delivered online in May; and last week, outspoken property tycoon and Party insider "Cannon" Ren Zhiqiang was sentenced to 18 years in prison for alleged corruption after denouncing Xi as a "clown" over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This month, another call for Xi’s removal has been circulating online. In April, retired Renmin University professor Leng Jiefu, former director of the school’s politics faculty, wrote an open letter to Politburo Standing Committee member and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Wang Yang. Leng bemoaned China’s mounting internal tensions and increasingly isolated place on the world stage in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, complaining that the closest the country currently has to international friendship is the "burden" of North Korea. He proposed a three-step plan: the honorable retirement of Xi Jinping from all his positions; the adoption of a federal model of government to safeguard national unity regarding Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the ethnic autonomous regions; and a program of land privatization and agricultural subsidies to revitalize the rural economy. Leng’s suggestions echo an earlier open letter he published in 2012, in which he warned that the country was "facing conflicts of a political, economic, ideological, and military nature that threaten, in the long term, to rip us apart from north to south."
Perhaps tactically, Leng praised Xi’s record, and called for him to be allowed a dignified withdrawal. He cited the acknowledgment of Deng Xiaoping’s greatness despite his varying political fortunes as a model. But a new start, he argued, is necessary for China to seize its historic opportunity, and establish "coexistence and co-prosperity" with the rest of the world, and especially friendship with the United States.
In the excerpt below, Leng focuses on the benefits of federal government toward administrating and securing China’s ethnic autonomous regions of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. The current model of Soviet-inspired ethnic autonomy has come under mounting criticism in Chinese political circles. The alternative now seemingly ascendant is a "Second Generation Ethnic Policy" involving an end to minority privileges and the adoption of "a ‘melting pot’ formula more in line with Chinese tradition and international norms." In effect, critics warn, this will lead to "denial of collective rights" and "cultural genocide." The ongoing program of mass detention and cultural destruction in Xinjiang and erosion of bilingual education that sparked recent protests in Inner Mongolia both reflect the influence of this assimilationist attitude.
Leng, while also critical of the status quo, argues in the opposite direction. The problem with the existing model, he suggests, is that true autonomy has not been allowed. Section 6 of the national constitution, for example, requires that the chairpersons of autonomous regions, as well as various other officials of regional and lower-level state government, "shall be a citizen of the ethnicity exercising regional autonomy." But Leng notes the hollowness of this guarantee when the regions’ more effectively powerful Party secretaries are uniformly Han. The Brookings Institution’s Cheng Li examined this pattern in a 2008 article for China Leadership Monitor, concluding that:
[…] The growing ethnic tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang have led Chinese authorities to conclude that they need to exert tighter control over these regions. In practice, this has meant appointing Han Chinese leaders to serve in the most important posts in these administrative units. At the same time, top Chinese leaders have recognized the value of having ethnic minority cadres serve in the Party-state elite, both for propaganda purposes as well as to inspire minority peoples to view the system as containing opportunities for their own advancement and therefore work within the system rather than against it. Those ethnic minority elites who have been appointed by the CCP Organization Department have usually gone through a great deal of scrutiny to make sure that they are loyal to the Communist regime and will obediently carry out the orders of the Party’s national leadership. [Source]
From Leng’s letter:
3) The ethnic minority problem has never been fully resolved. However, there is a solution, and that is to institute a federal form of government.
Looking back at China’s history, the emergence of Han nationalism brought about ethnic conflict and discrimination toward other groups. The Han reduced minority groups to backward, uncivilized “barbarians.” They were consequently chased from their homes in the central plains of China to the mountainous hinterlands, unable to return. Today’s discrimination is rooted in these historical misconceptions that placed minority ethnic groups beneath the Han.
From dynasties past through the Republican era, the basic policy toward minority ethnic groups has been one of violent suppression. In comparison, the policies of our Chinese Communist Party have made much progress. Ideologically, the CCP affirms the equality of all ethnic groups as members of the Great Family (⼤家庭) and masters of the country. Institutionally, the CCP implemented such policies as the system of autonomous regions.
Despite all this, why has the ethnic issue grown so intense, increasingly violent, and seemingly without recourse?
There are two reasons. The first is that the system of autonomous regions is broken. What we refer to as autonomy is in reality the opposite: the absolute leadership of the CCP. When the real power in each autonomous region is held by the local Party Secretary, who is always Han, how can we call this autonomy? More than anything else, it is this characteristic of so-called autonomy that has earned the defiance and animosity of ethnic minorities. The CCP’s stubborn persistence in placing members of the Han ethnic group at the top in each autonomous region has greatly exacerbated ethnic discord.
The second is that, whenever tensions boil over, the Party inevitably employs violent means to put down any opposition. One has only to look at the deaths suffered by the Uyghur community, which has garnered much international attention, to see that the Party’s tactics of suppression have intensified.
The fact that ethnic turmoil has only jumped from crisis to crisis is a damning indictment of the present system; it has completely failed and must be replaced. Looking at other countries, the form of governance with a decent track record of resolving ethnic or regional conflict is federalism. China’s present system of autonomous regions is an abysmal failure and must be replaced with a federal system in order to replace the policy of suppression with a more conciliatory approach. [Source]
Events since the letter was written in April may have left its recommendations "out of date," according to more recent comments by Leng to the Epoch Times: "Now it’s too late! Probably even federalism and Xi’s regime can’t solve the issues."
Translation by Hamish.