Party dissent in China as time for a new mandate for Xi nears

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
March 26, 2016

China’s leader Xi Jinping is facing serious criticism from within the ruling Communist Party as the time approaches when he must be reconfirmed as party boss and the country’s president.

Xo Jinping, official photo

Xo Jinping, official photo

Since being selected by the party at the end of 2012 for China’s two top posts, Xi has raised hackles by using an anti-corruption drive to remove his political rivals, fostering an unseemly cult of personality, ramping up censorship and suppressing of dissent, and grasping more personal power than any leader since Mao Zedong.

In the last few days signs have emerged of efforts to jerk Xi’s leash and bring him to heel ahead of the party gatherings next year. It is then that Xi faces confirmation for second five-year terms, first for President at the end of 2017 and then as General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party early in 2018.

Since the death of Mao in 1976 it has become traditional for Chinese leaders to serve two five-year mandates. It would take a major revolt against Xi from within the Communist Party for him to be denied that privilege. He was, after all, chosen because the party believed China needs a strong and dynamic leader to confront its multiple problems of economic decline, rampant debt, corruption, social unrest, the need for military reform, and slipping colonial control over Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. But much depends on how Xi reacts to the warnings that his behaviour is worrying leading party members.

China is still a long way from serious internal political turmoil. However, Canadians, and Vancouverites in particular, should be aware that it is apprehension of just this sort of development that has, in part, driven wealthy Chinese to seek havens abroad, to pay outlandish prices for houses and businesses, and to ignore the scams of unscrupulous local brokers. Vancouverites have more hanging on the future of Xi than they do on Donald Trump.

Three things have happened in the last few days that are serious attempts to warn Xi that his behaviour is approaching the unacceptable.

One was a speech on March 14 by a member of the party’s top decision-making body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, criticising Xi’s attempt to grab unchallenged leadership.

The second is an extraordinary essay published on the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s internal police force that Xi has used in his anti-corruption purge, that appears to accuse the leader of running a one-man show. The essay is entitled “A Thousand Yes-Men Cannot Equal One Honest Advisor.”

The third incident does not so clearly flow from the centre of the party, though it seems highly likely there was some involvement by internal dissidents. Early this month a letter appeared on the state-backed Wujie News website calling for Xi’s resignation. The letter, purporting to be from “loyal Communist Party members,” set out what are commonly seen as Xi’s failings. The list included his defiance of the established practice of collective leadership and grabbing of excessive personal power, the threats to national security caused by his bellicose actions against Japan and in the South China Sea, his economic mismanagement, his suppression of the media, and his fostering of a personality cult.

While the criticisms from within the upper echelons of the party will require careful management by Xi, the open letter is an easier matter. At least 20 people have been detained as part of the investigation into the letter. According to Amnesty International they include the father, mother, and younger brother of Chinese blogger and government critic, Wen Yunchao, who lives in New York. It is a time-honoured tactic of Chinese security agents to hold family members hostage in order to put pressure on a suspect. Several Chinese who have sought sanctuary in Canada in recent years have been forced to return to China to face the music after their family members were detained. In at least one case, several of the relatives were killed to force the return of the fugitive.

Another detainee is a prominent columnist at Wujie News, Jia Jia. Of the other 16, six are editorial staff at the website, including a senior manager and a senior editor. The remaining 10 are reported to all work for a technology company associated with the site. That suggests there may be evidence of hacking from outside.

The letter was swiftly removed from the site, but the incident shows yet again how prickly Xi is about personal attacks. A publishing company in Hong Kong that was about to sell a book setting out scurrilous allegations about Xi’s private life has found that out the hard way. Five people associated with the company disappeared late last year, but were found later to have been detained in Mainland China. One appears to have been abducted while on holiday in Thailand. Two recently returned to Hong Kong, and one is still officially listed as missing. Today, Friday, the leading figure, bookseller Lee Bo, gave interviews to local media in Hong Kong saying he was treated well by the Chinese authorities, but that he will not be publishing books again.

Xi will have to tread more carefully in the corridors of Communist Party power if he is to avoid a rising tide of objection to his reappointment next year.

Perhaps the most serious sign of discord so far came at the closing session of the annual meeting of China’s ersatz parliament, the National People’s Congress, on March 14. With an evidently angry Xi looking on, Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, gave a speech criticising Xi’s accumulation of personal power, his promotion of a personality cult, and his strict control of public debate.

As so often happens in authoritarian societies, Yu’s broadside was fired using the arcane world of party double-speak. One has to understand the argot to see what was meant.

Chinese Communist Party leaders love to give a handy catch-phrase to their dynasties that encapsulates their aims and achievements. For Jiang Zemin, leader in the 1990s, it was the socio-political doctrine of “The Three Represents.” Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, led under the banner of “The Harmonious Society.” Xi has pledged to uphold “The Four Consciousnesses.” The concept is more euphonious in Chinese and the four are politics, the bigger picture, the core and consistency.

In this context “the core” means Xi himself, and “consistency” means doing what Xi says.

However, in his closing speech to the congress, Yu mentioned politics and the wider vision of China’s future, but pointedly ignored “the core” and “consistency.”

If that were not a sharp enough dig at Xi, Yu then added his own “consciousness,” the “consciousness of responsibility.” He also repeatedly mentioned “diversity.” Taken together, these suggest a very different view of how the Chinese leadership should work from that being pursued by Xi.

And as is so often the case in politics and especially in closed one-party states li ke China, who is speaking is more important than what is said.

Yu Zhensheng may not be a household name in the outside world, but in China he is an important and well-connected figure. As well as being one of the top seven leaders on the Politburo Standing Committee, he is chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. This is the country’s top political advisory body and as its head, Yu ranks fourth in the Communist Party hierarchy.

At least as important as Yu’s positions are his connections. Yu is close to former leader Jiang Zemin, who despite his advanced years still dominates the so-called Shanghai Faction. Until the arrival of Xi, the Shanghai Faction, with its control of the mainspring of China’s economic miracle, dominated the country’s politics. Indeed, Yu belongs to the so-called “Industrial Machinery Faction” within the Shanghai Faction.

But when Xi took over as President and party General-Secretary during the winter of 2012, he established his own power by using the anti-corruption drive to attack the Shanghai Faction. His target was Politburo Standing Committee member and close associate of Jiang Zemin, Zhou Yongkang, and all Zhou’s family and associates. Zhou and his family controlled China’s oil industry. The sweeping arrests brought the industry to a standstill, and the effects reached even into Canada. Zhou’s wife’s sister, Margaret Jia, was the general manager of CNPC International (Canada). She disappeared from Calgary shortly before Zhou’s arrest was made public.

The other powerful reason for Xi to make Zhou a target was that he had supported Xi’s rival for the leadership, Bo Xilai, now languishing in prison for abuse of power.

As well as Yu, two other current members of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee are loyal to former President Jiang Zemin. So Xi is going to have to box clever if he is to avoid a serious challenge to his leadership in the coming months.

At the moment, there’s a lot in Xi’s favour. Of the seven members on the committee, five will reach retirement age and cannot be reselected. Only Xi and his sidekick, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, are eligible for reappointment. But that advantage can disappear if the dissatisfaction with Xi’s leadership becomes more widespread than is now evident.

It is in this context that the essay published two weeks ago on the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection comes into focus. This body is the party’s internal Inquisition, charged with imposing loyalty and conformity to doctrine. It is headed by Wang Qishan, President Xi’s closest political ally and the man who has led the anti-corruption drive to destroy Xi’s critics and enemies.

So why, then, did the commission publish the essay entitled “A Thousand Yes-Men Cannot Equal One Honest Advisor”?

Political discourse in China is often conducted by circumlocution and indirection. This is most frequently achieved by talking about events in Chinese history and leaving the listeners to draw their own conclusions about how those relate to current political figures.

The title of the essay on the commission website is actually taken from remarks made by Xi at a meeting in Hebei province discussing democratic life. But the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the essay is that Xi is not living up to his own words; that he has become a one-man band surrounded by sycophants, and needs to pay more attention to loyal advisors.

The essay recounts several examples from Chinese history where emperors either listened to sound advice from advisors and prospered in peace and war, or where they dismissed counsellors and suffered as a consequence.

Towards the end of the essay the writer steps out from behind the protection of the historical curtain and speaks plainly.

“We should not be afraid of people saying the wrong things; we should be afraid of people not speaking at all,” says the writer. This is a potent message at a time when Xi has done more than any leader since Mao to curtail public discussion and dissent.

The writer continues that the party has always “advocated that those who have something to say should say it publicly, and that everyone seeks a sincere and devoted unity through open and unhidden criticism. The fundamental attitude of our Party toward criticism is to consider things as they stand, seek the truth in facts, and distinguish right from wrong.”

If one assumes for a moment that the commission’s boss and Xi’s ally, Wang, knew about the essay being published on the website, it suggests even Xi’s strongest supporters are worried about the course he is taking and are trying to speak truth to power.

But speaking truth to power has had momentous repercussions in China before, and could again this time.
The Cultural Revolution, which tore China apart from 1965 until Mao’s death in 1976, had its germination in an historical political allegory similar to the Yes-Men essay.

In 1959 the Deputy Mayor of Beijing, Wu Han, published an historical play about an honest and upright civil servant, Hai Rui, who was fired by a corrupt emperor. Mao initially liked the play, “Hai Rui Dismissed from Office,” and publicly praised it. But Mao became convinced that the author, Wu, was using the story to criticised him. In February 1965 Mao secretly arranged for a Shanghai propagandist, Yao Wenyuan, to write an article vehemently criticising the play and its author. Yao wrote that the play was an allegory and that Deputy Mayor Wu was in reality accusing Mao of being a corrupt emperor.

The allegation put Peng Zhen, the Mayor of Beijing and close associate of author Wu, in a politically vulnerable position. As he and then many others scrambled to protect themselves from Mao, the chaos quickly spread. This was just what Mao intended, and he embarked on a 10-year purge of his enemies and those suspected of less than perfect loyalty. China and the Communist Party have not yet recovered from that trauma.

There is regular speculation among China watchers and within China itself that Xi shows signs of embarking on a new Cultural Revolution to entrench his power. Xi’s many references to inspiring a “Cultural Renaissance” in China have raised suspicions. If so, the events of the last few days may be the opportunity Xi wants.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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