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Xi’s power is cracking under the pressure of China’s ‘polycrisis’

(Li Xueren/Xinhua via AP)
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech for a Spring Festival reception the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023.

“Ours is a big country,” Chinese ruler Xi Jinping said in his 2023 New Year Address. “It is only natural for different people to have different concerns or hold different views on the same issue.” 

Xi, who has consistently demanded “absolute” obedience to himself, essentially admitted growing disunity in China.  

It is clear, even from the same paragraph in the address, that Xi really is not okay with “different views.” 

“Going forward, China will be a country that draws its strength from unity,” he declared. “When the 1.4 billion Chinese work with one heart and one mind, and stand in unity with a strong will, no task will be impossible and no difficulty insurmountable.”  

In the Communist Party’s system, disunity is tantamount to instability. Late last year, there was no hiding instability. There were, for instance, the extraordinary protests that began in late November at “iPhone City,” the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, over COVID-19 controls and the even more dramatic demonstrations that spontaneously occurred across China after the Nov. 24 fire in Urumqi. Chinese people in the latter set of disturbances demanded Xi and the Chinese Communist Party “step down.” 

Xi in his New Year speech was almost certainly referring not only to these mass incidents but also to elite disagreement in the party. There are signs of worsening discord. 

There have been, for example, apparent changes in domestic policy regarding control of tech companiesregulation of bank lending and Xi’s “common prosperity” program, but the starkest reversal relates to COVID-19 measures. In his work report, the nearly two-hour speech to the party at the 20th National Congress on Oct. 16, Xi doubled down on his support for what were the strictest disease-control measures anywhere. On Dec. 7, however, the National Health Commission dismantled Xi’s dynamic zero-COVID policy. 

Gregory Copley, the president of the International Strategic Studies Association, tells me that Xi’s COVID reversal was a result of his plan to dominate the Chinese political system. 

“He arrested and destroyed as many of his opponents as he could, simply to gain absolute control of the party,” he said of Xi, referring to the years of strict COVID measures. “He achieved that and knew that he immediately had to reverse his attacks — since he had control — before the entire economy tanked.” 

Therefore, Xi Jinping may have walked away from his signature policies on his own — and not, as some believe, as the result of pressure from political enemies. Yet it may not matter why he reversed course because it looks like Xi will face consequences soon.  

Many, including Charles Burton of the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute, report unhappiness over the sharp reversal of Xi’s COVID-19 measures. 

“People cannot help but resent that the years-long imposition of severe lockdowns and consequent financial hardships turn out to have been for naught as the disease now surges uncontrolled throughout China,” he said to me last month. Various sources report that COVID deaths among elites have undermined support for Xi Jinping.  

And there is another criticism of the Chinese ruler’s strict disease rules. “Xi has severely lost face as his COVID policies have proved disastrous for China’s economy,” Burton, a former Canadian diplomat posted in Beijing, noted. 

We may soon get a glimpse into what is going on. As Burton points out, “What personnel changes are announced at the upcoming annual meeting of the National People’s Congress will be very telling.” The meeting typically starts the first week of March in Beijing.  

In the Communist Party’s new culture — Xi inherited an institutionalized system but brought back the “You die, I live” mentality of the Maoist years — no one can appear to look weak and expect to survive for long. In Xi’s strongman system, he has idealized struggle and domination, and at the moment opponents are beginning to smell the opportunity for payback. 

Copley, also editor-in-chief of Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, foresees real trouble for Xi when it’s apparent, perhaps at the end of this year, that his new policies are also not working. 

Whether or not Xi does well, the Communist Party’s political system, which looked remarkably stable for four decades, has entered a new phase. The volatility of current politics makes it even more challenging for senior leaders to manage what is now called China’s “polycrisis,” simultaneous systemic risks.  

China has continuing debt defaults, a stagnating economyplunging property prices, worsening food shortages and a deteriorating environment, in addition to facing a viral outbreak that is “by far the world’s largest.” Moreover, the country has entered into a decades-long period of steep demographic decline

Xi is being blamed for all the problems confronting the regime, and that means the infighting in Beijing is bound to get worse. 

Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang

Tags China–United States relations Chinese Communist Party Politics of the United States Xi Jinping zero covid policy

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