eports emerging from China suggest a fierce power struggle is being waged at the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Trouble is brewing as the wily President Xi Jinping plays his cards to get a controversial and unprecedented third term as General Secretary of the CCP in 2022. But, attempts are believed to be afoot to challenge his leadership. There cannot be any official version of the ongoing tussle in the top echelons of the CCP. But, there are tell-tale signs and developments that call for connecting the dots to get a clear picture of what is happening inside. Analysts and China-watchers across the world point to the fact that Xi has not stepped out of the country for the past one year and nine months and will skip even the Rome G-20 summit. Biden sought an in-person bilateral summit with Xi, but the latter has agreed to just an online meeting. This has triggered speculation about his paranoia that his absence from the domestic scene may give handle to his detractors to mobilise opposition to him and even stage a coup. His last overseas trip was to Myanmar January 17-18, 2020, just days before his regime broke the news of a COVID outbreak and lockdown of Hubei province.
In fact, resentment against Xi is rising for his actions to get entrenched in power for life and purge and silence top leaders, academics and entrepreneurs who have openly questioned his policies and resolve to keep in virtual suspended animation the practice of nominating or grooming his successor. Already, he has thwarted the ambition of many top party leaders to step into his shoes as per the rule being followed since Deng Xiaoping allowing a President a maximum of two terms. Xi has piloted the structural change that he can remain at the top position for life.
Xi, regarded as the most powerful President China has had since Mao Zedong, got the National People’s Congress, the country’s parliament, in March 2018 to vote to remove the two-term limit for the post of President. The move meant that Xi could remain in power for life, instead of retiring after his second term ending in 2022.
Reports indicate Xi’s rivals, including Premier Li Keqiang and influential Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang, could take the lead in opposing Xi’s policies and force him to retire next year. Since becoming chairman of the CCP, Xi has effected changes in the Politburo Standing Committee consisting of the senior-most Communist Party leaders and reduced its strength from nine to seven people. He made sure majority of these members are his camp followers. Li and Wang Yang are held to be the only opposition to Xi. Sensing there would be opposition to his plan to capture power perpetually, he began a crackdown since 2017 when seven high-ranking officials of the Communist Party were arrested for allegedly plotting to “usurp the party’s leadership and seize state power.”
The power struggle within the CCP began after Xi made it clear that he was not going to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, and prepare to step down as head of the CCP, the military and as President at the Party Congress – held every five years – in late 2022. With the hazy picture at the moment, it can be surmised that the further he delays the process of finding a successor, the greater is the risk of him eliminating all dissent and continue staying in power or the power struggle breaking out in the open. This would be neither good for China nor the world at large since an unstable China that is fast shaping into the world’s number one economic power, would affect world economy and geopolitics.
Undoubtedly, Xi has made enemies at home with the ruthless persecution through his anti-corruption campaign, attack on legal and media reformers and his disdain for economic liberals. What has angered his critics most is overturning the power sharing arrangement evolved over four decades that ensured peaceful transfer of power at the end of maximum two Presidential terms. That he has manipulated the constitutional change to give himself life-long tenure as President becomes clear from the complaint made by a former professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, Cai Xia, who revealed last May that Xi had forced everyone at the meeting of the Central Committee to swallow the revision. Cai’s speech on this issue was widely circulated. It is Cai who has coined the term “exquisite totalitarianism” to characterise Xi’s style of functioning. She was stripped of her powers immediately thereafter and had to flee China. Now she lives in exile overseas.
The latest instance of Xi’s intolerance of criticism of his rule is the 18-year prison term served on 69-year-old real estate mogul and social media commentator Ren Zhiqiang. The harshness of the punishment has sent shockwaves both inside and outside China. Ren Zhiqiang is an influential tycoon and veteran CCP member. He first spoke against Xi in 2016 for tightening party control over the media. Within days his microblogging account was blocked. After the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, he criticised the media curb which in his opinion exacerbated the crisis. In July, he was stripped of his CCP membership and his assets were seized.
All these point to the fact that all’s not well in Xi’s China. He may have a smooth sailing for a third term in office next year. But, a bitter internal strife in CCP seems to be on the cards.