Signs of resistance among China's power elite to Xi's power-grab

When Xi Jinping changed the rules of China's Communist Party to allow him to serve as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party for life, instead of being limited to two five-year terms, it was easy to conclude that he had all the power and that he could operate unopposed, with no need to bother with the opinions of others.  Dictators often appear to be able to operate with no constraints on their exercise of power.  

But power in China derives from control of the Chinese Communist Party.  And the CCP is a complex organization.  Its mission requires it to be complex because it controls nearly all significant elements of China's society, a nation of 1.4 billion people spread out over a large territory.  There are varying interests and attitudes among the people who occupy the power structure of the CCP, inevitably.

Factionalism is a permanent feature of large organizations in China, with often semi-covert alliances plotting to enhance their group's power or to influence decisions in their favor — even (or especially) when calls for unity make them publicly appear to agree with and support whoever is in charge of the party.

That's why anomalies about the recent plenary session of the Communist Party — an annual affair in which the leadership gets together to discuss policy — may be signs of trouble ahead for Xi's ability to hold onto power.  An article in The Epoch Times discusses the plenary session at length.  What follows is largely based on that account.

The first anomaly is that it took five days after the end of the session on November 16 before a summary was released, indicating that there was some controversy over what should be released to the public.  Clues of controversy and even conflict can be found beneath the superficial unity of the summary.

 One scholar of the CCP had this to offer:

"From the content summary confirming CCP former leader Deng Xiaoping's achievements, I feel Xi made compromises with his political opponents in which he agreed to change the current CCP's power structure," Tang said. "He agreed to give some powers to the opponents."

Deng was Mao's successor. He limited the Chinese leader's term of office from lifetime to two terms, which totals 10 years.

Xi's power-grab has alienated some members of the party elite.

Xi has no shortage of enemies. "The officials, who are loyal to [former CCP leaders] Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, are in strong opposition and are trying their bests (sic) to prevent Xi's next possible term."

Even the Chinese media, usually anxious to curry favor, are letting the Chinese public know there is conflict among the rulers:

Chinese state-run media described this year's plenary as a "hot debate." Feng said that "'Debate' is the tricky word that Chinese state-run media use to report the officials are having bad arguments." He said it means the factions could not come to an agreement on issues facing the CCP.

In the plenary's summary, the CCP announced that it is facing "a more and more complicated and difficult environment out of China, and extremely heavy and hard tasks to control the COVID-19 pandemic and develop the economy and society inside China."

On Nov. 8, the first day of the plenary, the CCP's mouthpiece People's Daily published a front page editorial, citing corrupt officials as one of the CCP's challenges. The article quoted Xi as saying, "There's no 'iron-cap prince' when it comes to anti-corruption."

Iron-cap prince is a Chinese term to describe officials who have so much power that they are never held accountable for their actions.

This is a threat by Xi to use charges of corruption against his political enemies, potentially jailing or even executing them.  Everyone in any position of power in China is subject to charges of corruption because corruption is built into the system.  A lot of people have gotten very wealthy in China, including most members of the party elite.  Xi has been indicating that he wants to "adjust excessive incomes" of the super-rich, probably in response to chronic unrest among the less prosperous members of Chinese society, and also probably because he seems to remain at heart a communist.  The three-month disappearance of Jack Ma, the entrepreneur of the Alibaba Group and China's highest-profile mega-billionaire, stands as a warning to others in the wealthy elite that state power trumps their economic power.

At least for now.

We mustn't forget that party officials have also become wealthy, and many if not most send their children overseas for education and in hopes of obtaining a residence permit in a desirable country like Canada, the U.S., or Australia.  China's dreadfully polluted and crowded cities are not a place one would want to live if there were options elsewhere.  How many such officials are enthusiastic about Xi's crackdown on wealth?  Or on his escalation of tensions with the very countries to which they have sent or would like to send their children for a better life?

The Epoch Times summarizes some of the troubles China is facing as a result of Xi's actions:

The Chinese regime is facing a wide range of difficulties. It has several interests such as: the U.S.–China trade dispute; the South China Sea's sovereignty disputes with over a dozen countries; unifying the de facto independent country Taiwan; changing the free Hong Kong to a communist city; suppressing Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongols, and Chinese dissidents; controlling Chinese people's beliefs; maintaining its power in China's turbulent society; surviving from the recession economy; and clamping down on Chinese people's freedom.

"The Chinese regime is more and more isolated in the international community," Yen Chien-Fa, deputy executive officer of Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, told the Chinese Epoch Times on Nov. 11. "Not only the United States, the whole world is against it."

There is no way for an outsider to know whether Xi will be able to hold onto power, or whether opponents are gathering force and waiting to oust him once they have secured a coalition sufficient to do so.  It's happened before in China.  Following the death of Chairman Mao, Hua Guofeng assumed unprecedented leadership of three offices simultaneously — party chairman, premier, and head of the Central Military Commission — as he purged (and imprisoned) the Gang of Four, extreme leftists that had gained influence over Mao in his last years.  But Hua was eased out of power by Deng Xiaoping, who went on to liberalize China and set the foundations for its rise to industrial and commercial prominence, creating vast wealth.  Deng, in turn, lost much of his power following the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Xi has it within his power to create more crises for China.  In fact, he is already doing so.  But it is far from clear how that will work out for him.

Photo credit: Officia do Palácio do Planalto, Brazil, CC BY 2.0 license.

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