Distinguishing trend lines from temporary phenomena in Chinese policies has never been easy, but recent events have made it even harder to connect the dots. Simply put, the public face that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has heretofore presented to the world has developed visible cracks.
By the dawn of the 21st century, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) seemed to have evolved into a collective decision-making system in which the Standing Committee of the Politburo formulated policy under the leadership of the party’s General Secretary, who served as a kind of primus inter pares, functioning as well as president of the PRC and, typically, head of the Central Military Commission. The underlying assumption was that members of this elite, who did not necessarily share the same preferences for economic and social development, feared the emergence of a strong leader such as Mao, several of whose initiatives such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, had had disastrous results for the country. At the same time, there were concerns that only a strong leader could overcome systemic inertia and powerful vested interests to implement the far-reaching reforms that are considered necessary to keep the PRC on the path to continued growth. A World Bank report issued in early 2012 predicted that without a drastic restructuring, China risked becoming stuck in a middle-income trap, or worse.
Xi Jinping had for several years been recognized as the heir apparent to the triumvirate of party, government, and military positions when the incumbent, Hu Jintao’s, second five year term ended in fall 2012. Doubts about Xi’s ability to lead began to be voiced after a 2009 visit to Mexico City, when he delivered what was described as an outspoken rant against “foreigners with full bellies who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country…China does not export revolution, hunger, poverty, nor does China cause you any headaches. Just what else do you want?” Chinese censors immediately deleted his address from websites and news reports, as well as posts by bloggers who had commented on it before the deletions. Soon thereafter, South Koreans reacted badly to Xi’s mention, while in Pyongyang, that the Korean War had been a glorious page in the history of Sino-North Korean friendship.
These doubts about Xi’s capabilities as a leader were reinforced when, three years later, the 18th Party Congress, at which Xi was to be formally anointed, was twice postponed and Xi himself mysteriously disappeared for ten days. Chinese social media reacted with skepticism to the official explanation that he had injured his back playing soccer, again prompting action from censors. References to the abbreviated form of the 18th Party Congress, shi-ba-da, were blocked, only to be circumvented by copious references to the identically pronounced, but written with different Chinese characters, Sparta.
When the conference took place, an apparently fully recovered Xi was designated the party’s new General Secretary and head of its Central Military Commission. In March 2013, the National People’s Congress would name him president of the PRC, thereby consolidating his primacy in the country’s three top positions. Immediately, Xi took steps to be a strong leader, thus confounding the pundits’ predictions. Foreign analysts abruptly changed their opinions, noting, among other factors, that Xi, unlike his predecessor, who had never seemed to have the military firmly under his control, would have strong ties with the People’s Liberation Army PLA. As perhaps less than convincing evidence, they noted that Xi had served as personal secretary to a former defense minister, Geng Biao, and that his wife, Peng Liyuan, held the rank of major general as a result of her performances of Chinese folk songs in the military’s arts troupe.
In further refutation of the theory that China would continue to be ruled by consensus decision-making within the elite, Xu assumed control of numerous policy “leading small groups,” some of them newly founded. The latter included a national security commission that seemed as much aimed at internal social control as at external defense. An anti-corruption campaign brought down numerous potential rivals in both. A leading target in the domestic sphere, Zhou Yongkang, was a former Politburo member who oversaw the country’s security apparatus and had been ranked the ninth most powerful man in China. He was sentenced to life in prison for accepting bribes and channeling lucrative contacts to family members and close associates.
With regard to defense, General Xu Caihou, a former vice-chair of the Central Military Commission and Politburo member once considered to be among the country’s top two dozen leaders, was convicted of taking massive bribes that included the sale of military ranks. Xu passed away of bladder cancer while awaiting trial, his party membership already rescinded and his assets seized. Many lesser, but nonetheless powerful, figures were also removed from power. Despite speculation over whether Xi’s true aim was to end corruption or to purge those who might best be in a position to oppose him, the end result was a significant recentralization of power in his hands.
A cult of Xi began as well. Visitors to markets in Chinese cities noticed images of Xi on plates and other objects placed prominently in front of similar images of Mao, and even statues of the Buddha. Posters praising his “China dream” slogan, never explicitly defined but clearly implying a prosperous and powerful future for the country, appeared as well with appropriate subtitles such as, near schools, “young people’s dream is the China dream.”
Ambitious economic plans, a sine qua non of achieving the China dream, accompanied these developments. The one belt, one road (OBOR) initiative aimed to establish a creatively re-imagined PRC-centered version of ancient silk routes, one of them over land through Asia to Europe, and the other maritime to Southeast Asia, Africa, and beyond. An Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), headquartered in Beijing, was founded to help finance the costs, with the PRC to provide major funding and 60-odd countries applying to join. Pursuant to this objective, Greece agreed to sell a 67 percent stake in the country’s largest seaport to a Chinese company. And in Djibouti, on the strategically Gulf of Aden, construction began on China’s first overseas base.
The March 2016 National People’s Congress approved the country’s 13th Five Year Plan, covering the years 2016-2020. Continuing past efforts to build a moderately prosperous society by the plan’s end, its outline assumed a readjustment to what Xi has called the new normal, with growth no less than 6.5 percent during the period. Disparities in income levels are to be narrowed, all rural residents lifted out of poverty, and improvements made in education, health care, and public services.
Left unsaid was whether sufficient funding could be found to underwrite the costs of these ambitious goals. A correspondent for Al Jazeera termed the effort “China’s five year plan fantasy,” pointing out that targets are much easier to set than to reach. Others noted that the government, while saying that it would allow the market to play a decisive role, was simultaneously pursuing heavy-handed industrial policy goals that will inhibit marketization. Burdensome security laws, information control, and ideological rhetoric would combine to work against the plan’s commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship.
Within China, criticism was at first sub rosa—conversations among university professors speaking with trusted friends, the occasional defacement of a China dream poster, an online (and quickly removed) cartoon that depicted a crown-wearing frog that resembled Xi at the bottom of a well. This was to change abruptly at the time of the National People’s Congress.
Among the first signs that discontent was building was a post on social media by party member and real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang. In response to Xi Jinping’s directive that the media must protect the authority of the central party leadership and preserve the party’s unity, Ren asked pointedly when the people’s media had become the party’s media, and objected strongly to “using taxpayer money to do things that aren’t in service of taxpayers.” His social media accounts were shut down, but not until a verified 37 million followers had read them.
Next came an essay on the website of the party’s Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC). Entitled “A Thousand Yes-Men Cannot Equal One Honest Advisor” and signed with the pen name Lei Si, it pays homage to a phrase found in a historical document written in the Han dynasty. The essay riffs on an ancient tradition known as patriotic remonstrance, in which the writer, at the risk of his life, alerts a powerful superior to missteps that should be corrected. Its allegorical message was chilling: King Zhou of the Shang dynasty surrounded himself with people who told him what he wanted to hear instead of what he should hear, resulting in the fall of the dynasty in 1046 B.C. The CDIC, which plays a crucial role in the anti-corruption campaign, is headed by Wang Qishan, hitherto believed to be close to Xi. Hence speculation about his role in the post focused on the possibility of a rift between them.
In his closing speech to the National People’s Congress, Politburo Standing Committee member Yu Zhengsheng cited only two of the “four consciousnesses:” ideology and the bigger picture. Those omitted were consciousness of the core and consciousness of consistency, both being understood to mean unquestioning obedience to Xi Jinping’s directives. Further, Yu added a new consciousness, that of responsibility to one’s job. Xi, who was present at the speech, was described as visibly displeased.
The next salvo was anything but elliptical. In an open letter dated March 16, a group describing themselves as loyal party members urged Xi Jinping to resign, charging that he had abandoned the party’s tradition of collective leadership in the Standing Committee of the Politburo and that due to his gathering of all power into his own hands and making decisions directly, the country was facing unprecedented problems and crises in all political, economic, ideological, and cultural spheres. Moreover, he was responsible for the emergence of an unfavorable international environment. The anonymous writers declared that, since Xi did not possess the capabilities to lead the party and the nation, he should resign from all his positions and allow the party’s Central Committee and the people of the nation to select a virtuous leader capable of leading China into the future.
More was to come. An employee of the official state news agency Xinhua posted an open letter denouncing the increasingly tight media constraints “for triggering tremendous fear and outrage among the public,” a message quickly deleted by censors. Then the editor-in-chief of the often stridently nationalistic Global Times got into a public spat about the PRC’s foreign policy with a former Chinese ambassador to France. Responding to an article urging the government to take a more assertive stance, the ambassador accused the editor of being ignorant of foreign affairs, and opined that being soft was more difficult and effective than being hard. The editor then counter-charged that this attitude showed all that was wrong about the country’s foreign policy.
Revelations that the family of Xi Jinping was heavily involved in the international financial scandal traced to a Panama law firm bore directly on Xi’s role as a crusader against corruption. Efforts at censorship failed to prevent sarcastic commentary on social media, with Xi often referred to as “brother-in-law” in reference to his actual brother-in-law’s direct involvement in the operation. In mid-April, the websites of two foreign magazines, Time and The Economist, were blocked after, in separate issues that were to appear on the same day, they ran cover stories accompanied by full-page pictures depicting the cult of Xi.
Where this will end is a topic of intense interest. Currently, the Standing Committee of the Politburo is dominated by people believed to be Xi Jinping’s staunch allies, but age limits will require most of them to retire by the next party congress, in fall 2017. While it is unthinkable that Xi will be prevented from being awarded a second five-year term, it is possible that recent events will force him into a more consensual decision-making mode. This would validate the original predictions of foreign analysts: China is no longer the weakened, demoralized country that Mao Zedong inherited in 1949, and hence far less likely to accept the notion of a strong leader to solve its problems. For those Chinese who hope for an evolution away from authoritarianism and toward pluralism, the increasingly public resistance to Xi’s modus operandi is good news. However, it carries the disadvantage that, without a strong leader to force through the painful structural reforms that would put China on the path to healthier economic growth, the country will continue on a path that many believe is ultimately unsustainable.
 Malcolm Moore, “China’s ‘Next Leader’ in Hardline Rant,” Telegraph, February 16, 2009.
 Josh Chin, “China Muzzles Outspoken Businessman Ren Zhiqiang on Social Media,” Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2016.
 Katsuji Nakazawa, “Yu Zhengsheng Takes Verbal Jab at President Xi,” Nikkei (Tokyo), March 29, 2016.
 Text in English and Chinese at https://www.chinadigitaltimes/net/2016/3/open-letter-devoted -party-members-urge-xis-resignation/
 Owen Guo, “Tabloid Editor and Ex-Diplomat Square Off Over China’s Foreign Policy,” New York Times, April 9, 2016.