Something unexpected took place during a recent four-day “southern tour” by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping in Guangdong Province, the province where Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of reform, launched his drive to “reform and open up” (改革开放) in 1978. As Party and government departments in Beijing prepare to celebrate the 40th anniversary of reform and opening up, Xi’s late October trip was widely thought to be an acknowledgement of his debts to Deng’s pro-market policies. Yet some observers were left stunned by Xi’s failure to utter the name “Deng Xiaoping” even once.
Xi noted that “experience has shown that the path of reform and the open door is correct, and that we must unswervingly uphold [the policy] and tirelessly persevere with it.” However, the paramount leader seemed to have drawn a distinction between “reform and the open door policy in the new era” and Deng’s original “reform and open door policy.” For example, Xi used the phrase ziligengsheng (自力更生) or “self-reliance” twice, saying that autarky was “the point of departure of the struggles of the Chinese people.” Ziligengsheng was one of Mao Zedong’s favorite aphorisms, and the antithesis of Deng’s policy of opening China’s door to foreign investment (People’s Daily, October 26; Xinhua, October 25).
While Xi’s status as “core of the party,” the highest commander, and “pathfinder for the people” does not seem to have been seriously challenged by the multi-pronged attacks launched by US President Donald Trump, there is little doubt that his enemies in the party and government have multiplied. So who are Xi’s political foes? Foremost among them are cadres and even ordinary folks who are the beneficiaries of Deng’s visionary policy, represented by Xi’s fellow princelings who are the offspring of party elders closely tied to Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.
Take, for instance, the children of Deng Xiaoping, who have closely guarded their father’s legacy of reform. They fear that Deng’s position at the peak of the CCP pantheon, second only to Mao, could be jeopardized by Xi’s move to dismantle the liberal patriarch’s key policy planks. At a recent meeting of the China’s Disabled Persons’ Federation, Deng’s eldest son Deng Pufang gave strong hints that there were cadres who wanted to go back to the ancient regime. “Only if we insist upon reform and open door can we continue to survive and continue to develop,” he said. “The pace of the progress of history won’t stop.” Deng went on to admonish CCP members to “clench our teeth and never retrogress so that [the reform policy] will not be shaken in a hundred years” (Dwnews.com, October 23; Chinaelections.net, October 11).
Similarly, Hu Deping and Hu Dehua, the two sons of late party general secretary Hu Yaobang—a liberal icon within the Party—seem frustrated by President Xi’s anti-reform proclivities. In the run-up to Xi’s ascent to power in late 2012, Hu Deping briefed Xi on the importance of intra-party reforms and policies that favored the market economy. When ignored Hu’s suggestions, the latter felt duty-bound to defend the interests of private enterprises. A former party secretary of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, Hu warned against the tendency of gongsiheying (公私合营), or “co-management by state-owned enterprises [SOEs] and private firms.” Gongsiheying, which in most cases means SOEs taking over private companies, “has re-appeared under a new format so as to squeeze private enterprises,” he said. “If this were to become a trend, and nobody offers critical views, the end result will be terrible” (Radio Free Asia, September 28; Hong Kong Economic Journal, September 28). Taking the cue from Hu, the nation’s private entrepreneurs have expressed dissatisfaction with more powerful state-owned enterprises, which enjoy Xi’s patronage (Asia Times, October 9).
It is perhaps with the goal of pacifying major party clans who still favor Deng-style reform that Xi convened a grandiose late-November meeting in Beijing to commemorate the 120th birthday of the late state president Liu Shaoqi (RFA, November 26, 2018). While Liu perished in 1968 due to Mao Zedong’s persecution, he and Deng were close comrades-in-arms in pushing forward market-oriented liberalization. In Xi’s eulogy of close to 7,000 characters, the Liu-Deng connection was not mentioned. Nor did Xi highlight Liu’s struggles with Mao regarding whether the CCP should introduce a fully state-dominated economy in the 1950s and early 1960s. Xi instead dwelled mainly on Liu’s moral qualities as a Communist Party member, including his view that all party members should unquestioningly follow instructions from the zhongyang (中央) or top party leadership (Wenweipo.com [Hong Kong], November 24; People’s Daily, November 23). It is instructive to compare Xi’s address with that of ex-president Hu Jintao at the celebration of Liu’s 110th birthday in 2008. In his speech, Hu noted that the “major contradiction” in society is not ideological conflict but “people’s demand for the speedy development of the economy and culture.” Hu cited Liu as urging that the state must “fully make use of the free market and to use the law of prices to regulate production” (People’s Daily, November 12, 2008). It is therefore doubtful whether Xi’s celebration of Liu’s contributions could win him the support of Deng’s followers.
Xi is also facing opposition from regional administrators who fear the trade war’s potential to exacerbate unemployment. Serious employment problems could translate into street protests, which would adversely affect local-level cadres’ chances for promotion. Some analysts believe that Xi’s unpopularity among regional officials could be one reason why he has decided not to convene the Fourth Plenum of the Central Committee this year (Apple Daily, November 5). A November plenum to discuss the Sino-US trade was has been widely anticipated, but a good proportion of the Central Committee’s 204 full members and 176 alternate members are senior cadres from the provinces and cities (Hong Kong Economic Times, October 22; HK01.com, October 16).
And while in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress, Xi devoted his attention to securing slots for his protégés and allies in the more exclusive Politburo and its Standing Committee, the Central Committee still contains a number of members of the Communist Youth League Faction founded by ex-party secretary Hu Jintao (BBC Chinese, October 15, 2017). If a plenum were called, Xi could face questions from Committee members about his ability to fight the new Cold War now brewing between China and the US. It is also significant that several sycophantic regional leaders who owed their promotion to Xi—for example, the party secretaries of Tianjin, Beijing and Shanghai (Li Hongzhong, Cai Qi and Li Qiang, respectively)—have been strangely reticent to heap praise on Xi’s recent handling of domestic and foreign policy. In fact, Li Hongzhong has virtually disappeared from official media since the National People’s Congress last March, while Li Qiang has not appeared in national party media since last July (Xinhua, July 22; Xinhua, March 15).
As a student of Mao, Xi is fully conversant with one of the Great Helmsman’s most cited dictums: “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Xi, who is also Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), has shaken up the PLA’s command-and-control apparatus through a thoroughgoing restructuring from December 2015 to January 2016. The commander-in-chief also took advantage of the shake-up to install his own protégés in key positions at the headquarters level, while masterminding extensive purges amongst the followers of two former CMC vice-chairmen, Generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou (Xilu.com [Beijing], August 15). Since last year, the Xi has also tried to sideline associates of two important Hu Jintao appointees, former Chief of the General Staff General Fang Fenghui and Chief Political Commissar General Zhang Yang (Liberty Times [Taipei], October 16). Given the traditional cliquishness among the PLA, he has managed to offend four camarillas in the military forces. It also doesn’t help that the bulk of the officers who have received quick promotions under Xi used to serve in the former Nanjing Military Region (NMR), which covered Fujian and Zhejiang, where Xi worked from 1985 to 2007. For example, the current Head of the Political Work Department General Miao Hua, Commander of the Land Forces General Han Weiguo, and the commander and commissar of the People’s Armed Police, respectively General Wang Ning and General Zhu Shengling, are all alumni of the former 31st Group Army, which was a NMR unit based in Xiamen, Fujian (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], October 22; Radio French International Chinese Service, October 14, 2017). It is possible that Xi’s ruthless purges of powerful cliques in the military, coupled with the favoritism which he has treated former offices from the NMR, could arouse resentment among PLA officers.
Some the nation’s most prominent intellectuals are also chafing under Xi’s ironclad control over their freedom of expression. In July, several bold scholars, including Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University, veteran international relations expert Zi Zhongyun and financial commentator He Jiangbing put their careers on the line by laying into the current administration’s “comprehensive resuscitation of totalitarian politics” and its tendency to “embrace savagery and forsake civilization” (China Brief, August 1; Theinitium.org, July 24; Chinesepen.org, July 20). Since then, intellectuals’ criticism of Xi seems to have been muted, possibly due to pointed warnings from the Xi administration against offending men of letters. In August, the party’s Organization Department and Propaganda Department took the rare step of issuing a joint notice entitled “Circular on starting a campaign on propagating ‘the spirit of patriotic struggles and seeking accomplishments in the new era’ among the broad masses of intellectuals” (关于在广大知识分子中深入开展“弘扬爱国奋斗精神、建功立业新时代”活动的通知”; Xinhua, August 11), a clear shot across the bow of ill-disposed members of the educated classes.
Xi’s popularity among China’s burgeoning middle class—estimated to be around 400 million people—could also be put at risk by a rising tide of economic warning signs, including declining government investment, feeble consumer spending, and mounting debt among local governments (Cn.reuters.com, October 19; Marketwatch.com, October 18). While the Xi administration is eager to promote consumption as a new pillar of growth, the middle class’s spending power has been curtailed by high mortgage payments, with ordinary people’s ability to consume financed increasingly by debt. As a result, China’s ratio of household debt to GDP hit an all-time high of 49.1 per cent in 2017, marking an increase of close to 20 per percentage points over the past five years (Financial Review, October 19; South China Morning Post, October 15; Financial Times, September 27). If Beijing fails to buy time to put its economic house in order by negotiating a relatively favorable deal with the US, Xi may very see his support erode among this, perhaps the most powerful sector of the populace. And despite his desire to serve more than the usual ten years for a CCP Party Secretary, his detractors and enemies could coalesce and deny him his much-desired “long reign and perennial stability.”
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping” (Routledge 2015).