China Power | Politics | East Asia

Behind Xi Jinping’s Steely Façade, a Leadership Crisis Is Smoldering in China

Recent party purges suggest ebbing confidence in the all-powerful chairman.

By Sarah Cook for
Behind Xi Jinping’s Steely Façade, a Leadership Crisis Is Smoldering in China
Credit: Flickr/ thierry ehrmann

Even after years of intensifying authoritarian rule under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Xi Jinping, the 18-year prison term handed down in late September to real estate mogul and social media commentator Ren Zhiqiang — a de facto life sentence for the 69-year-old man — came as a shock to many inside and outside China.

Although Ren’s penalty was unusually harsh for a party insider with no political power or ambitions of his own, it fit a recent pattern in which the regime has lashed out with greater intensity against Xi’s perceived enemies within the ruling elite. The punitive actions and targets — particularly those in the party’s propaganda, education, and security systems — indicate that the party chief’s grip on power may not be as firm as it appears.

Purging a Vocal Internal Critic

Ren Zhiqiang, an influential tycoon and veteran CCP member, is hardly a typical dissident. He first gained international attention in February 2016, when he criticized a now infamous speech by Xi Jinping on tightening party control over the media. Within days, the tech company Sina — at the direction of the Cyber Administration of China — shuttered Ren’s Weibo microblogging account, wiping out in an instant his ability to speak to 37 million followers. Since then Ren has largely kept a low profile, only periodically speaking out about Xi’s leadership. But his comments often echo critiques believed to be bubbling beneath the surface among many party cadres and officials. 

In an essay published online in March 2020, Ren criticized a Xi speech from the previous month that CCP members were instructed to study. The essay referred back to the 2016 speech and pointed out that the party’s restrictions on expression, including the silencing of whistleblowers, had exacerbated the coronavirus crisis. But what likely sealed his fate was an irreverent reference to Xi as an emperor with no clothes and a “clown.” Within days, Ren disappeared into detention and was placed under investigation. On July 23, authorities stripped him of his party membership and seized his assets for “serious violations of discipline and law.” And on September 22, a Beijing court announced that Ren had been sentenced to 18 years in prison and fined 4.2 million yuan ($620,000). Compared with prosecutions of rights activists that often feature years of pretrial detention, Ren’s investigation, judgment, and punishment were surprisingly swift.

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A Rising Tide of Criticism and Reprisals

The regime is clearly aware that Ren is not alone in his doubts about Xi’s leadership, and it has sought to punish any other insiders who dare to speak out. Cai Xia, an expatriate former law professor from the Central Party School, which trains up-and-coming cadres, gave a talk in May that was recorded and leaked online the following month. In the recording, she sharply criticizes Xi, calling the party a “political zombie” under his leadership, arguing that the 2018 constitutional amendments that removed presidential term limits violated internal party rules, and urging the members of the Politburo Standing Committee to pass a resolution and “change the person in power.” On August 17, the Central Party School announced that her comments had “serious political problems,” and that she was being expelled from the party, with her retirement benefits canceled. The notice also cited two other offenses: an article in which she criticized the imposition of a National Security Law on Hong Kong and her signature on a petition urging political reform and freedom of speech in honor of the late whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang. Had she still been in China, Cai’s punishment would likely have been much worse.

The party also appears to be facing internal challenges to its authority at the grassroots level, prompting repressive action against its own members. In early September, the Associated Press reported that 23 people had been detained in Inner Mongolia in relation to widespread protests that erupted in August over efforts to replace Mongolian-language textbooks with Chinese versions. Among those targeted were several CCP members, including teachers, who were suspended without pay or turned over for investigation because they refused to carry out the new policy.

Scholars Speak Out

Prominent academics from top universities are among those speaking out, and in some cases facing punishment. Law professor Xu Zhangrun, whose eloquent essays criticizing Xi’s leadership have gone viral online, was detained for six days in July. His employer, the prestigious Tsinghua University, fired him upon his release.

In September, a letter written by another well-known intellectual — Leng Jiefu, a retired dean of the Politics Department at Renmin University — began circulating widely online. Leng explained in a media interview that he had actually written the letter, addressed to Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang, in April and was uncertain why it only emerged now. The letter echoes many of the same points raised by the other prominent critics, voicing concerns about China’s mounting internal crises and international isolation, and recommending several steps to help extract the country from its predicament, including calls for Xi Jinping to retire honorably from all his positions in the party, state, and military and for China to adopt a federal model of government that grants greater autonomy to regions like Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. While observers have expressed concern over Leng’s safety now that his letter has been publicized, he told Radio Free Asia last month that he is just a public intellectual doing his duty and reiterated his belief that “it would be great if the ‘federal system’ and democracy were implemented in China.”

Preemptive Controls

In addition to individual punishments, the party leadership has initiated several actions meant to shore up loyalty to the CCP, but especially to Xi personally, and to preempt future outbursts of criticism. On the day that Cai Xia’s expulsion was announced, managers at the Central Party School reportedly convened a meeting of 60 department heads and senior officials, urging them to meticulously ensure that current, former, and retired staff remain loyal to the party, while increasing scrutiny of foreign travel to curb future defections.

In August, central leaders close to Xi announced an almost unprecedented “rectification” campaign aimed at the political-legal apparatus — covering judges, prosecutors, police, prisons, and other parts of the criminal justice system. The campaign will begin in full next year and run through 2022, but several “pilot programs” have already begun in select locales. As Chinese political expert Ling Li notes, the entire endeavor is highly unusual, even in the context of the rough-and-tumble reality of CCP politics.

In a more mysterious case, China-born Australian citizen Cheng Lei, an anchor for the state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN), was abruptly detained in mid-August in Beijing. The charges against her and the impetus for her detention remain unclear, but CGTN has apparently scrubbed all mention of her from the station’s site and past posts to social media.

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A Crisis of Faith

Despite the bold and impressive image that Xi Jinping and the party-state’s media apparatus seek to display at home and abroad, these developments point to a deeply insecure regime that perceives a threat even from its own members. Harsh punishments for people like Ren are intended not only to silence the individual, but also to send a signal that other party members should keep criticism of Xi to themselves. The cases against people like Cheng Lei similarly serve as a warning to the foot soldiers of the party’s apparatus for media control and repression that the system can be turned on them too.

It is not entirely uncommon for waves of internal criticism or factional fighting to peek through the cracks of the CCP’s opaque armor, but the thoughtful nature of the recent critiques and the profile of those voicing them should give pause to anyone inside or outside China who is attempting to assess the country’s direction. The fact that professors from top academic institutions — including the party’s own national training center — are calling Xi’s leadership a failure, urging his removal from power, and explicitly envisioning a transition to a more democratic and federally structured political system is simply incredible. It indicates that Xi is facing a serious crisis of faith within the party, even if no one has the power to act on it at present. It also underscores the reality that Xi and his enforcers do not speak for all Chinese. There are many, many people who would like to see China change course.

Amid a global pandemic, political leaders and governments around the world — democratic and authoritarian alike — are facing unprecedented challenges to their authority even as they seek to expand it. Xi’s bluster notwithstanding, it would appear that China is no exception.

Sarah Cook is a Senior Research Analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House and director of the China Media Bulletin.