By Jacob L. Shapiro
On New Year’s Eve, a translation of a speech President Xi Jinping gave to the sixth plenum of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) on Oct. 27, 2016 appeared in the Qiushi Journal and was picked up by news agency Xinhua and various other news sources in China. Qiushi describes itself as both an “organ of the Central Committee” of the CPC and “the most influential and authoritative magazine devoted to policy-making” in China. The speech was notable because Xi accused some Chinese officials who have been felled by his anti-corruption campaign of engaging in political conspiracies. These officials, according to Xi, were “not only greedy financially and corrupt in their lifestyles, but were also politically ambitious, often agreeing in public but opposing in secret, and forming cliques for personal interests and engaging in conspiracy activities.”
Those familiar with our writing know that we believe China is fundamentally unstable. The CPC has to walk a tightrope between authoritarian dictatorship and regionalization that is far more tenuous than is generally appreciated, or than the Chinese government wants to admit. Our forecast for China in 2017 is that Xi will solidify his dictatorship and win another term as president at the 19th Party Congress in late 2017. The publication of his speech on New Year’s Eve is powerful evidence indicating that this forecast is on track. It is also a subtler confirmation of our take on China’s underlying political challenges. Xi is not behaving like a dictator just because he wants to; he is doing it because he believes he must.
Chinese President Xi Jinping toasts the present and past leaders, together with other guests at the National Day reception in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 30, 2014. STR/AFP/Getty Images
Among those singled out in Xi’s speech were four figures who Xi said were guilty of engaging in these so-called political conspiracies: Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou. We have written about most of these characters previously, but it is helpful to rehash some of the details to understand Xi’s intentions. All four except Guo served as members of the CPC’s central Politburo at one point, with Zhou making it as high as the 17th Politburo’s Standing Committee. Zhou was arguably the most powerful of the four, a former secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission and, before that, minister of public security. The others were also powerful men in their own right. Guo and Xu were important military figures, serving as vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission. Bo was a princeling, the son of one of the “Eight Elders” who dominated Chinese politics in the 1980s and ’90s, and served as a secretary of the CPC in Chongqing, an important city of almost 10 million people in southwest China.
Xi felt he needed to eliminate these men before he could take the next step in solidifying his power, and each in his own way presented a unique challenge to Xi’s rule. Zhou’s power at one point extended into many aspects of internal security in China, including the police forces and the courts, which would be powerful allies for any group that could make a move against the president. Guo and Xu were representatives of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the guarantor of the CPC’s rule. Xi pushed through a series of reforms to the PLA last year, reordering the command structure and pledging to cut the number of soldiers by 300,000. Xi also had himself designated commander-in-chief of the PLA last year and set up an internal disciplinary commission for military-related corruption offenses. These would all be dangerous moves if there was potential for discontent in the lower ranks and pushback against Xi’s directives at the upper level of leadership. Bo was a significant player in the political structure, but his real crime was that he was charismatic and expressed his opinions. He was an advocate of focusing economic development on China’s interior, in contrast to China’s traditional model focused on the export-oriented coastal regions.
Notably, none of this new “Gang of Four” were originally convicted of engaging in political conspiracies. Zhou was given a life sentence for bribery, abuse of power and intentional disclosure of state secrets. The lurid circumstances around Bo’s case made his conviction particularly memorable; he was convicted of bribery, abuse of power and corruption. Guo was given a life sentence after being found guilty of bribery, specifically of taking money in return for helping his associates secure promotions. Xu was accused of the same, though he died from terminal cancer before the legal proceedings against him were completed. All four were convicted in the last three years. But in many instances the crackdowns focused not just on specific individuals but also their families and associates.
What is especially notable is that Xi now feels powerful enough to accuse these potential rivals of being involved in political conspiracies. The anti-corruption campaign, which is overseen by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, has always maintained that it is focused on eliminating corruption from the CPC’s ranks. Many knew that “corruption” was a euphemism for potential or actual resistance to Xi’s power, but Chinese sources would not say this openly, as there was value in keeping up appearances. Xi evidently feels this is no longer necessary. He is now not only willing to use phrases like “political conspiracies” in a speech to influential party cadres, but he is also willing to have those two-month-old remarks highlighted in an influential CPC publication.
What makes this different than past episodes in Chinese history, such as the 1957-1959 Anti-Rightist Movement or the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, is that Xi has moved against his political rivals first. He is not relying on the masses for his legitimacy or targeting intellectual or ideological countercurrents. Comparing Xi to Mao Zedong is inaccurate for many reasons, and this one can be added to the list: Whereas Mao depended on the masses to rise to the top, Xi fears being overrun by them. Xi has maintained his power by carrying out an anti-corruption campaign and having his opponents prosecuted. But though Xi is more methodical and technical with his moves, he has the same goals as Mao: to maintain power over China and to keep the country together. He has gone down the path of authoritarianism to accomplish these goals and he can’t turn back now, especially since he has signaled that he is doubling-down by identifying those who oppose him as political conspirators. Xi believes he is now powerful enough to do this, though ironically that also means China is weak.
Xi will not stop these purges. This is likely just the beginning of a campaign that is about to get significantly wider. Xi has eliminated what he saw as his key sources of opposition by weakening the internal security apparatus and the PLA and ousting a populist leader. In other ways, such as by attacking the Communist Youth League and seizing control of much of the economic and financial machinery of the state, he has also added to his power. Xi will continue to eliminate his rivals while branching out into new areas where his writ must be imposed as the year progresses. Mao directed his Cultural Revolution against the bourgeoisie, which he defined as those who “hang up a sheep’s head but sell dog meat, wave the red flag to oppose the red flag.” At a meeting last week where Politburo members pledged fealty to Xi, Xinhua noted that the meeting stressed the necessity of “passing on the red regime generation by generation.” China’s politics have matured, but their essence hasn’t changed.