From the 1980s to 2017, at least every five years, China’s National Party Congress would be a moment of intriguing flux in the usually staid public politics of the Chinese Communist party. Rising stars are promoted, the old retired and, every other Congress, a new Secretary General would be appointed. Beforehand, a flurry of papers and opinion editorials would be published as various factions jostled for influence.
This year’s Congress wasn’t meant to be exciting. Having abolished term limits, this is the moment when Xi Jinping is meant to be affirmed in his third term. There are few viable successors on the horizon.
Nevertheless, an opening salvo in the pre-Congress war of words has been fired: last month, a 60-page Chinese essay entitled ‘An Objective Evaluation of Xi Jinping’ was published on overseas Chinese forums. It lambasted the President’s track record on everything from the Belt and Road Initiative to the Covid response, scathingly tearing apart his character and his agenda. Some speculate that this anonymous essay has come from within the Chinese Communist party itself. With months to go until Xi cements his third term, is an anti-Xi faction now mobilising?
It’s easy to see why the author hid behind a pen name (‘China and Its Ark’). Others who’ve criticised Xi’s China in such forceful terms (such as former Tsinghua professor Xu Zhangrun and real-estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang) have variously found themselves unemployed, exiled or imprisoned. Ark pulls no punches. Under this telling, Xi is arrogant but insecure, dogmatic yet unintellectual. He’s unable to think on the spot (Ark points to an instance when, questioned about how to deal with Trump, Xi shuffles through his cue cards and says ‘Let me see if my notes cover this topic’). Citing Max Weber’s concept of the charismatic individual, Ark writes ‘This is the wide chasm that Xi Jinping has no way of crossing… Xi Jinping has never understood that leadership requires a kind of spiritual depth.’
It’s this toxic mix of mediocrity, insecurity and arrogance that informs Xi’s policies at home and abroad, Ark argues. It motivates Xi to grab ever more power. It’s why his aides tried to establish a cult of personality (but ultimately failed because of the blandness of the personality — which is why Xi now keeps a low profile). It’s also why, abroad, Xi has turned to wolf warriorism: ‘The greater the threat he feels, the sharper the spearhead China points to the outside’. Yet Ark points out that this has, instead of cowing the West, antagonised it instead. In particular, as in the bullying of Australia, Xi ‘underestimated the pride of democracies’.
Where would such an article have come from? Obviously, Xi has no lack of critics, and many of them Chinese. But unlike most overseas critics, Ark seems to support the CCP and China’s political system. For one, Ark doesn’t criticise Xi for what westerners and activists believe are his worst transgressions, such as the persecution of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. On this, Ark writes only: ‘[Xi] has changed the previous policy of conciliation, ordering ethnic minority schools to teach in Mandarin, suppressing cultural signifiers in various aspects. These policies are particularly targeted at politically sensitive regions like Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.’ Not only does internment not get a mention, one could also question whether the CCP’s policies in these areas were ever conciliatory.
Ark is also unafraid to praise former Communist leaders (‘Mao Zedong was an outstanding theorist and also possessed powerful crowd appeal’) and claims to speak for party insiders, as well as revealing Xi’s true intentions (‘He believes that all reform can be reversed, and free thought can be smothered, for example Iran and Cambodia are successful case studies’). The essay even purports to reveal the dynamic between Xi and his aides: ‘He often takes the credit from his subordinates, and habitually blames [his] mistakes on others.’
We can only speculate on the essay’s provenance. These may well be the conjectures of an outsider. Certainly there are obvious errors that party members (particularly of older generations) would not make — for example Ark mistakenly writes that Mao Zedong chaired the Cultural Revolution Group, a committee which rivalled the Politburo Standing Committee for a time, when it was in fact chaired by Chen Boda.
But the length of the essay (40,000 characters) and its general quality of analysis has prompted excited gossip that it has come from within the CCP itself. Could Ark be a disgruntled staffer? Or a surviving ally of Xi’s many political victims? It wouldn’t be the only recent sign of dissidence within Party ranks — in December, the People’s Daily ran an article which praised reform and opening as the ‘great awakening’ of the Party — Deng was given full credit while Xi wasn’t mentioned at all.
Ark could well be a disciple of Deng’s — they criticise Xi’s ‘common prosperity’ agenda as ‘going against the laws of economics’. Xi is trying to create ‘a postmodern planned economy… In reality, his economic planning has been kidnapped by his political goals’. Deng is long dead, but could Ark be working for the Shanghai Clique, that powerful faction of the CCP headed up by former President Jiang Zemin? It’s thought that Xi has effectively ended factional rivalry during his decade in power, not least through his comprehensive anti-corruption campaign. But could some vestiges of the Shanghai Clique still exist, grooming younger protégés?
They may also be a voice of the disgruntled Chinese mega-rich — Jiang’s China was a more comfortable place for politicians to amass enormous wealth. Ark writes that Xi’s economic crackdowns have terrified party officials, who ‘hope that they can move their assets before the country is bankrupt’ — one wonders if they’re speaking from experience.
There are certainly parts of ‘An Objective Evaluation’ where the evaluation doesn’t seem objective. If Xi is really so weak, then how has he managed to keep the CCP in hock for the last decade? Perhaps a personal vendetta has coloured what claims to be impartiality.
Needless to say, ‘An Objective Evaluation’ is censored within China, but one wonders if it isn’t making the rounds secretly amongst Communist cadres. Could everyone be wrong to expect an easy continuation of Xi Jinping’s rule this autumn? ‘No matter how fiercely whitewashed politics is, the party will relentlessly breed opposition’, Ark writes in the concluding thoughts. Are these the ramblings of a charlatan, or the vanguard of an anti-Xi resistance? Only the coming months will tell.
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