The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Xi must be dismayed: Chinese leader fighting fires on all fronts

Chinese leader Xi Jinping greets reporters before a summit of developing-nation leaders in Brasilia on Nov. 14. (Reuters)

BEIJING — If Chinese leader Xi Jinping receives a morning briefing, Monday’s must have been a doozy. Nothing but bad news.

There was a bombshell from Australia: the defection of a man purporting to be a Chinese spy who had been trying to influence elections in Taiwan and Hong Kong and kidnap dissidents.

Then there was a new trove of documents belying the Chinese Communist Party’s claim that mass internment camps in Xinjiang were not reeducation facilities for Muslims but merely vocational training centers designed to help them.

And the most domestically seismic news of all: poll results showing that pro-democracy candidates had won a stunning victory in Hong Kong, swamping Beijing’s representatives in district council elections.

The party is so opaque that it’s not publicly known whether Xi gets a morning briefing, let alone how he reacted. But the weekend’s triple whammy has reignited speculation about internal pressures in the ranks of China’s leadership, especially because it comes amid a trade war with the United States that appears unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

An explosive report made waves in Australia on Nov. 24, detailing a plot to plant a Chinese agent in Australia's Parliament. (Video: Reuters)

“It’s not crazy to think, based upon the evidence that we have, that there is some degree of infighting within the Chinese government about how to respond and how the Chinese government should behave,” said Christopher Balding, an American professor at Fulbright University Vietnam who taught in China until last year.

In Hong Kong elections, big defeat for elites pressures Beijing to rethink approach

There is no sign that Xi, who removed term limits so he can rule China indefinitely, is anything but entirely in charge.

Through his propagation of “Xi Jinping Thought,” he has rolled out a personality cult not seen since the reign of revolutionary founder Mao Zedong. And he has purged countless bureaucrats and dispatched rivals in a broad anti-corruption campaign that has disciplined more than 1.5 million officials.

“Leaks in the system are quite rare, but it doesn’t mean that the leadership is in crisis or that unity has deteriorated,” said Yun Jiang, co-editor of the China-focused Neican blog.

Still, the recent developments will not be welcome.

Documents on the party’s actions in Xinjiang — leaked first to the New York Times, then through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — suggest that at least one senior official was disaffected enough to take the extremely risky step of handing them to foreign journalists.

Together, the documents show the lengths to which the party has gone to try to “Sinicize” the mostly Uighur Muslim minority in western China, and that the system was ordered by Xi himself.

The reported defection of a Chinese spy also hints at disagreement with the system, but is more complicated.

Wang Liqiang has reportedly told Australian authorities that he worked in Hong Kong as a spy for Chinese military intelligence and was also tasked with interfering in Taiwan’s 2020 elections to try to topple Tsai Ing-wen, the independence-minded president.

Australia’s top spy agency has said it is taking his claims seriously, but some analysts point out inconsistencies and errors in his testimony, not to mention amateurish passport forgeries, prompting questions about his credibility.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties sweep pro-Beijing establishment aside in local elections

Chinese authorities immediately sought to discredit the man, saying that he was a fugitive with fake documents who had been convicted of fraud and that his story was all lies.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang ridiculed the “clumsy drama” of the man’s defection to Australia and called the leaks about Xinjiang “slander” against China’s counterterrorism efforts. “Lies are lies, no matter how many times they are repeated,” Geng told reporters Monday in Beijing.

More problematic is the result in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy candidates swept 347 of the 452 seats up for grabs in local council elections, while pro-Beijing candidates won only 60 seats and independents took 45.

Even though Hong Kong’s district councilors mainly deal with local issues, the results came as a stinging repudiation of Beijing and its efforts to exercise greater control over the semiautonomous territory of Hong Kong.

The Chinese government continued to voice support for Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, after six months of protests.

“The Chinese government firmly supports Chief Executive Carrie Lam in leading the government and governing in accordance with the law,” Geng said Monday.

Others say Lam and her government should have taken sterner action to stamp out the protests before they resulted in this weekend’s election.

“Hong Kong has a high fever, and the election is a thermometer that reveals the temperature of Hong Kong society, and of the political process in particular,” said Li Xiaobing, head of a center dealing with Hong Kong at Nankai University in Tianjin, south of Beijing.

“The Hong Kong government has been quite soft and mild in its actions,” he said. “The Hong Kong government should have taken specific measures to target the opposition, but apparently it did not, and instead the opposition took the opportunity to climb all over the Hong Kong government.”

Hong Kong bars democracy activist Joshua Wong from elections

Coincidental though they may be, the recent events feed the Communist Party narrative about Western powers seeking to stymie China’s peaceful rise. State media reports have been full of accusations about the “black hands” of the CIA and other Western intelligence services fomenting unrest in Hong Kong as a way to pressure Beijing.

“It must be pointed out that the West has been helping HK opposition in district council elections in the past week,” the Global Times, a hawkish tabloid affiliated with the Communist Party, wrote in an editorial.

It noted the publication of the spy story in Australia, the claims of torture in Chinese detention from a former employee at the British Consulate in Hong Kong, and the U.S. Congress’s passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

The question now is: How will Beijing respond?

“If recent history is any guide, it’s going to be not very well,” said Balding, the professor who taught in Shenzhen for nine years. “Whether it is just a continued tone-deaf response, whether it is harsher crackdowns, they seem singularly unable to make any adjustments to their game plan.”

Wang Yuan contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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