The unprecedented public threats to Chinese president Xi Jinping, recently circulated in an open letter on the Internet, demonstrate that internal opposition to the present direction of the Chinese leader’s reforms is still very stubborn and may be hard to eradicate before the party congress gets underway next year.
The unsigned letter titled “Loyal Party Members Urge Xi Jinping to Resign in Open Letter” faults the president for all his policies, from the economy to international affairs, without giving a real or detailed analysis of the situation. But it states that Xi’s failures are common knowledge. The letter doesn’t mention the ongoing anti-corruption campaign which receives praise from common people, but is loathed by some senior officials.
The message starts ominously, very much in Mafia style, using direct intimidation. It demands Xi’s resignation “out of consideration for your personal safety and that of your family”— i.e. saying, either you resign or we are going to kill you and your family. The public threat of violence against a top Chinese leader from within the party is unprecedented. Neither Mao Zedong nor Deng Xiaoping nor Jiang Zemin nor Hu Jintao ever received such public death threats from those identifying themselves as party members.
The letter in question bears no signatures but carries the anonymous label “loyal party members.” It is not clear how many people are backing the letter in a party that is being at least partially purged by Xi’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign. As the letter was publicly distributed, it means that the group is weak, can’t muster enough clout within the party, and hopes to stir up trouble outside the party and abroad.
Call for democracy?
The letter is also weak in “political logic.” If the drafters of the message were really loyal party members, they would know that they have to submit themselves to party leadership, and thus would not protest party decisions —much less try to intimidate their leader. If they do not support party decisions, or want the right to do so, they are on a de facto basis calling for some form of democracy. But in a democracy, while differences of opinion are admissible and welcome, personal threats are strictly forbidden and can be prosecuted.
The fact that the letter appears at the end of the annual plenary session of the National People’s Congress (the Chinese parliament) may be an attempt to indicate that it has support from some delegates. The ultimate goal seems to sow confusion and maybe trigger a wider political crackdown that would result in more opposition from the party rank and file, who could eventually unite and revolt against Xi.
One possible end is to stop or thwart the ongoing reform of the People’s Liberation Army or PLA, China’s armed forces, which would concentrate power in Xi’s hands. They may also be aiming to forestall the reform of state-owned enterprises or SOEs, which if successful, would take control and money out of the hands of privileged officials who control these entities.
It’s the economy stupid …
The major problem through which the letter evidently tries to fan emotions is the Chinese economy — which is not performing as brilliantly as in past years. The economy in fact can only be restarted by reintroducing corrupt practices repressed by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign or by radically reforming the SOEs.
Both choices have consequences. The return of corrupt business practices would maintain the conservative party consensus. But in the long term, this would cause China to go bust, as happened with the USSR. A major reform of the SOEs would dramatically transform the fabric of the Chinese economy and society but could also propel China into a new phase of development.
With the letter’s appearance, Xi apparently has three choices and variations of those three before him: 1. Crackdown on the authors and their supporters, quietly and discreetly, and speed up his reforms, 2. Buckle under the threat and by doing so create a period allowing for the restoration of past practices. 3. Drag things out and bide his time for a possible collapse of the state or a miracle.
It is not clear which option Xi will choose.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Research Associate of China Renmin University. The author of Asia Times’ Sinograph column, he was also Asia Editor for the Italian daily La Stampa and Beijing correspondent for Il Sole di 24 Ore, and has written for numerous Italian and international publications. He was the first foreigner admitted to the graduate program of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, he is the author of eight books on China and a frequent commentator on CCTV.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.