China’s reaction to the anonymous letter calling for the president’s resignation has been anything but dismissive.
New Delhi: The ‘open letter’ calling for the resignation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful leader in two decades, did not garner much attention at first. As usual, it is the government crackdown that followed that has made the world take notice of the anonymous missive.
The letter may be one of the bigger pieces in the puzzle of the recent unusual ‘outbursts’ in the Chinese media, which appear to have been triggered by the tightening of control over any dissension against the ‘line’ of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
On March 3, Canyu, a US-based Chinese language website received an anonymous letter, which the chief editor later said seemed to have been written by an “elderly gentleman”.
At the same time, across the ocean, Beijing was gearing up for the opening of the twin sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s parliament, on March 5 – the annual gathering of nearly 3000 delegates to rubber-stamp the policies of the Xi regime.
From Canyu, the letter reached the Chinese mainland, where it was published on Wujie News on March 4. Meaning “no borders”, the news portal was a joint venture between Xinjiang government’s news service, Chinese media group SEEC Media and Alibaba.
The letter was published and immediately retracted, but its ghostly remains are entrenched in cyberspace.
What the letter says
The aftermath of the publication gave it more gravitas; reports say at least four journalists from Wujie are missing. The BBC reported that in total 20 people had been arrested, including columnist Jia Jia, who merely called the media office on seeing the publication.
Although Jia resurfaced on March 25, announcing his release with a social media post, many others remained detained. Wen Yunchao, a Chinese dissident living in the US claimed that his parents and brother were detained, while another Chinese journalist, living in Germany, claimed that his family members were detained after he criticised Jia’s arrest.
The letter, sent by “loyal party members,” called upon “Comrade Xi Jinping” to resign as China was facing “unprecedented problems and crises in all political, economic, ideological and cultural spheres” due to consolidation of “all power into your own hands”.
It also said the centralisation of powers had “weakened the independent power of all state organs, including that of Premier Li Keqiang and others”.
Posting Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission patrols in workplaces had “created a new system of power, leading to a lack of clarity at all levels of government, and confusing the decision-making process”.
The letter also brought up Xi’s recent stress on toeing the party line as he made the rounds of prominent media houses. It also accused Xi of nepotism for appointing his sister-in-law as the director and producer of the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, which has turned the “once popular Gala into your propaganda tool”.
“Your condoning this cult of personality, disallowing “improper discussion” of the central government, and “one-voice Party” method, make those of us who experienced the Cultural Revolution unable to not secretly worry—our Party, country, and people cannot bear another decade of calamity!” the letter went on to say.
Speaking to The Wire, Richard McGregor, author of The Party: Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, said there was no doubt that there was a “severe backlash” against Xi’s “cult of personality”.
Along with tighter restrictions and the centralisation of power, “you have the unprecedented anti-corruption campaign, which is both about corruption, and politics”, said McGregor, who is also visiting fellow at the Sigur Center and George Washington University.
There is a general consensus among China scholars that Xi’s consolidation of power since 2013 has “shaken up a lot of vested interests”.
“No doubt that Xi is trying to control the base. He is trying to bring in several reforms, so there are many unhappy people,” said MV Rappai, honorary fellow at the Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS).
Alka Acharya, a member of the India-China Eminent Persons Group from 2006-2008, does not think the letter should be taken too seriously.
“The first website where it was published is known for gossip. Then, it went to the state-run media, were it was quickly taken down,” said Acharya, who is currently on deputation from Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for East Asian studies to the ICS as its director.
“It is obviously a personal attack. The first paragraph is an out and out threat to Xi,” she said, adding that given the personalised tone of the letter, she would classify the document as a “dissent” against the system.
The letter had demanded Xi’s resignation “also out of consideration for your personal safety and that of your family”. This not-so-subtle insinuation may have led Beijing to crank-up the crackdown, according to some observers.
Well-known China scholar Manorajan Mohanty also felt that there was an inherent “sensationalism” about the letter. “The western media is very much taken by it,” he said.
“There have many such instances in the past (of dissenting letters), especially when Hu Jintao was president,” he said, adding that the release of the letter to coincide with the opening of the NPC was no happenstance.
“It (NPC) may be a rubber stamp, but it is an important process for legitimisation of Xi’s policy,” said Mohanty.
A major item on the NPC’s agenda was the approval for the 13th five-year-plan, which aims to maintain an average growth rate of 6.5-7% till 2020. As the Chinese economy weakens, there has been a shift in priority from export-oriented growth to generation of domestic demand.
Unlike the division of powers in previous regimes, Xi Jinping has sidelined Premier Li Keqiang on economic issues. Xi heads the Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, which is the key economic decision-making body and falls under the CPC’s central committee. Previously, the premier was usually the ‘director’ of the group, which is now part of Xi’s job profile. After becoming president in 2013, Xi created an entirely new committee for reforms, and put himself in-charge.
While the current economic situation may be an easy target, the letter could also be a reflection of the political heat building up in Beijing, with five out of seven politburo standing committee members set to retire next year. Only Xi and Li are set to remain in their seats.
“In the next one year, there will be more things happening. Xi has to bring in a new team, so there will be lot of developments, jostling,” said Rappai.
The mid-way point is also the time when the successor to the Chinese presidency is unveiled. “We are getting into the CCP’s ‘selection season’, with all the cut-throat manoeuvring that entails. In theory, Xi should nominate a successor for 2022 at next year’s congress. The big question is whether he will do that, plus whether he keeps Wang Qishan on,” said McGregor.
Wang is regarded as Xi’s right-hand man and heads the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the party’s top anti-graft body which has been behind the Chinese President’s signature anti-corruption drive. During the recent NPC, Wang tapped Xi on the back to get his attention – apparently an unusual demonstration of their closeness in public.
Wang, a trained historian, has also featured in an intriguing sidelight in the current spate of incidents. On March 1, the CCDI website published an essay titled, “The promises of a thousand people aren’t worth the truth of one adviser”.
The essay, citing examples from Chinese imperial history, argues that a leader can truly become great if he also listens to uncomfortable advice. “Whether a member of the party or not, one should try one’s best to listen to a range of opinions, to understand the genuine situation, and to guarantee correct and scientifically sound policy,” said the essay, according to a translation.
One month on, this article continues to be on the website of the CCDI, to the puzzle of many observers, fuelling speculation that it had the blessings from the top.
Rappai feels that that the essay is perhaps more important than the anonymous letter in the context of Chinese political machinations. “It is significant that it has not been taken down. It could be a precursor to the next series of targeting,” he said.
Since Xi’s ‘inspection tour’ of Xinhua and the People’s Daily on February 19, there have been a series of ‘outbursts’ against the Chinese leader’s insistence on adhering to the party line.
Notably, retired real estate moghul Ren Zhiqiang, a family friend of Wang, asked on Weibo whether the “people’s government” had turned into the “party’s government”. His posts were immediately removed and his Weibo account with 37 million followers was shut down, amidst trenchant criticism from state-run media.
Soon after, a professor at the Chinese central party school, which trains the next generation of party leaders, claimed that the rants in the media against Ren violated CPC’s constitution and damaged internal discussion within the party.
On March 7, another letter went viral, again criticising the attacks against Ren. Written by a Xinhua employee, the letter denounced Beijing’s iron control over free expression and said that people have begun to “worry about another cultural revolution” – echoing the concerns of the previous anonymous missive.
A day later, Caixin, China’s respected business magazine, carried an unusual story, headlined “Story about Adviser’s Free Speech Comments Removed from Caixin Website” with an accompanying illustration of a face with a tape over its mouth.
The provocation, according to Caixin, was an official order to remove an interview of an academic and government adviser, Jiang Hong. The magazine article, denouncing censorship, interviewed Jiang again, who expressed bewilderment as there was nothing objectionable in his earlier words. Within 24 hours, the article was removed from the Caixin website.
In the last week of March, journalist Yu Shaolei resigned publicly on Weibo from Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily. “Unable to bear your surname,” he wrote in the box for reason of resignation. Over a month ago, Xi had exhorted that the Chinese media “must bear the surname ‘Party’”.
But, none of these incidents matched the intensity of the explosive ‘open letter’ calling for the country’s top leader to leave his job.
Criticising Xi’s foreign policy
Another characteristic of the ‘open letter’ was the space given to criticism of Xi’s foreign policies. It berated Xi for abandoning “Comrade Deng Xiaoping’s consistent “hide your strength and bide your time” policy” and therefore, leading China down the path of failure abroad.
The ‘failures’ listed, among others, North Korea’s nuclear test, ganging up in Southeast Asia to “contain China” and allowing the US a “successful return” to Asia. The letter also referenced Hong Kong booksellers being brought to the Chinese mainland, which directly injured the “one country, two systems” policy.
These mentions of foreign policy ‘failures’ raises red flags about the letter’s intended audience.
The reference to neighbours was phrased in such a “way that it will appeal mostly out of China”, said Acharya. “Not that I am saying that its criticism may not be valid,” she added.
Further, Acharya, who is a former member of the National Security Advisory Board, said the assertion in the letter that Xi is the sole architect of the new muscular foreign policy is not correct. “China did not start in this aggressive path with Xi… It began much earlier with 2008 Olympics, which was known as China’s coming out party,” she said.
Mohanty noted that there had been internal criticism within the party over foreign policy, specifically over the “aggressive postures against Japan and Vietnam”. “That’s why, if you notice, there has been a mellowing down of rhetoric on those two fronts,” he said, adding, “These differing views are apparent from the formulations used in the Chinese media when announcing these policies.”
The timing of the release was linked to the opening of the NPC, but also to Xi’s impending foreign trips, felt Rappai. The Chinese president visited Washington last week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit, after a stopover at Czech Republic.
The letter even criticised the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative – Xi’s personal foreign policy project – as having “put a huge amount of foreign exchange reserves into chaotic countries and regions with no returns”.
Ironically, Wujie News, which brought the letter to prominence, was being built up as the “authoritative” mobile-technology based platform for news related to OBOR. In February, Wujie had launched a mobile app in Urdu to target Pakistani users.
McGregor noted that there was “no great dissent” over OBOR, but there was some “brewing” discontent over tactics in the South China Sea. “But, I think the big battleground might end up being over domestic economic policy. If the economy starts to sink, then that will be Xi’s biggest problem,” he said.
Xi remains unchallenged
However, China watchers do not expect the current spate of outbursts and letter writing to derail Xi’s roadmap.
“He is still highly popular due to the anti-corruption drive… The vast majority of the cadre is still with him,” said Mohanty.
“I am sure the message is soon going around that personal attacks will not tolerated… The party is too important to be destroyed,” added Acharya.
McGregor also seemed to indicate that there was no serious threat to Xi. “If you consider that altogether, the alliance forming against Xi is a combination of so-called liberals at one end, and many bitter people whose entire families and their accumulated (and sometimes ill-gotten) wealth has been destroyed by Xi in the anti-corruption campaign. In that respect, there is no united front against Xi.”