Since taking power in 2012, Xi Jinping has fundamentally changed the political order of China. Crushing opponents under the guise of “anti-corruption” campaigns, terrorizing the people of Xinjiang and Hong Kong, declaring himself president-for-life, and presiding over the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan in late 2019, Mr. Xi’s rule has been controversial.
Not since Mao Zedong ruled China has a Chinese Communist Party leader held so much power in his hands. But responsibility is a double-edged sword. When times are good, a leader like Mr. Xi can take all the credit. When things go wrong, though, exclusive blame is laid upon that same leader. And in a country like China, where leaders are historically removed by force (until recently), Mr. Xi must know that the daggers are being sharpened by those all around him.
This is especially true of China’s former president, the 95-year-old Jiang Zemin, who continues to exert great influence on China’s political system many years after he left the presidency. Having watched Mr. Xi rise and break nearly every political norm that Mr. Xi’s predecessors had established in the wake of Mao’s debilitating cult of personality, Mr. Jiang has chafed under Mr. Xi’s rule. Unable to find cause to remove Mr. Xi, the recent unpopular and highly damaging “zero COVID-19” protocols that Mr. Xi has imposed upon Shanghai have likely given the “doddering” (in the words of Ottawa-based researcher Charles Burton) Mr. Jiang and his “Shanghai Gang” all the excuse they need to mount a challenge to Mr. Xi’s increasingly autocratic rule.
It is important to understand that since Mao opened China up to the West, the CCP’s legitimacy has always rested on its ability to deliver prosperity to the expansive Chinese middle class. In exchange for this, the Chinese people cede increasing amounts of political power to the CCP. So long as that relationship is maintained, the communists remain in power. Should that agreement break down, however, political stability in China would be threatened in ways not experienced in almost a century.
For almost a decade, Mr. Xi has been obsessed with exerting total control over China, despite the fact that the country had done so well under the light touch of his predecessors. In fact, according to Gordon G. Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” Mr. Xi is intent on having a “precedent-breaking third term as the Communist Party’s general secretary.” From declaring himself president-for-life to now demanding a third term as the CCP’s general secretary, Mr. Xi has done his best to cultivate enemies in the CCP’s leadership circles.
Now, Mr. Xi is using his power to lockdown Shanghai, a country that accounts for 3.5% of China’s overall Gross Domestic Product. The stated reason is COVID-19 prevention. Under Mr. Xi, China has a zero COVID policy. In essence, China will shut an entire, economically vital city down indefinitely to ensure that COVID-19 does not propagate there or beyond once it has been detected.
However, the lockdown is proving to be very unpopular. Shanghai residents are protesting and fighting the restrictions. Rather than admit he was wrong by loosening the COVID-19 lockdown procedures in Shanghai, Mr. Xi has placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the local Shanghai Communist Party officials. The narrative from Beijing is that the sloppy, freewheeling capitalists of Shanghai mucked the whole thing up, and now Mr. Xi has to send his vice-premier, Sun Chunlan, to clean up the mess. The Asia Times’ David P. Goldman believes that, despite the caustic images coming out of Shanghai and the negative response to Mr. Xi’s zero COVID policy, the political damage will be kept to the Shanghai leadership. Mr. Xi will be insulated.
Although, many other observers are uncertain.
Charles Burton, the MacDonald Laurier Institute in Ottawa, believes that Mr. Xi’s failure to develop or import effective mRNA vaccines and Mr. Xi’s family’s enormous corrupt wealth could readily lead to his downfall and even imprisonment as Mr. Jiang’s “Shanghai Gang” will mobilize rapidly once it is obvious that the zero COVID policy that Mr. Xi insists upon in Shanghai has failed.
But, there’s something darker going on behind the scenes of this horrific lockdown in Shanghai. Mr. Chang believes that Mr. Xi is using the lockdown to punish Shanghai in the same way that Mao infamously did during his reign of terror. In Mr. Chang’s assessment, “Xi is punishing [Jiang Zemin]” because “The Party’s political system idealizes struggle and domination.” This assessment might be more accurate than many Western observers care to admit. While Mr. Xi has been consistent in his application of the zero COVID protocol since the pandemic started, the fact remains that Mr. Xi has also violently repressed regions of the country that he believes are potential threats to his continued reign. Xinjiang Province and Hong Kong are testaments to this pattern. Shanghai might be another example that Mr. Xi is attempting to set for his potential political enemies.
At the very least, Mr. Xi is likely using his failed zero COVID policies in Shanghai as an excuse to clean house both Shanghai’s local ruling cadre and attack the “Shanghai Gang” led by Mr. Jiang. Given that Ms. Sun, Mr. Xi’s vice premier, is only just now arriving in Shanghai to “manage” the crisis there, we are likely at the start of the crisis. The longer it goes on, and the less competent Mr. Xi’s response appears to other members of China’s elite and to the Chinese people, the less likely he will maintain his grip on power. In fact, Mr. Chang cautioned me that the struggle between Mr. Xi and Mr. Jiang “could tear the ruling organization — and China — apart.”
In the words of Charles Burton, “As with so many populist-nationalist strongmen leaders, Xi Jinping’s anti-Western hubris is likely to be instrumental in his political demise.” COVID-19 has proven to be a highly destructive force for much of the world’s economies and established political order. The world must be ready not only for a sudden and potentially violent challenge to Mr. Xi’s rule from another faction within the CCP. But, the world’s powers must be prepared for the fallout and unintended consequences of these events.
• Brandon J. Weichert is a geopolitical analyst and author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers), who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.