AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
At the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) National Party Congress next month, Chinese President Xi Jinping expects to be given an unprecedented third five-year term. But even as Xi consolidates control of the world’s most populous country and grows his cult of personality, other CCP officials are beginning to openly question his increasingly tyrannical actions, threatening to destabilize what has for more than four decades been a remarkably consistent authoritarian regime.
In an open letter released late last month, three senior members of the CCP, Dong Hongyi, Ma Guihui, and Tian Qizhuang, who joined the party thirty years ago, warned of the dangerous direction China was headed in by embracing a cult of personality around Xi Jinping. Specifically, the letter warned that the party’s goal of “leading everything” and removing safeguards against centralizing too much power would bring China to the brink of disaster.
“The main problem [the] country faces today is that party committees have too much power, and their reach is overly long,” the letter reads. The veteran officials argued that since the CCP should practice socialism within Chinese characteristics, its powers are limited, and its goals are defined. Like any other association, the party must abide by the law, not stand above it.
The party has already fallen into the trap of trying to control everything during COVID-19, the letter points out, a mistake that is ongoing with Xi’s draconian lockdown policies. No one can lead everything, and the idea that they can is absurd, the letter concludes.
The three officials point to the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution as a stark reminder of the dangers of a cult of personality. Under Mao Zedong, Chinese Communists sought to “purge” the country of the remnants of capitalist and traditionalist elements of Chinese society. Lasting from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976, the Cultural Revolution led to millions of deaths, one of the greatest atrocities in human history. “We call upon those responsible to diffuse the power that has been excessively concentrated without supervision over the years, encourage competition and critique in the party before it is too late,” the letter stated.
Since coming to power in 2013, Xi has slowly eroded the few checks on his power that existed in China’s Communist system. Abandoning the more moderate approach of his predecessors, Xi has instead modeled his rule after Mao, attempting to install a cult of personality around himself. In 2018, Xi successfully pressured the legislature into passing a constitutional amendment abolishing presidential term limits, effectively allowing him to remain in power indefinitely. Under the guise of an “anti-corruption” campaign, Xi removed his political rivals and replaced them with staunch loyalists.
But Xi’s reign has been defined by corruption, as his cronies have come to occupy nearly every position of power. Xi allies fill senior posts in government-backed real estate firms and cooperative banks, stealing money from ordinary Chinese people. In their letter, Hongyi, Guihui, and Qizhuang say that Xi backers earn 100 times more than the average citizens, further contributing to the image of corruption within the system.
As Xi faces this backlash, he has reacted by only further tightening his grip over the country. This has earned him some ominous comparisons to Mao himself – perhaps no surprise given that Xi regularly sports Mao’s plain button-down suit for military parades, and has even adopted Mao’s calligraphy writing style.
Thankfully for the Chinese people, Xi’s reign has not yet been marked by the industrial-scale killing that defined Mao’s rule. While Xi has undoubtedly silenced and imprisoned dissenters (the three authors of the letter criticizing Xi have all been placed under strict surveillance) his crackdown has used chiefly the power of the government and the tools of the surveillance state to intimidate opponents, rather than simply executing them en masse, a primary feature of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Nonetheless, there is reason to believe the world should view Xi’s growing power with great alarm. While Xi’s brutality again pales in comparison to the other astoundingly evil Communist dictator of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin, his consolidation of power within the Chinese politburo bears striking resemblance to Stalin’s move to do the same after Lenin’s death. Like Xi, Stalin also purged the highest Soviet ranks of those deemed insufficiently loyal (although he accomplished this through murder and gulags, rather than Xi’s strategy of political exile and prison) surrounding himself with young, fervent followers fanatically devoted to his cult of personality. Even now, Xi has moved to lower the maximum age for members of the Politburo, in effect ousting the Old Guard members that might challenge Xi’s power grab.
While Stalin is today remembered as a brutal dictator, it is important to remember that his emergence as a fully-formed tyrant was a slow burn. For the first few years of his rule, Stalin appeared ready to rule in coordination with other Soviet leaders, before eventually transforming a collective dictatorship into a tyrannical dictatorship of one individual. Now, confronted with an eroding popular enthusiasm and increasing opposition within the party, Xi appears to see Stalin’s favorite motto as his own polemical cover for his unquestioned personal rule: “the party exercising unlimited power will lead everything.”
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.
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