An Iron Idol Turns to Clay: Xi Faces Neo-Dengist Opposition

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 5

Pedestrians walk by a picture of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The poster includes Deng’s famous quote: “adhere to the party’s basic line for a hundred years, with no vacillation (Source: SPH)


Late last year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) re-invoked a phrase that first appeared five years earlier: the “Two Establishes” (两个确立, liang ge queli) to establish General Secretary Xi Jinping as the “core of the whole party” and to enshrine  “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” as the CCP’s guiding philosophy. (Guangming Daily, December 24, 2021; China Media Project, February 6). Given his ostensible centrality in the CCP, common wisdom within the foreign China-watching community holds that Xi is firmly in command. Citing the historic resolution at the recent Sixth Party Plenum, China watcher Bill Bishop says, “CCP leaders don’t get historical resolutions passed because they are ‘weak’” (, November 16, 2021; Sinocism, October 18, 2021). Former Australian prime minister and China hand Kevin Rudd asserts, “Given the president’s control over much of the party’s security apparatus and personnel files, and his gifts for the dark arts of internal Chinese politics, Mr. Xi is likely to continue in power come November” (Wall Street Journal, January 22).

Despite major hurdles such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Xi’s dominance has apparently continued unabated. Behind the political pageantry, however, some cracks below the surface are becoming clearer. In particular, some elites have recently published perspectives that seem to challenge Xi’s position within the CCP by harkening back to Deng Xiaoping’s policy of Reform and Opening. In isolation, these statements might be considered outliers, but taken together in the context of tight political control, they suggest that Xi’s political position is less secure than is often assumed. Thus, the question is not whether Xi is being challenged, but how seriously. Xi’s power may be sufficient to take on all comers, but these murmurs of opposition bear monitoring.

Xi’s Push

Even before Xi took charge in 2012, his muscular brand of policy was evident in stepped up military adventurism and his role in the arrest of one-time rival and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai (People’s Daily, September 22, 2013). Soon after taking charge, Xi launched a massive anti-corruption campaign and continued to purge officials. Notable early targets included internal security chief and former Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Zhou Yongkang, United Front chief Ling Jihua, and Central Military Commission members Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou. [1] After downing these “Four Tigers,” Beijing, in a bizarre incident in 2018, recalled Meng Hongwei from his position as head of Interpol without notice, only to arrest and imprison him (Xinhua, January 21, 2020).  Clearly, Xi prioritizes control over the CCP’s internal and external security apparatus.

In 2020, Xi began a larger-scale purge, which netted two Shanghai “tigers”: Public Security vice minister Sun Lijun and Shanghai vice mayor and police chief Gong Dao’an (SCMP, January 13; Xinhua, September 16, 2021; WSJ, August 18, 2020). Notably, both Sun and Gong are considered part of the “Shanghai Gang” (上海帮, Shanghai Bang), a faction of officials with roots in Shanghai associated with former leader Jiang Zemin that is known for representing the interests of  coastal elites and businesses (China Leadership Monitor (CLM), spring 2006). Prominent Pekingologist Cheng Li explains, “The first coalition, which was born from the Jiang era and is currently led by President Xi Jinping, can be named the Jiang-Xi camp.” [2] It would seem that Xi has purged members of his own coalition, among others. If the Tiananmen Movement and collapse of Soviet Communism taught Beijing’s leaders one thing, it is that to remain in power they must maintain control of the “organs and functions of dictatorship” (专政机关和专政职能, Zhuanzheng jiguan he zhuanzheng zhineng). [3]

Attorney Gao Guangjun highlights the arrests of Sun and Gong as part of an attack on former security czar and Politburo member Meng Jianzhu, who appears to retain influence in the all-important internal security apparatus (VOA, January 18). In CCP culture, it is common to attack an official’s lieutenants before moving on to the higher-level target themselves (CLM, December 1, 2020). Ironically, commentator Yang Zhongmei identifies Meng (along with Jiang Zemin) as part of Xi’s inner circle, while scholar Wu Guoguang places Meng in the “pan-Shanghai Gang.” [4] This may be another case of Xi attacking “his own coalition,” but it is notable that Meng has yet to be arrested.

In the private sector, Ren Zhiqiang, a prominent real estate tycoon with close ties to CCP elites, was arrested in March 2020 after publicly criticizing Xi’s Covid response. Ren nominally called Donald Trump “a clown who stripped naked and insisted on being reelected,” but the context made clear that he was actually referencing Xi (, March 28, 2020; BBC, September 22, 2020). For this affront, he was sentenced to 18 years in jail for “anti-Communist Party thoughts.” His downfall is indicative of how under Xi, the government conflates anti-Xi thought with corruption.

So then, is Xi’s anti-corruption campaign genuinely aimed at rooting out corruption, or does it center on neutralizing political enemies? In practice, these motives may be indistinguishable. Regarding Mao’s approach to purges, PRC historian Gao Hua wrote: “since the sluice of terror had already been opened, it made sense for him to seize the opportunity to crush all declared and potential opposition.” [5]

A Dengist Coalition?

Scholar Willy Lam provides a note of caution concerning Xi’s strength: “Xi’s control of the political-legal (政法, zhengfa) apparatus (the police, secret police, and judicial departments) has continued to be cast in doubt by the repeated replacements of senior cadres in the Ministry of Public Security.” Of the historic resolution, he points out: “Analysts are surprised that after the release of the Document on party history, which uses hagiographic language to glorify the strongman’s spectacular exploits—only a relatively small number of regional and PLA leaders have taken up the tradition of biaotai (“express fealty in public”) to sing Xi’s praises” (China Brief, December 14, 2021).

In light of the obviously high cost of criticizing the regime (or even displaying insufficient loyalty), it is remarkable that multiple criticisms have emerged from official sources in recent months. On December 9, the People’s Daily carried an article by Qu Qingshan (曲青山), a member of the 19th Central Committee and president of the CCP’s Central Committee Party History and Literature Research Institute (People’s Daily, December 9, 2021). In a clear slight, Qu fails to mention Xi even once while lavishing praise on Deng Xiaoping for modernizing China (e.g., Twitter, January 5). Instead of echoing the resolution and focusing on Xi’s achievements, Qu fixates on a single line from the document: “Reform and Opening Was the Party’s Great Awakening,” which is headline the article appeared under. Reform and Opening was Deng’s program for the Chinese economy, which Qu refers to as a “great revolution,” a clear passing over of Mao, and by extension, Xi.

Qu also praises each previous paramount leader, even Hu Jintao, but not Xi. He claims that this “great Party awakening is based on deep insight into strategic trends,” pointing to Deng’s famous geostrategic assessment at the beginning of the reform era: “There will be no big wars, don’t be afraid, there is no strategic risk, we must be able to capture this opportunity and wholeheartedly focus on economic development.” Qu’s implication is subtle—the international community was and is still friendly to China, and therefore the CCP should not make unnecessary enemies. Moreover, Xi has failed to grasp this key strategic insight.

Qu is not alone in raising questions about Xi’s leadership. Wang Xiaodong (王小东), a well-known Chinese nationalist, publicly warned against Xi’s bellicose foreign policy toward the United States (Weibo, December 19, 2021). He stated that China would pay great costs and fall into strategic isolation should it unnecessarily antagonize the U.S. Wang continued, “We must prevent the world from reaching a consensus with the US to drive China out of the international circle, and we must also prevent such a consensus within the US, even if it means we have to pay a certain price, or even endure humiliation.” Wang states outright what Qu alluded to: China must remain open to the world. A graduate of Beijing University, Wang is a prolific writer on Chinese politics and is considered “the banner” of contemporary Chinese nationalism by some. His warning suggests that Xi’s policies face pushback on even from more hawkish voices in China.

In their criticisms of Xi, Qu and Wang notably focused on Deng’s legacy of Reform and Opening. Under Xi, the CCP has revived once defunct Maoist practices such as “self-criticism” (自我批评, ziwo piping) (, January 10, 2017). In many ways, Xi embodies the opposite of Deng’s pragmatism and opening to the world. Within the CCP pantheon, Deng stands out as an antidote to Mao. For these writers to hearken back to Deng shows a search for alternatives to Xi.

One of the most remarkable criticisms of Xi came anonymously during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The article, titled “Evaluate Xi Jinping Objectively,” cites a number of Xi’s failures and heralds his removal in 2022, or at the latest 2027 (RFI, February 4).

Even more mainstream PRC voices are calling for greater moderation in China’s conduct of its foreign policy, see for example, Tsinghua University Professor Yan Xuetong (Tsinghua IIR, January 10; Twitter, since removed), former ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai (Sohu, December 24, 2021; Nikkei Asia, January 13), senior foreign policy advisor Jia Qingguo (Journal of International Security Studies, January), and political scholar Hu Wei (republished from Liberation Daily, December 21, 2021).This resistance puts Xi’s recent pact with Russia and support for Moscow in its war with Ukraine  in a new light (PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 4). It is possible that his opponents have painted him into a corner and, unable to pursue an opening to the West, he now sees Russian President Vladimir Putin as a troubled but nevertheless essential partner.

Mao’s horrific Great Leap Forward and subsequent famine precipitated strong internal elite dissent and forced him to retire to the “second front” from 1962 to 1966 (退居二线, tuiju erxian). [6] If the “Great Helmsman” had to yield to internal criticism and temporarily accept a diminished role in the governance of China, Xi cannot be immune.

Xi’s Power in Context

Xi’s rule has produced several crises over the past two years, each arguably of his own making, including the failure of power generation in northeast China; a real estate crisis; pursuit of “Common Prosperity,” a program of intensified state control over—and even elimination of—major industries, especially tech; botched attempts to pressure Australia economically and politically; the drag of “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy on the PRC’s international reputation; the outbreak of Covid in Wuhan and the PRC’s subsequent zero-COVID policy approach; and the emergence of an atmosphere of increased general repression. Propaganda can conceal many of these ills, but the Chinese government and public cannot have failed to notice the lacuna between their leader’s words and deeds. Those hoping for a different future have ample ammunition against Xi, but is it enough? The operative example would be the (largely) bloodless 1976 coup that eliminated the radical Gang of Four from the leadership,  paving the way for Deng’s assumption of the core leadership position the following years Deng’s victory over the radicals required a fair amount of luck and military support, but public desire to repudiate and move on from  the Cultural Revolution made conditions ripe for success. [7]

The current PBSC consists of seven members: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, and Han Zheng. Cheng Li argues that this PBSC power distribution is six to one in Xi’s favor, naming Li Keqiang as the sole member outside Xi’s coalition. [8] However, PRC dissident and former CCP party member Cai Xia claims no more than ten percent of China’s leadership class are part of the “Xi family army” (习家军 Xi jia jun), Xi’s associates from past positions in Zhejiang, Fujian, Shanghai, and at Tsinghua University (RFA, September 18, 2020). Cai is a well-known party academic and former professor in the CCP Central Party School who came to the U.S. from China in 2019. In 2020, the CCP expelled her for criticizing Xi (SCMP, August 18, 2020).

Among the six PBSC members other than Xi, arguably only two are part of this “family army”: Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji. [9] According to Lam, Li Keqiang and Wang Yang belong to the Youth League faction (China Brief, May 11, 2016). Han Zheng is a key member of the Shanghai Gang (or faction) and ideology czar Wang Huning maintains close ties with previous CCP leaders such as Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, Zhu Rongji, and Zeng Qinghong, elders who faithfully followed Deng’s program for decades.

Certainly, Xi and the Shanghai faction have overlapping interests in many areas, but do not see eye-to-eye on every issue, especially economic matters. Cai Xia explains that “Li Keqiang and Wang Yang are working very hard to attenuate the damage [caused by Xi’s policies] and manage the current crisis” (Youtube, August 19, 2020). Cai’s comment, coupled with her deep party connections, provides another perspective on the ongoing elite power struggle at the top echelons of the CCP. Given the evident high-level dissatisfaction with Xi’s policies and rallying around Deng’s Reform and Opening legacy, the support of the Shanghai faction so critical to Xi’s coalition now comes into question. Xi’s moves against security officials suggests his position is growing no firmer. The 20th Party Congress and events leading up to it should provide some clues. Is pushback continuing or even growing? Is Xi cracking down even harder?

After the Party Congress, a smaller PBSC of five members would demonstrate Xi’s increased control. Increased representation from his “family army” would also be a sign of a more absolute level of control. Xi’s longtime political rival, Premier Li Keqiang, will reach his two-term limit this year, although he may continue in a less critical position such as chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.  If Li Keqiang does not step down, or if Youth League representation holds steady after Li’s departure (e.g., if Hu Chunhua is promoted to PBSC), this would indicate Xi’s diminished power. Whether this would represent a temporary setback or a retreat would depend on what comes next.

Xi has pushed his agenda under the rubric of bold slogans like “China Dream,” “the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People,” and “Community of Common Destiny.” In reality, he has been leery of any influence that comes from outside the Party, including foreign capital and ideas [10] Xi would like China to continue to attract investment, but his insistence that foreigners publicly condone the CCP regime and its repressive policies will increasingly isolate China. The irony is that as much as the democratic world is struggling to decouple, Beijing is doing a better job at accelerating the process. As the democratic world rallies to cut off investment in China, the U.S. Congress’s Uyghur Protection Act must seem an ominous harbinger of the pain Xi’s policies are threatening to bring. It may even be that the dissenting officials have financial interests informing their stances, although the authors uncovered no direct evidence of such .

In sum, Bill Bishop’s view remains the standard:

…it is even harder now than it was a few years ago to envision how any group can coalesce to do more than grumble…Xi is a terrific student of Mao and his methods of taking and maintaining power, and he has spent the last 9 years purging officials far down in the political and military systems… (Sinocism, January 4).


As U.S. strategists, the authors believe that Xi’s program of isolation will keep the U.S. and its network of allies and partners relatively stronger than the People’s Republic, both worldwide and in the Indo-Pacific region. The CCP’s belligerence has alienated countries around the world. Xi’s collapsing international support will hem him in for the time being while his enforced isolation should prevent China from creating serious long-term challenges.

In the Mao era, questions swirled as to who would succeed the Chairman. Unlike Mao, Xi now faces questions about whether he will be able to maintain his own position. Growing resistance presages a succession crisis around the 20th Party Congress in the fall. Leadership selection had been more stable since Jiang Zemin, telegraphed by the selection of a younger vanguard prior to major changes. But the Party Congress remains a dangerous time. As with the 11th Central Committee in 1977, if Party leaders reach a consensus, changes are possible ( and, June 20, 2008).

Prime Minister Zhou Enlai once asked a visiting American, “Do you think China will ever become an aggressive or expansionist power?” When the American politely replied in the negative, Zhou retorted, “It is possible. But if China were to embark on such a path, you must oppose it. And you must tell those Chinese that Zhou Enlai told you to do so!” (China Daily, September 2, 2011). Like Zhou, Deng represented a cure for Mao’s madness. If that curative power holds to the present day, China may yet see a new leader this year.

Ben Lowsen is a China Strategist for the U.S. Air Force’s Checkmate office and adjunct faculty at National Intelligence University. He previously served as Assistant U.S. Army Attaché in Beijing.

David Knox is a Senior Geopolitical and Military Affairs Specialist for the Department of Defense.

The views expressed here are the authors’ own.


[1] Shi Xunxuan, 四老虎密事:周永康、徐才厚、令計劃、郭伯雄 [Mystery of the Four Tigers: Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou, Ling Jihua, and Guo Boxiong] (Neimu Chubanshe (Mingjing), 2015).

[2] Cheng Li, Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era: Reassessing Collective Leadership, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, October 18, 2016).

[3] “政法(中国共产党领导下国家的专政机关和专政职能)[Politics and Law (CCP-Led National Dictatorship Organs and Dictatorship Functions)],” Baidu Baike,政法/8804825; Yuhua Wang and Carl Minzner, “The Rise of the Chinese Security State,” The China Quarterly, No. 222 (June 2015), 339-359; Guoguang Wu, “Continuous Purges: Xi’s Control of the Public Security Apparatus and the Changing Dynamics of CCP Elite Politics,” China Leadership Monitor, December 1, 2020.

[4] Yang Zhongmei, 中國即將發生政變 [China’s Impending Coup] (Taipei: Shibao Wenhua, 2011), 64

[5] Gao Hua (Stacey Mosher and Guo Jian, trans.), How the Red Sun Rose: The Origin and Development of the Yan’an Rectification Movement, 1930–1945, (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2019), 19-20,

[6] Lowell Dittmer, China’s Continuous Revolution: The Post-Liberation Epoch 1949-1981 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 36-37.

[7] Roderick MaFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006) Kindle Edition, location 6407.

[8] Cheng Li, Chinese Politics, 19.

[9] Ibid., 53.

[10] See “Document 9: A ChinaFile Translation,” ChinaFile. November 8, 2013.