BEIJING — A series of extraordinary outbursts of public criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping in recent weeks has raised the question of whether his crackdown on dissent is backfiring.
The sniping has come from the highest levels of the business community and the media but also, most tellingly, from within the Communist Party itself.
At its core is a growing unhappiness with Xi’s attempts to centralize power and crush dissent, both within the party and outside.
No one is predicting that China’s president is about to be toppled or even that he is about to change course. More likely is that Xi will be so preoccupied with internal politics that he continues to shy away from the painful changes needed to resuscitate China’s slowing economy. He may also continue to take policy in a more nationalist direction to bolster his support.
One criticism, reported by The Washington Post this month, came in the form of a letter by “loyal Communist Party members” calling on China’s president to resign for gathering too much power into his own hands and provoking a series of political, economic, ideological and cultural crises.
But a second essay was equally explosive — because it was posted on the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the anti-corruption body that has been at the center of Xi’s efforts to reform the party, eliminate rivals and crush internal dissent.
The CCDI is run by Wang Qishan, generally regarded as Xi’s right-hand man.
The essay, “A thousand yes-men cannot equal one honest adviser,” cited imperial Chinese history, Confucian teaching and the Communist Party’s traditions to argue for the benefits of honest counsel and open debate.
“The ability to air opinions freely and to accept suggestions frequently determined the rise or fall of an empire,” it read. “We should not be afraid of people saying the wrong things; we should be afraid of people not speaking at all.”
Ever since taking office in 2013, Xi has been cracking down — on corruption within the party and on free speech and civil society outside it.
In the past few months, he has tightened the screws further, outlawing “improper discussion” of government policy within the party and demanding that state media toe the line even more rigorously than they already do.
But instead of shutting up, people are plucking up the courage to speak out.
Property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang’s social-media accounts were shut down late last month after he criticized Xi’s clampdown on the media. In the days that followed, Ren faced virulent criticism from the party but also won support from some unlikely quarters.
A professor at the Central Party School warned that cracking down on different opinions was dangerous for the party; the influential financial magazine Caixin staged an online protest over the lack of free speech; and a staff member at Xinhua, the state news agency, published a widely shared denunciation of the crackdown, likening it to Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
On Monday, Yu Shaolei, an editor at the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, announced he was resigning in protest.
That there is grumbling within the party should perhaps come as no surprise. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was at least partly designed to undercut local-level cadres who have gorged for years on the fruits of graft and to appeal directly to the Chinese people.
But that the elite are prepared to risk their careers — and perhaps even their freedom — by speaking out suggests more than the usual griping.
The party had long prided itself on its ability to conduct internal debate and rule by consensus. These outbursts suggest serious concerns that the system is broken under the personalized, centralized rule of Xi.
There are also substantive concerns about the direction in which China is headed.
The letter purportedly signed by loyal party members appeared on several websites simultaneously just before the annual meeting of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, in Beijing, and took aim at many of Xi’s perceived failings.
His assertive foreign policy, it argued, had antagonized China’s Asian neighbors and allowed the United States to win influence, while alienating the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan. His mismanagement of the economy led to last year’s stock market crash, caused mass layoffs at state-owned firms and brought the national economy “to the verge of collapse,” it said. His anti-corruption campaign has left officials too scared to work and was motivated by a power struggle, it argued.
About 20 people are reported to have been detained for questioning in relation to the letter. According to the BBC, they include staff members from the website on which it was posted and employees of a related technology company. Two Chinese dissidents based in New York and Germany say they have had several close relatives taken away.
The question is what all this grumbling portends. Xi appears to have consolidated power significantly and elevated his own supporters during the past three years, and the chances of his not being returned for a second five-year term in 2017 remain extremely slim. But the composition of the Politburo’s Standing Committee after 2017 will be closely examined to see how much power rival factions have retained.
Rumors of coup plots occasionally circulate in Beijing, but experts say the most obvious internal challenge to Xi’s power appeared to have been crushed when former security chief Zhou Yongkang and Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai were jailed for corruption in 2015 and 2013, respectively.
Although independent polling is impossible in China, every indication suggests Xi remains popular with the Chinese people. The party wanted a strong leader in 2013 to confront the nation’s mounting problems, and even if Xi has taken things too far, there is no hint yet of any change in course.
In an essay on the ChinaFile website, Columbia University professor Andrew Nathan argued that there is a Chinese tradition of “loyal remonstrance” from within the leader’s camp: The fact that some of the criticism appeared on the CCDI website suggests Xi’s most fervent supporters are among those most worried about the path he has taken.
“I do not, however, expect Xi to back down,” Nathan concluded. “More often than not in Chinese history the remonstrator lost his head. When his warnings came true, so did the leader who ignored them.”