In the 18th century after a passing breeze caused him to lose his place in a book, a Chinese scholar named Xu Jun wrote this short poem: "The clear breeze is illiterate, so why does it insist on rummaging through the pages of a book?" Though this couplet was seemingly harmless, the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty (1645-1911) executed Xu in 1730 for seditious thought. The Qing, invaders from the Manchurian steppe whose dynastic name meant "clear" or "pure," were acutely sensitive to the insinuation that they were illiterate barbarians despite adopting the trappings of Chinese civilization. Countless other poets shared Xu's fate during the dynasty's infamous literary inquisitions. While this paranoia appears excessive, it was a reflection of a very real problem for the Manchus.
The Qing, like all other Chinese central governments, struggled to contain dissent across a continent-sized empire. This proved doubly difficult because a small number of ethnic Manchus ruled over a far larger population of resentful Han Chinese. Han rebellion, which often coalesced around the purported superiority of Han culture, was a constant threat, shaking the foundations of the empire from the mid-19th century. Eventually, Han-led revolution swept away the Qing — and the entire imperial Chinese system — in 1911, leading to the formation of the Republic of China. This, in turn, quickly split along factional lines into warlord cliques. Truly effective central rule did not return until the Communists seized power in 1949.
Paranoia appears to be on the upswing in China once again as President Xi Jinping attempts to force painful structural reforms past resentful provincial and local governments, the bitter medicine for years of distortions imposed by China's wave of economic stimulus. Outwardly, he seems well poised to do this. Observers often call him the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. On the outside, it appears to be true.
Xi is in the midst of an epochal housecleaning with his anti-corruption campaign, which has disrupted countless power networks and, in the process, created numerous enemies.
Since 2012, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party's top anti-graft agency, has investigated and punished hundreds of thousands of officials. The campaign is set to continue, with all arms of the government completed before the 19th Party Congress in 2017. By doing this, Xi has eliminated political rivals, and seemingly, the system of consensus-based politics that had prevailed in China since 1978 — a system intended to be a hold on the emergence of individualistic dictatorship and the policy ills that flowed from it. It is a system now seen by Xi as unsuitable for handling China's entangled economic problems, such as overcapacity in heavy industry and ballooning corporate debt. But China's ruling authorities are behaving as if they are anything but secure — since February, Chinese censors have responded harshly to seemingly innocent slips in the press. Beijing's harsh response suggests that political struggle is more intense in China than it has been in decades.
Reading Between the Lines on China's Paranoia
Ahead of the annual plenary sessions of China's National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC), Xi embarked on a widely publicized tour of China's top three state media outlets. During the tour, the media was encouraged to swear unflinching loyalty to the party — effectively Xi himself, who had recently cast himself as the "core of the Party." The surname of the media, Xi demanded, must be "the Party." Within days, the CCDI launched an anti-corruption investigation targeting both the Central Propaganda Department and the government's top censorship agency. The message was clear — Xi was demanding even more obedience from the already heavily controlled state media.
Nonetheless, there were signs of resistance from within the media. A number of prominent editors resigned in protest. On the sidelines of the NPC and CPPCC, Caixin, a relatively independent financial news outlet, was censored when it published an interview in which a CPPCC delegate called for greater press freedom. Caixin followed with an article noting that its previous article had been censored.
Aside from the rare public shows of disobedience from the press, Beijing appears to be extraordinarily sensitive to many seemingly innocuous mistakes. In March, a paper owned by the Guangdong Communist Party published a front page with two headlines. One, covering Xi's media tour, read "Party and government-sponsored media are propaganda battlefronts and must be surnamed 'Party.'" Directly below it was a photo of the sea burial of a prominent politician with a headline reading "His soul returns to the sea." But, read vertically, the two headlines read "The soul of the media has died because it bears the Party's surname." In another instance, a Xinhua article caused a stir when a typo changed a reference to Xi Jinping being "China's Paramount Leader" (Zuigao Lingdao) to become "China's Last Leader" (Zuihou Lingdao).
The state seems to be guided by the maxim: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. That paranoia, while seemingly over the top to many foreigners, is not unfounded. During thousands of years of authoritarian rule in China, a celebrated tradition of subversion by way of satire, allegory and allusion developed, taking advantage of the Chinese language's many homophones and dialects. They often served as secret messages between the like-minded, whether scholars expressing protest or conspirators for the throne.
As long as this tradition has existed, China's rulers, particularly the ones who felt insecure on their thrones, have attempted to stamp out veiled attacks wherever they thought they saw them. In imperial times, countless writers literally lost their heads for penning poems seen as criticizing the ruling authorities. After the demise of Imperial China, the tradition persisted. In 1965, a writer with Mao's backing published a screed accusing a popular play of being an allegorical attack on the Great Helmsman. This was used as an excuse to remove some of Mao's key enemies and enhance his power, helping kick off the Cultural Revolution. In Taiwan two years later, well-known writer and social critic Bo Yang was locked up for a decade by the Nationalist Party dictatorship because he translated a Popeye comic strip in a way seen as mocking Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek's retreat to Taiwan. Xi's media crackdown is certainly not breaking with the past.
A Rare and Open Dissent
For China's rulers, it is impossible to tell whether any given indiscretion in the media is an innocent mistake, the work of a disgruntled journalist or something more sinister. The rate at which China's censors have punished seemingly innocent mistakes suggests that they are searching for (and expecting to find) something that must be more threatening than a few angry journalists.
While they are undoubtedly turning up some false positives in the search for foes, the slaying of imaginary opponents does not mean that the presence of foes is imaginary. As the NPC opened, an open letter calling for Xi's resignation emerged on an online news site affiliated with Xinjiang's Propaganda Department. It was anonymously signed by "Loyal members of the Communist Party" who blamed Xi's "abandonment of the democratic system of the collective leadership of the Politburo Standing Committee" for a whole host of ills plaguing China, including economic mismanagement and the creation of a hostile environment. The article was quickly pulled from the site, and a dozen people affiliated with the outlet are known to have been arrested in what appears to be an ongoing investigation.
While the authorship of this letter cannot easily be verified, what is known is that someone with access to media resources had it written and posted in the first place. It was not a call for democracy, and the preoccupation with the collective leadership of the Politburo Standing Committee suggests that it comes from groups within the ruling class whose voices are no longer represented in policy, thanks to Xi's destruction of the consensus-based political leadership system that had prevailed since Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978. Taken together, the letter looks like a defiant announcement from some element of the ruling elite that three years of escalating anti-corruption campaigns have failed to uproot them. Until now, there has been a general sense of passive opposition to Xi's policies from entrenched interests, and even a few signs of under-the-table moves to embarrass the Chinese premier. Yet, this is the most brazen attack on Xi so far, directed not only at his policies but the core principle of his leadership. Political resistance is now a tangible force in China.
The creators of the letter remain anonymous for now. But anyone who rises to importance in the Communist Party understands that coalitions must be built, a process that generally attracts attention. This is an especially sensitive time, what with the 19th Party Congress right around the corner. Although Xi's purges explicitly targeted the undesirable political activity of faction formation, driving existing cliques into dormancy, that cannot last forever. Amorphous opposition does not achieve prominence in China, and Beijing is set for a power shift of potentially landmark proportions next year. The 19th Congress is likely to anoint Xi's successor and witness the largest turnover in the Central Committee (which includes the Politburo and Standing Committee) since the 9th Party Congress of 1969, a turnover that will cascade through all levels of the party hierarchy. Factions within the Communist Party will attempt to place as many of their members in the vacancies as possible, almost certainly at the expense of some of Xi's preferred candidates. Those hoping to contend for power must make their moves now and risk becoming known in the process.
Xi and his allies come from the same cultural background as their adversaries. And Xi's associates, having risen to the top of the system by winning their share of power struggles, must be familiar with what is necessary to break into power: It is a matter of attempting to discredit the incumbent power and forming a coalition with enough momentum to seize key leadership positions. It is a tried-and-true method by which Xi's enemy, the now-disgraced Politburo member Bo Xilai, attempted to raise his own profile. Aware of precedent and expecting a showdown, Xi wants to block any potential enemies from using state media to their advantage.
The deepening paranoia of China's leader suggests that real threats to Xi are developing in the sidelines.
Contextualizing the Crackdown
Xi is clearly willing to go to great lengths to secure his control over the media, but his tightening grip on state outlets is only one facet of a much broader crackdown. Xi's ultimate goal is simple — in his own words, he demands "unflinching loyalty" from all parts of the party, state and military. But the many forms of resistance in China — not only from political elites and the press but from protesting workers laid off from China's heavy industries — all mean that Xi is well short of receiving absolute loyalty.
So where does resistance come from in Xi's China? In the case of the party elite, it comes from a dissatisfaction with both the loss of participation in the policy process and easy access to benefits that party membership once brought. With the press, it comes from unhappiness that the small degree of freedom journalists once had is being suppressed. From laid-off workers, it is the perception that the old economy that supported them is no longer functioning. In all cases, it is a perception that a system that once gave benefits (whether material or political) no longer delivers the goods. In short, lots of people feel that things in China just aren't as good as they used to be.
In 1971, Albert O. Hirschman wrote the essay Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, detailing the options that consumers (in the broadest sense) can take when faced with declining quality of services. They can exit — silently refuse to offer their business/participation and find other alternatives. They can resort to voice — whether organizing to collectively voice complaints or taking action to change the situation. Finally, there is loyalty, which Hirschman sees as an intervening variable that affects one's willingness to resort to either exit or voice; it is a third option in and of itself — to redouble one's devotion to the cause and hope things get better. Restricting any one of these options tends to force people to the others. For Xi, the best outcome is creating a system where exit and voice are removed, leaving loyalty as the sole remaining option.
In China today, the options for exiting the system are severely curtailed. Xi's regime has made it a priority to demonstrate that no place is beyond the reach of China's law enforcement and security services. In 2014, Beijing began two campaigns — known as Operation Foxhunt and Operation Skynet — to recover fugitives hiding abroad, as well as their financial assets. Such programs are only likely to intensify as China works to refine its ability to track down escapees and their money.
Once-vibrant communities of the Chinese diaspora across Southeast Asia, which served for centuries as safe havens for dissidents, exiles and fugitives, have been infiltrated by the Chinese secret police, leaving expatriates too scared to talk to one another for fear of informants. Beijing's security services have been increasingly aggressive in expanding the scope of their operations, both functionally and geographically. They have performed at least two renditions from Thailand that we know of. And, if sources are to be believed, they have also attempted the murder of at least one fugitive in the United States. When dissidents abroad are in fact beyond the reach of security services, reports show an increasing willingness to target family members on the mainland for prosecution.
Xi's government is also showing that nonparticipation, a classic form of exit in Eastern Bloc nations during the Cold War, is increasingly impractical as well. When officials fearing the anti-corruption campaign turned to non-action to avoid becoming targets for anti-graft investigators, the government took measures to target passive inaction in addition to active corruption. By all measures, Xi Jinping has been remarkably effective in making exit both costly and uncertain.
There are now few options for escape for anyone dissatisfied with the government.
In the most literal sense of the word, Xi has tightened the government's control not only over state media but the propaganda apparatus that controls it, removing the ability of his opposition to organize and voice their complaints. And beyond that, crackdowns on lawyers and foreign nongovernmental organizations have also limited the ability of grassroots opposition to develop. And of course, the CCDI is unceasing in its efforts to weed out factions at all levels of government.
So, if Xi is trying so hard to crush organized opposition, why does opposition still try to organize? The difficulty, perhaps, lies in the fact that as part of a general initiative to dismantle the collective leadership structure, Xi is trying to suppress voice in all forms rather than permitting its selective exercise. But collective leadership was not simply a mutual decision from the Communist leadership to iron out Mao-era vicissitudes — it was a conscious choice to maximize the power of Deng Xiaoping, China's quintessential reformist leader. Deng recognized that he needed buy-in from leaders across the political spectrum, including from anti-reform conservatives. He placed them in positions where they could have a say on policy and could be called to support him, yet also be safely sidelined when their voices were inconvenient. In short, Deng knew how to co-opt his opponents and create a loyal opposition, but opposition in Xi's China is all disloyal, ipso facto. There are no obvious moves to co-opt any groups or give the opposition a channel to have the ineffectual voice that could forestall active resistance.
This interplays with the sealing of the exits. With fewer options for escape, those cadres who would otherwise have attempted to escape the system must choose to either throw their lot in with the regime or band together for survival. Expecting little mercy from Beijing, it becomes an easy choice.
Xi essentially wants to coerce loyalty out of the Party by eliminating exit and voice. This is difficult, however, because he has been much more successful at sealing exits than he has been at managing expression. This has led to the development of a much more concrete opposition ahead of the 19th Party Congress. While the most visible forms of resistance will be the public disobedience shown by protesting workers and disgruntled publishers and journalists, resistance in its most dangerous form to Xi will emanate from elements within the party: elements who have access to networks and therefore organizational power — and have the potential to co-opt public forms of unrest.
The problem for Xi is that the remedy for China's ailing economy — the attempted imposition of decisive rule by a single individual — is one that produces factions in the first place. And any resultant groups that form could be more dangerous to him than any that existed before his presidency. If Xi fails to control the development of factional rifts in the Communist Party, the prospects for maintaining a coherent central government could be near impossible. And, like China's experience following the Qing, if control were to falter, the restoration of effective central government could take years, if not decades.