China’s bluster and bravado is certainly something to behold.
Be it creating international spats over “repugnant” tweets; threatening a democratic nation with invasion; making its critics vanish into thin air or locking up 1.5 million of its own citizens in “voluntary education” camps.
On the surface it looks like the actions of a powerful dictator flexing its muscles.
Yet, there are murmurs the opposite may be the case. That the increasing tough talk, and actions, from Chinese President Xi Jinping and his inner circle may mask a “leadership crisis” in Beijing.
For Mr Xi, there could be a little trouble brewing in big China.
Behind his back, gossip is rife. Sometimes it spills into the open. In recent months, Mr Xi has been labelled a “clown” and a “political zombie”. Not by longtime foes, but by influential voices from within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
There are calls for Mr Xi to quietly resign. And the pressure is only likely to increase ahead of a crucial party gathering, held once every five years, that will take place in 2022.
“Despite the bold and impressive image that Xi Jinping and the party-state’s media apparatuses seek to display at home and abroad, these developments point to a deeply insecure regime that perceives a threat even from its own members,” wrote Sarah Cook, a China analyst at Freedom House, a US Government backed think tank.
There’s no doubt Mr Xi has transformed the Communist Party since he ascended to the throne as party leader in 2012 and then Chinese President in 2013.
Before his reign, China was happy to be more subtle about its power; now it explicitly threatens nations it perceives to have wronged it and sends fighter jets into Taiwanese air space.
Scores of cadres have been jailed on tax evasion charges. It’s more likely they just weren’t quite loyal enough to the regime.
Mr Xi has also feathered his own political nest. In 2018, he abolished presidential term limits, meaning he could potentially rule for life. So-called “Xi Jinping thought” is now enshrined in the party’s constitution. There are even rumours he wants to rechristen himself “Chairman Xi” which would put him on the same standing as Chairman Mao Zedong who founded Communist China.
So, all powerful then? Well, maybe not.
Worrying signs abound for the leadership. China’s economy has undoubtedly done better than many during the pandemic. But it’s also a bit wobbly.
Retail sales are up, but not as much as expected and the Government has delayed setting a new target for economic growth. Unemployment is widely thought to be higher than the official figures and the gap between rich and poor is widening.
Some within China are also deeply uncomfortable with the Government’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy that has led to the country’s reputation being trashed.
Data from the US Pew Research Centre has shown that the view of China from most developed nations – from Australia to Japan – has plunged.
“Xi seems to think he can do no wrong. As a result, not much is going right,” The Observer’s Simon Tidsall said in September.
He pointed to the disquiet in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong as well as a conflict bubbling up in the province of Inner Mongolia.
“Despite all the coercive tools at his disposal, his ruthless methods are stimulating rather than reducing domestic resistance.
“It’s the blindness and hubris that comes with absolute power. It usually ends in tears,” said Mr Tidsall who added that Mr Xi’s ruthless use of subjugation was ultimately his “weakness”.
MURMURS BUILD AHEAD OF 2022 CONGRESS
By now, the CCP hierarchy should be well on the way to appointing a successor to Mr Xi. But Mr Xi’s abolishment of term limits has meant no obvious candidates have been forthcoming.
The next crunch point comes in 2022 at the National Congress, a splashy annual event that every five years installs leaders at various levels in the party.
Under the old rules, Mr Xi would formally hand over his leadership at the Congress. With his new powers, he no longer has to step down – but some think he should all the same. The internal attacks are gathering pace.
XI JINPING A ‘CLOWN’
Freedom House’s Ms Cook called out an extraordinary tongue lashing Mr Xi received from CCP member and property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang in March over his handling of COVID-19.
He wrote that the party’s stifling of free speech may have exacerbated the coronavirus crisis. Mr Xi was the “emperor with no clothes” and a “clown,” he remarked.
Ms Cook said Mr Ren comments “often echo critiques bubbling beneath the surface”. His deep connections usually saved him. Not this time – he’s now languishing in jail.
“The regime is clearly aware that Ren is not alone in his doubts about Xi’s leadership, and it has sought to punish any other insiders who dare to speak out.”
In May, Cai Xia, a former high-ranking CCP member and professor at the party’s main training school, was expelled from the party after she called Mr Xi a “political zombie” due to his unending presidency.
She was expelled from the party and her pension was removed. Living in the US means she is, thankfully, out of the clutches of the CCP controlled courts system.
Other academics have questioned if the Government’s increasingly isolationist direction – demonstrated by its new “dual circulation” economic policy – is the right way for the country to go forward.
“The fact that professors from top academic institutions – including the party’s own national training centre – are calling Xi’s leadership a failure, urging his removal from power, and explicitly envisioning a transition to a more democratic political system is simply incredible,” Ms Cook wrote in The Diplomat.
“It indicates that Xi is facing a serious crisis of faith within the party, even if no one has the power to act on it at present.”
CHINA ‘STRONG, EMBOLDENED’
Others aren’t so sure. Famed economist Saul Eslake, who is a visiting fellow at the University of Tasmania, said as long as China can keep its economy in check, the CCP’s influence will remain resolute.
“Xi Jinping has repeatedly shown that he’s prepared to do whatever is required to entrench the CCP as the source of all power in China and to remain in office for as long as he is capable of drawing breath – not least because he is smart enough to know that he has made a lot of enemies, and that they would take their revenge on him,” he wrote on The Conversation.
“Far from feeling ‘weak and insecure’, I think China feels strong and emboldened – not only by its apparent success in stopping the spread of the virus but also by the US’ almost complete abdication of its traditional global leadership role.”
Indeed, the jailing and silencing of critics and the stranglehold the CCP has on the media means most people living in China will know little of the frustrations levelled at Mr Xi.
But that’s not the same in the upper echelons of the party where the real decisions are made. As 2022 gets closer, Mr Xi will need to shore up his support base. Any missteps when it comes to the pandemic or economy will reflect directly on him.
The froth and bubble of international slanging matches may be a handy distraction from the real battles closer to home.
“The reality is that Xi and his enforcers do not speak for all Chinese,” Ms Cook wrote.
“There are many, many people who would like to see China change course.”