Ahead 20th Congress of Chinese Communist Party, all is not well in the Kingdom of Xi

What is going on in the Middle Kingdom? Today, it is a question very few dare answer with certitude, but there are certainly signs that all ...

What is going on in the Middle Kingdom? Today, it is a question very few dare answer with certitude, but there are certainly signs that all is not well in the Kingdom of Xi.

On 25 May, President Xi Jinping held a meeting with Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Chinese President justified the human rights situation in his country, “in the context of China's history and culture”. He boldly spoke of “the principled position of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Chinese government in upholding and protecting human rights in all areas,” and added: “The CPC identified as its founding mission the pursuit of happiness for the Chinese people and rejuvenation for the Chinese nation, and has been working hard for the people's interests over the past century.”

This came at the time of the publication of the ‘Xinjiang Police Files’, detailing the atrocities committed for years by the Party and the police on the Uyghurs in China’s western province. What is strange is that while Bachelet was in China, her encounter with the Chinese president was held via video link. Why? Is the situation so bad in the capital that Xi can’t receive dignitaries? Probably.

Around the same time, it was reported by The South China Morning Post (SCMP) that students in Beijing University had been allowed to return home “after hundreds had gathered on campus to vent their frustration at the Chinese capital’s hardline Covid-19 control measures… The decision came after students at Beijing Normal University gathered on campus in protest over uncertainty stemming from the pandemic restrictions”. Is a new students’ revolution brewing?

But there is more

The Epoch Times, usually well informed, mentioned discussions on the infighting within the party taking place in Beijing: “One hot discussion was the fight between Xi Jinping, General Secretary, and the faction of Jiang Zemin, former CCP head; and another one is the fight between Xi and Li Keqiang, China’s Premier.”

The newspaper reported that on 17-18 May The People’s Daily listed Li Keqiang, Wang Yang and Li Zhanshu on its front page, but Xi Jinping’s activities were not covered: “That was unusual, since Xi usually receives the most coverage in the media. In the CCP’s internal factions, Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, ranked number 2 and 4 of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee members, are in the Communist Youth League faction; Li Zhanshu, ranked number 3 of the Politburo Standing Committee member, is Xi’s ally.”

Li Keqiang. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Hu Xijin, the former chief editor of The Global Times, put an ambiguous message on his Weibo account: “This is a very important signal. Follow this signal, put aside your doubts and uncertainties, and embrace new opportunities. Then you will be proved to be real business heroes and a hero of these times.” Next to Hu’s comments were two articles about Li Keqiang and Wang Yang.

The Epoch Times also quoted a Wall Street Journal article published on 11 May, saying that “Li Keqiang steps out of Xi Jinping’s shadow”, while on 14 May, Xinhua News Agency and The People’s Daily released the full text of Li Keqiang’s 9,000-word speech given on 25 April: “It is not very common to report something 20 days ago, especially publishing the full text.”

However, Xi returned to the front page a few days later.

There is no doubt that less than sc months before the crucial 20th Congress, which should see Xi Jinping “re-elected” for five years, all is not smooth in China.

Propaganda for the ‘Leader’

According to Hong Kong journalist Willy Wo-Lap Lam in The Jamestown Brief: “President Xi Jinping has presided over a dramatic enhancement of his own personality cult in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress this autumn. The latest sign of this hero worship is that the national media has bestowed on Xi the title of lingxiu… usually translated as ‘leader’. The practice of referring to Xi as lingxiu traces back to last April, when the provincial media started eulogizing Xi as “the core of the whole party and the people’s lingxiu.”

Willy Wo-Lap Lam asserts: “Xi’s continuation in power looks set to continue despite widespread speculation that he has been severely criticized by party elders such as former premier Zhu Rongji, or that current Premier Li — who will serve as head of government until next March — may be scheming to undermine his powers.”

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But Xi remains in control so far, as The China Brief observes: “Xi’s confidante Ding Xuexiang, the Director of the CCP General Office, assigns drivers, secretaries and security details to most of the Politburo members and party elders. Ding also maintains a surveillance system over both civilian and military leaders, which includes phone-tapping and close monitoring of their out-of-office activities.”

But resentment is mounting against this system.

The economic situation

In the meantime, China’s economic results are poor, to say the least. On 26 May, Bloomberg News noted: “China’s economic slump shows no sign of bottoming out in May. The weakness in the gauge — the worst since the early months of the pandemic — reflects the lingering effects of large-scale lockdowns despite recent progress toward reopening.”

April had already been a ‘black’ month.

The financial journal further commented, “Areas affected by virus control measures have fallen to 20.5 per cent of China’s gross domestic product, down from 35.1 per cent at this time last month, according to estimates from Nomura Holdings Inc. But it may take longer for economic activity to fully recover from abrupt halts caused by the lockdowns, and the uncertainty from China’s Covid Zero strategy has made businesses unwilling to invest and consumers reluctant to spend.”

Geopolitical Futures, founded by George Friedman, analysed the situation: “When China’s position as an economic powerhouse was secure, so was Xi’s position. The economy was always predicated on exports, and though Chinese leaders have made every effort to transition to a consumption-based economic model, manufacturing and exports still drive Chinese gross domestic product.”

It continued: “This has made it especially vulnerable to global disruptions of supply chains caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic, but structural issues such as shadow lending, increased intervention in market affairs, dependence on imports and financial difficulties in the real estate sector have been a problem for some time… Extremely strict regulatory measures brought on by the omicron strain of Covid-19 have only made things worse.”

In fact, the Chinese Dream of Xi Jinping (and his own career) depends very much on the economic future of China.

The return of Li Keqiang

Premier Li Keqiang is now on the centre stage; The Wall Street Journal observed: “For years, President Xi Jinping has sidelined China’s second most powerful political figure, Premier Li Keqiang. Now, Mr Li is re-emerging as a force in his own right, a potential counterbalance atop the Chinese government that hasn’t been seen for nearly a decade… With China mired in its worst economic funk in recent memory, Mr Li is helping press China’s authoritarian leader to dial back some measures that… contributed to China’s economic slowdown.”

It also commented that Li is trying to influence the selection of his successor when he steps down as premier in March 2023: “His goal is another Premier who would be a counterweight to Mr Xi as he consolidates power to rule for at least another five years.”

These are of course speculations; the walls of Zhongnanhai, the headquarters for the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council of China, are too opaque to properly decipher the future.

Though critics say “adjusting Xi’s zero-Covid strategy is key”, it was reported that China had found 33 ways to get the economy back on track.

The official Xinhua affirmed, “The 33-point package of policy items will help ‘get the economy back on a normal track’ while keeping major economic indicators within an appropriate range”, adding that Li Keqiang’s announcements, “came as many analysts have warned that Beijing will be hard-pressed to achieve its economic growth target of around 5.5 per cent for the year while sticking with strict coronavirus-control measures.”

It may or may not work.

Other issues

Apart from the strengthening of the Quad directed at China, the collapse of dream projects such as the BRI and the slow-down of the population growth are serious issues for Beijing which recently announced the outcome of the latest national census. Figures translate to a low annual growth rate of 5.38 per cent over the past decade: “Eleven out of the 31 provinces registered negative population growth in 2021, including Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Chongqing, Mongolia, Hunan, Hubei, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Hebei and Shanxi.”

All this does not augur well for China.

The battle for the 20th Congress is certainly not over and the only certainty today is that it won’t be easy to dissipate the dark clouds over the Middle Kingdom.

The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.

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