On Oct. 1, 2019, exactly 70 years since Mao Zedong stood in triumph at the gates of the Forbidden City and declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese President Xi Jinping was doing his best imitation of the great helmsman. Dressed in a black tunic identical to the one worn by Mao in his famous portrait at Tiananmen Gate, Xi echoed Mao’s boasts that only the Communist Party of China is capable of protecting China from foreign exploitation. Xi, like Mao, then inspected the People’s Liberation Army – though, this time, instead of American tanks captured by Mao’s forces from the nationalists in 1949, Xi reviewed an extravagant parade of new indigenous weapons systems, including new hypersonic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles meant to keep the U.S. at bay.
The message of the meticulously choreographed affair was obvious: The CPC has vanquished the ghosts of the century of humiliation and transformed China into a unified emerging power – and Xi has the unquestioned mandate from heaven to carry forward the project of national rejuvenation started by Mao. But those with a stake in Beijing’s opaque power politics may have been watching for more subtle messages: A curious choice of words in Xi’s speech, or the unexpected presence of a certain official on the rostrum with Xi, or a quiet shift in state propaganda themes – anything that would hint that, as was often the case with Mao himself, Xi’s grip on power was not so absolute.
Some were likely disappointed; the ceremonies were clearly tailored to the purpose of deifying Xi, with state media crowning him the “people’s leader” – a title not used since Mao. Still, in recent months, the frequency of supposed hints of discontent with Xi has picked up again, both among those who believe he is too much like Mao and those who believe he is not enough like Mao. Given China’s socio-economic pressures, along with the trail of purged rivals and discarded norms Xi left behind as he consolidated power, it’d be naive to assume the president is immune to challenge altogether. So it’s worth asking: What might a major power struggle look like?
Reading the Tea Leaves
Power struggles in China typically spill into the public sphere with thumb-biting and coded taunts rather than bare-knuckle brawls. The media is too tightly controlled, and the risks of open speculation too high, for the case to be otherwise. Observers are typically stuck parsing sodden tea leaves for clues about unrest beneath the surface. Still, as in any country, rival factions in China have incentives to find ways to weaken each other in the public eye and use the state’s megaphones to build popular support for their objectives. And since state propaganda, official speeches and personnel moves are so carefully scripted, and thus so pregnant with symbolism, even small deviations from established trends can carry enormous meaning. Silence can also be deafening.
One prominent example: Following the death of Premier Zhou Enlai in 1976, with Mao effectively on his own death bed, the infamous Gang of Four (including Mao’s wife) used state media to accuse acting Premier Deng Xiaoping of counterrevolutionary activities, betraying the power struggle raging behind the scenes. Deng, of course, came roaring back after Mao’s death and was promptly rehabilitated in state media, which in time announced the gang’s arrest long after purging them from state propaganda.
Despite the arrival of the information age, little has changed. If anything, Xi’s embrace of a cult of personality, which was frowned upon by Deng, has made problems somewhat easier to detect. When Xi is at the center of nearly everything produced by state media organs, any sudden downtick in official adulation over the president becomes very conspicuous. In late 2017 and early 2018, for example, state media made it clear that Xi was effectively untouchable. Sure enough, at the epochal 19th Party Congress in November 2017, Xi was enshrined in the party’s constitution and succeeded in stacking the Politburo with loyalists. Three months later, at the National People’s Congress, Xi eliminated presidential term limits and, arguably more important, pushed through a staggering reorganization of the machinery of the state.
But cracks began to show. In July 2018, for example, several prominent portraits of Xi in cities across China, as well as one portraying Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, as the real architect of the success of Shenzhen, disappeared. The Shaanxi Academy of Social Sciences abruptly announced the end of a highly touted research project into Xi’s time as a student in a rural village during the Cultural Revolution. And the Xinhua News Agency published an article criticizing former Chinese leader Hua Guofeng for cultivating a Mao-style cult of personality – a veiled critique of Xi. For several weeks in late July and August, amid rumors of a coup, Xi disappeared from the front pages of the People’s Daily altogether. Around this time, two of Xi’s most powerful loyalists, propaganda chief Wang Huning, who oversees the effort to deify Xi, and Vice President Liu He, responsible for several contentious issues, including trade negotiations with the U.S. and SOE reforms, also disappeared from the front pages.
If Xi was ever truly threatened, he quickly bounced back and by September was once again monopolizing the media’s attention. But hints of discontent have continued. For example, ideological divisions between Deng advocates (including Deng’s son) and Xi supporters were laid bare in the run-up to the 40th anniversary of Deng’s reform and opening. Xi’s speeches and state propaganda subsequently changed, emphasizing more than before the notions of ideological purity and loyalty to party leadership – and threatening to impose autarky and take the country on a new “long march” if that’s what unity required. But while in 2017, every high-profile speech he made spurred ritualistic demonstrations of loyalty and support among key officials, now they are perfunctory and scarce, even among the president’s closest allies, some of who have remained silent. Perhaps most conspicuous, Xi has repeatedly pushed back the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee, suggesting concern about exposing the party’s internal divides. Last month, Xi mentioned “struggle” 56 times in a single speech – reviving a theme favored by Mao at the height of intra-party battles in the 1960s and 1970s.
There’s a risk of reading too much into these sorts of things, of course, and of measuring Xi’s control against unrealistic expectations. Some hints could go either way. Does the lack of high-profile purges this year, for example, suggest that Xi is immune to backlash, or simply that there are no potential rivals left worth targeting? If criticism of Xi’s policies increases, does that mean the opposition is more emboldened, or that Xi is confident enough to allow for the level of honest debate needed to avoid the policy pitfalls inherent to an echo chamber? Are tightened capital controls that target private sector tycoons politically motivated or merely meant to fight corruption and rein in reckless financial speculation?
Ultimately, divining the motivation behind certain choices is perhaps less important than understanding the nature of the choices themselves. Right now, Xi has only bad options.
He can’t, for example, micromanage the economy more than he is without prolonging trade tensions with the West, scaring off foreign investment, risking a credit crisis and creating a fracture along China’s historical fault line between the interior and the coasts. But he can’t push reform or liberalize too much without abandoning Beijing’s favored tools for staving off an existential socio-economic crisis. And as the global economic slowdown intensifies, the next few years are likely to make disagreement over things like reform and opening an order of magnitude more intense.
Absent a worst-case economic scenario, it’s hard to imagine Xi abruptly falling from power. The Communist Party has probably wrapped its own legitimacy too tightly in Xi’s cult of personality to avoid falling with him. During his first term, moreover, Xi’s sweeping purges smashed up traditional factions, took down extraordinarily powerful figures and their proteges, and reconfigured critical patronage networks that now have him at the center. Xi also took tight control of the PLA, the guarantor of CPC rule.
But even if his formal position is bulletproof, Xi’s real authority – over policy direction, over personnel choices at the next Party Congress in 2022, over lucrative patronage networks – could theoretically be taken from him. And this could prove deeply problematic by, say, reviving crippling factional struggles and leading to paralysis in a crisis. After all, Xi’s consolidation of power in his first term wouldn’t have happened without widespread recognition among Chinese leaders that the turbulent waters ahead necessitate a strongman at the helm. The CPC’s embrace of Xi’s dictatorship may now be causing as many problems as it was intended to solve. But so too would paddling in opposite directions midstream.