During the first decade of his autocratic control over China, Chairman Xi Jinping could do no wrong. Because of his popularity and position of authority, he was able to defy recent norms by reinstalling himself for a third term in office and promoting acolytes to higher levels of power. However, the luster is wearing off as the reality of economic downturn and diplomatic opposition sets in.
On January 22, Willy Wo-Lap Lam, author of the book Xi Jinping: The Hidden Agendas of China’s Ruler for Life and a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation think tank in the United States, hosted a seminar on Xi’s legacy. Lam assessed that Xi “thinks he is the second, if not the first, most important leader in the communist party pantheon. He thinks that he has outdone Deng Xiaoping in terms of contribution to the party. So he thinks of himself as the 21st-century Mao Zedong.”
Lam believed that Xi would not seek a fourth five-year term, though he might still wield power behind the throne by remaining head of the all-important Central Military Commission.
When the hard-nosed Xi took control in 2012, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had two primary factions. Lam pointed out: “The big thing is, Xi managed to elbow aside, to at least partially demolish, these two major factions in the party.” Indeed, by the time of the 20th Party Congress in September 2022, around 80-90 per cent of its members belonged to the “Xi family army,” underscoring the hugely successful Machiavellian-style political intrigues in which Xi seems to have particular aptitude.
However, he is not universally adored within the CCP.
Lam explained: “I think Xi Jinping in his 11-year career has made a much larger number of enemies than Jang Zemin and Hu Jintao. But the fact of the matter is, Xi Jinping was so successful in his first ten years… His most potent enemies now, I think, consist of rebel elements of the so-called second-generation princelings.”
However, Hong Konger Lam claims that none of these rebels or remnants of groupings like the Shanghai Gang have been able to combine their resources and form a united front against Xi. Even as China’s relationship with the US has dropped to its lowest point since Henry Kissinger’s visit to China in 1971, “There might be people who are glad that such negative events are happening so that they have enough ammunition to use against Xi. But for Xi Jinping himself, he doesn’t pay much attention to economics or geopolitics.”
Nonetheless, Lam noted “there have been very strange events in the past half year”. He offered the example of two state ministers and key leaders of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) going missing.
Indeed, the following members were expelled from the party in one fell swoop at the 7th Session of the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) in late December 2023: Lieutenant General Zhang Zhenzhong (deputy chief of staff of the Joint Staff Department and former deputy commander of the PLARF); Lieutenant General Zhang Yulin (deputy minister of the Equipment Development Department [EDD]); Rao Wenmin (EDD representative to the 14th NPC); Vice Admiral Ju Xinchun (naval commander of the Southern Theater Command); General Ding Laihang (commander of the PLA Air Force until September 2021), ; General Li Yuchao (Commander of the PLARF); Major General Lu Hong (Director of the EDD, PLARF); Lieutenant General Li Chuanguang (chief of staff and deputy commander of PLARF); General Zhou Yaning (former commander of the PLARF). This list is remarkable in terms of the breadth and depth of those who Xi is targeting. Lyle Morris is Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy and National Security at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, noted: “The biggest takeaway is these officers’ connection to [former Defense Minister] Li Shangfu, and their ties to the PLARF, Equipment Development Department and the space program. This amounts to one of the largest purges in the PLARF and EDD in decades, all tying back to Li.”
Lam stated that Li Shangfu’s disappearance had nothing to do with his suspected illicit connection with Phoenix TV presenter Fu Xiaotian. Censors permitted savory tidbits to remain on social media, but this was done to mislead the public from the underlying reason, whatever that may be.
Morris continued: “Something major must have occurred to precipitate this kind of purge. Two likely scenarios are a major corruption scandal or an intelligence leak. A third unlikely scenario, but which cannot be completely ruled out, is a political rivalry to Xi’s power base within the PLA (i.e. a soft coup).”
By raising the Second Artillery Force to the PLARF as a full service of the PLA, Xi also succeeded in establishing a whole new faction in China’s aerospace defense sector, where large sums of money have been flowing in. With so many PLARF members trapped in Xi’s net, perhaps some connected individuals developed ambitions beyond what the Chinese leader considered prudent.
With all of these recent arrests, Lam predicted a “partial demise” of this clique, in which China’s military-industrial complex is intimately involved. Technocrats include Wu Yansheng, chairman of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation [CASC], Wang Changqing, deputy manager of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation [CASIC], and Liu Shiquan, head of the CASIC Board. The churn appears to be spreading, but the CCP does not feel compelled to explain why all of these detentions are occurring. Wang Xiaojun, former president of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, is also being let go.
Due to the trauma, Xi has postponed the 20th Central Committee’s third Plenary Session. Lam went on to say, “Xi Jinping is still scratching his head about the people who will replace the now disgraced” members of the party. In a speech at the 20th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection on January 10, Xi stressed that after ten years of unwavering anti-corruption efforts, the campaign has “achieved an overwhelming victory and has been comprehensively consolidated”. However, he quickly contradicted himself, stating that “the situation remains grim and complex…We must have a clear understanding of the ‘new situations and new trends’ in the fight against corruption, as well as the ‘conditions that create corruption problems’.” In other words, corruption remains a severe issue, and victory is beyond Xi’s reach.
If nothing more, these alarming disclosures call into question Xi’s capacity to choose and manage high-ranking PLA and CCP officials, the majority of whom he personally promoted. This setback will undoubtedly heighten Xi’s sense of paranoia.
“So now, all these strange events in the past few months, they beg the question on actually how good Xi is in his ability to manage high-level, top-echelon targets,” he said.
The contagion has also spread to China’s economy, exacerbating Xi’s problems. A recent survey by Chinese online recruitment site Zhaopin discovered that 32% of white-collar workers reported a wage decline in the previous year. This is only one indicator of a struggling economy. There are speculations that the central government is preparing to inject RMB2 trillion in funding to support local governments in China. According to best estimates, more than half of local governments’ current expenditure is utilized to cover interest payments on previously incurred debt.
Lam stated that Xi is “by no means a stupid person,” and that he understands the importance of foreign direct investment (FDI) to the economy. With China now facing negative FDI (i.e. foreign corporations withdrawing money) as the Chinese market loses its shine, the country urgently requires foreign investment. “Xi doesn’t know that much about geopolitics,” Lam added, but Xi’s leadership deserves some credit for its soft talk and frequent guarantees to global corporations.
The professor went on to say: “Regarding the Global South, they were successful in the first ten years of the Belt and Road Initiative when China still had sufficient US dollar reserves, but now the country is desperately short of US dollars.” He stated that China’s frequently reported amount of RMB3 trillion in reserves is primarily comprised of investments from international corporations and loans made by the Chinese government. Lam estimated that the Chinese government could only mobilize 10% of this sum, much of which has already been spent to prop up the yuan.
There are no vote boxes in communist China, so there are only two ways to assess the government’s legitimacy. The first is regular people’s living standards, while the second is nationalism. Because GDP cannot be sustained at 6-7 percent per year to provide a significant trickle-down effect to assure that ordinary Chinese benefit from a larger piece of the economic pie, lower growth rates will result in the privileged classes taking the majority of people’s money and confiscating it.
The CCP dislikes public protests because it does not truly represent the people. Militias are currently being organized within state-owned corporations as well as private companies, with the goal of maintaining peace and order in the neighborhood of their operations. The CCP is imposing this reluctant militarization, which adds to Xi’s synergy between peacetime and conflict as he drives the nation to more “struggle”. Lam stated that the current militarization of the Chinese population under Xi is proceeding at a “very disturbing pace.”
Lam emphasized that with the economy failing, nationalism is the last remaining source of legitimacy. “So Xi is now putting undue weight on nationalism, ‘the great renaissance of the Chinese people’.” Indeed, Xi is emphasizing his ties with other dictatorial governments. For the first time in history, Russia has emerged as a crucial ally of China, a process that began roughly a decade ago.
Lam continued, “Xi Jinping is obsessed with the old Mao Zedong slogan, ‘The East is rising, and the West is declining.'” He is overly optimistic about the so-called autocratic axis: China, North Korea, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and so on. He stated that Xi remained optimistic that such an axis of autocracy will expand and eventually outperform the US-led alliance in international affairs.
This is one reason why Vladimir Putin should not be allowed to overrun Ukraine, as it will only embolden Xi. Admiral Samuel J Paparo, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, recently told a Senate Armed Services Committee that “instead of seeing the Ukraine conflict and deciding this is too hard, [the Chinese] intention…is to effect a short, sharp conflict that presents a fait accompli to all of the world.”
According to Admiral Paparo, China “is doubling down on their ability to shrink strategic, operational, and tactical warning and act quickly”. He stated that Russia’s failure is “a deterrence in the Western Pacific and directly reassures partners”. so: “The most decisive thing we can do at the moment is to pass the supplemental [budget] that would fund capabilities for Ukraine to defend itself.”
Xi and China are facing rising problems as a result of the direction he has steered the country. However, “Xi Jinping is not interested in acknowledging a successor,” Lam stated, despite previous speculation that now-disgraced ex-foreign minister Qin Gang was being groomed as the next leader. “Xi is convinced that he will live forever, he’s convinced that he has the magic bullet or whatever.”
His self-belief may possibly derive from a religious worldview, since Lam cited a Chinese source who claimed that Xi is a Buddhist. Xi spent 15 years in Fujian, and according to this source, he converted during that time. He allegedly visits a Buddhist temple in Fujian on his return trip. Whatever the case, Xi appears to be the type of man who doggedly digs in his heels as the resistance grows stronger. Unfortunately, he is leading China down a path that many may disagree with but are unable to stop.