Is China’s Xi firmly in control?

Chinese China President Xi Jinping

As China approaches the 2022 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 20th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping has consolidated his hold over the party. However, the challenge of intra-party dissatisfaction and economic disparity within China continues to pose a threat to Xi Jinping's leadership.

Recent low-level protests by demobilised PLA soldiers in Beijing show the degree to which Xi Jinping’s efforts to obtain total loyalty remain under stress. In the present situation, the possibility of such dissatisfaction spreading to serving PLA soldiers cannot be ruled out and therefore, a close watch has to be kept on developments within China. The question uppermost in the minds of China watchers is whether President Xi will be able to weather the coming storm.

The argument that Xi’s leadership is currently under threat stems from his continued use of coercive methods to keep the Party in line. Furthermore, if the economic situation experiences a sudden down slide, then a point may be reached where CPC leaders want Xi Jinping to step down.

Writing in The Singapore Post, Yusara Askari argues that Xi’s ambitions to become more important than the party will lead to his downfall sooner than later. According to Askari, the only way President Xi can hold onto power is by adopting a belligerent approach to external relations by espousing ‘Chinese nationalism’.

This is best exemplified currently in President Xi’s remarks about the peaceful reunification of Taiwan, while continuing to send fighter planes en masse over Taiwan.

The basis of Askari’s assertion is a November 2019 article, which stated that "China under Xi Jinping may embark on the old path of Brezhnev, former General Secretary of the CPSU." After Leonid Brezhnev came to power, the centralised control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was strengthened.

In October 2020, Xi Jinping did a similar thing during the Meeting of the CPC’s Central Committee. Those who dared to criticise Xi Jinping were severely 'dealt with' and threat of anti-corruption investigation prevented them from staging a comeback.

Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive has two purposes. Firstly, it contained bureaucratic corruption. Secondly, and more importantly, it helped to purge his rivals within the CPC. It is not as if there is no dissatisfaction amongst members of the CPC; they are keeping quiet to ensure their survival.

Will this dissatisfaction gather momentum and mass, in a situation where Xi has near total control over all security organs of the state? Some signs are there of tensions within the CPC and of differences between the top Party leadership and leadership at the grassroots level, which has led to frequent action being taken by Xi against his own members.

Such a situation was witnessed last year over the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by some provincial authorities and the changes affected to stem criticism of the Central leadership.

In early 2018, Xi Jinping strengthened his authority over the State Council and weakened the power of Premier Li Keqiang by promulgating the "Deepening Party and State Institutional Reform Program". Subsequently, the CPC Central Committee overhauled the party and state institutions, structuring the organization, functions and responsibilities of the party institutions of the CPC, with a view to enhancing Xi Jinping’s power.

According to media reports some CPC members even challenged Xi Jinping’s designation “as the core" and called for intra-party democracy.

The other part of the anti-corruption drive is its focus on the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). Between 2013 and 2016, Xi Jinping purged a number of senior army Generals. In 2016, he promoted reforms and changed its areas of responsibility and command structure, effectively turning the PLA into his political power base.

The restructuring of the military and reforms implemented by Xi Jinping has also created problems. One part of the reform related to the demobilisation of some 300,000 soldiers, many of whom remain unemployed despite promises of re-employment by the State.

Obviously being aware of complaints about low pensions and inadequate financial support, the CPC leadership has taken a number of steps to address this issue. According to a notification issued by the Central Military Commission (CMC) on 7 July 2021, starting August 2021 eligible military personnel would start receiving parental support benefits of RMB 600 per month.

This is for individuals who have one parent over the age of 60. The other subsidy of RMB 500 per month is to support the spouses of active military personnel.

Despite such steps, Beijing recently witnessed a rare protest by demobilised and veteran soldiers. On 13 September 2021, more than 200 veterans from across China managed to reach Beijing and assembled outside the CMC headquarters and shouted slogans demanding military veteran's rights and complained about inadequate retirement benefits.

Immediate police action led to the arrest of the veterans, who were sent to Beijing's detention center for protestors. In a similar protest by veterans in Zhejiang province in 2019, nine persons were arrested and sentenced to two years of prison for the crime of collecting people together to disrupt social cohesion.

On 15 August 2021, the People's Daily published an article by Liu Guoshun of the Political Work Bureau, National Defence Mobilization Department, CMC.

He points out that since the 18th Party Congress 'a series of laws and policies concerning the status and rights of soldiers have been intensively promulgated, and the supporting facilities have been improved, making soldiers a profession respected by the whole society'. He called for publicising and implementing 'these favorable policies and regulations well' for recruiting high-quality soldiers.

The appearance of such articles suggests a high incidence of instances of indiscipline in PLA units.

The signs of unease and unrest are there all over China. Despite recovering from the pandemic and gradually clawing back on economic growth, political China is under stress. The insecurity of the CPC leadership shows up every once in a while, in the flurry of activity that erupts, aimed at reinforcing loyalty of all and sundry, to President Xi Jinping. The consequences of these actions will be felt in the near and medium term.

While predictions of stability abound Xi’s China is in turmoil. There could be a gradual shift in the power base within the CPC in the next year or so. The world watches with bated breath.

By Stamatis Henderson. 

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor