The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Xi Jinping sees some pushback against his iron-fisted rule

Chinese President Xi Jinping on July 24 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

Jerome A. Cohen is faculty director of New York University law school’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

With a big boost from the policies of President Trump, China is more powerful than ever — economically, diplomatically and militarily. Its bold, ruthless leader, Xi Jinping, wields greater domestic power than any Chinese leader since the heyday of Mao Zedong in the 1950s and has become extremely influential on the world stage. Yet there are increasing signs that Xi’s apparently untrammeled power is confronting quiet but growing resistance at home.

This is not a new problem. Almost three years ago in an op-ed in The Post, I outlined a host of factors indicating that Xi is a more insecure leader than generally realized. Despite China’s nontransparent and subtle elite politics, evidence is now gradually reemerging of growing dissatisfaction with his iron-fisted rule. That most astute of journalistic China-watchers, Richard McGregor, having just returned from many interviews in Beijing, has noted a developing pushback against Xi’s unrestrained exercise of power. Long-term analyst Willy Lam subsequently voiced similar conclusions. Some well-connected foreign participant-observers, although not prepared to publish their views, have also returned with even stronger impressions. Once again, all is not well in the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, even though the struggle continues behind closed doors and does not seriously threaten either Xi’s control of the party or the party’s control of the country.

Some recent well-informed Chinese visitors to the United States, reluctant to discuss sensitive matters on their home turf, have been astonishingly frank in revealing Beijing’s internal tensions and conflicts, as well as the widespread fear engendered by Xi’s efforts to impose adherence, or at least silence, through coercion and repression. At home, apart from the occasional human rights advocate or lawyer ready to endure imprisonment and torture, most of Xi’s many critics hold their tongues in public.

But not Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun, director of the law school’s Center for the Rule of Law and Human Rights, who, for more than 15 years, has been increasingly outspoken in books, articles and speeches concerning Communist Party domination of the legal system. On July 24, Xu, provoked by the ever greater repression of the past two years, launched a public bombshell against Xi and his administration in an extraordinarily long, fearless and mocking essay online that went beyond his previous publications. It spread like wildfire across the media, both in China and abroad, despite immediate efforts by the government to erase it.

In a convoluted, traditional Chinese writing style that Donald Clarke of George Washington University characterized as “more Henry James than Hemingway,” Professor Xu implicitly but clearly condemned Xi for forcing the nation back on the path toward Maoist totalitarianism and reviving the cult of personality that had culminated in the long-discredited Cultural Revolution.

Xu called for reversing this year’s sudden constitutional amendment that ended term limits for China’s president and vice president and that had stunned even the party elite, crystallizing much of the rising unease about Xi’s intentions and policies. Xu also emphasized the vast expansion of party control over all important officials — not only party members — authorized by another recent constitutional amendment establishing a national system of “supervisory commissions” that resemble the Spanish Inquisition in their operation. In addition, as the 30th anniversary of the tragic military slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square approaches, Xu even more daringly demanded a public reevaluation of the usually unmentioned events of June 4, 1989.

Xu, once selected in a more liberal era as one of the most outstanding young Chinese legal scholars, issued his blast not from China but reportedly from Tokyo, where he is rumored to be suffering from cancer. Whether he will risk returning to Beijing, whether the party will permit him to return and, if so, whether he will then be removed from his academic post and subjected to one or more of the measures the regime has developed for detaining and silencing its critics remain to be seen.

What underlies these signs of dissatisfaction with China’s leader and the few close associates through whom Xi has aggregated almost absolute power? There are many possible explanations, and they are not mutually exclusive. Certainly there are disagreements between Xi and Premier Li Keqiang over economic policies and other issues. Some observers believe that much of the pushback is sponsored by the still-influential former leaders Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin and their colleagues, many of whom resent Xi’s departures from the more cautious policies and modest conduct of Deng Xiaoping. There are also the continuing and inevitable clashes between the diverging interests of China’s far-flung regions and localities and the central authorities.

China’s festering domestic problems offer many opportunities for serious dissension, whether one focuses on the struggle between unprofitable state enterprises and profitable private ones in a slowing economy, persistent environmental pollution, the politics of the continuing campaign against massive corruption, the frequent failures to protect public health, a restive labor movement seeking the rights to organize and strike, the aging society and need to stimulate more births, a legal system that punishes free expression and is widely mistrusted, or the frustrations of disappointed petitioners seeking outlets for the multiple grievances of daily life.

China’s foreign policy is also very controversial. Many Chinese critics, for example, believe that Xi has moved too unwisely in rapidly unfolding the enormously expensive Belt and Road Initiative, in militarizing the South China Sea and ostentatiously spurning the Philippine arbitration against China in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and in uncertainly responding to Trump’s bewildering trade-war challenge.

Perhaps the most serious challenge confronting not only the currently dominant Xi Jinping group but also the Communist Party itself is the felt need for a satisfying ideology that can anchor China’s actions both at home and abroad. There is an absence of agreed ideals, goals and principles to guide the formulation and implementation of official policies. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is greater conflict and confusion than ever over these basic matters, as demonstrated by recent developments in the legal system.

Before the ascent of Xi in 2012, despite the theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism, for more than 30 years Chinese judges, prosecutors, lawyers, legislators, bureaucrats, law professors and even the police were, by and large, educated to respect Western legal values that many Asian nations have come to share. More recently, while purporting to endorse “the rule of law,” Xi and the party have openly denounced these universal values, including constitutionalism, the separation of  powers, judicial independence and the crucial role of human rights lawyers. Instead, they have preached and enforced the absolute domination of the party.

Yet party domination has thus far proved to be an inadequate replacement for these international values. The old Soviet justifications of party rule have lost their persuasive force in China, as elsewhere. Moreover, intermittent attempts by Xi to invoke China’s traditions to fill the void with nationalist pride have won little acceptance. The hoary maxims of Confucianist humanism, long denounced by the party as pernicious feudalism but now revived by Beijing, do little to meet contemporary demands. And Xi’s occasional invocation of Confucianism’s foremost opponent — the notorious legalist philosophy of government that featured dictatorial rule over China’s first imperial dynasty more than 2,000 years ago — is too close to today’s reality to do more than enhance the fear that already exists among the increasingly sophisticated Chinese people and even many party members.

China’s continuing struggle to restrain arbitrary power is far from over.