Rumours that President Xi Jinping was under house arrest amid a military coup in China—apparently driven by Falun Gong–linked social media accounts known for spreading factually problematic information—spread widely in late September. The available facts told most analysts that a coup probably hadn’t occurred, so it wasn’t surprising when Xi resurfaced on 27 September. That said, analysts shouldn’t be quick to deny that Xi’s position in power is more precarious than it might appear. No one knows for sure the degree to which his position is absolute. And neither, perhaps, does Xi himself. He may have positioned himself as ‘dictator for life’, but the forces of control are dynamic and he has survived in part because he doesn’t make that assumption himself.
Ahead of the 20th National Party Congress, kicking off on Sunday, we have been reminded that from the Chinese Communist Party’s perspective, power isn’t inevitable. We saw ramped-up prosecutions, continued calls for loyalty and warnings of colour revolutions. None of this is necessarily a sign of weakness or strength. The constant cycle of crisis or potential crisis is something the Chinese Communist Party also derives power from. It is a means for mobilising the party and the public, and for justifying intensified security measures and crackdowns. The threats are not imaginary.
A good rule of thumb for assessing political rumours from China is to consider them based on the balance of probabilities. If we’re going to talk about Xi’s power, it’s best to use the structure of power as a framework and shape the questions from there. As suggested to me by my colleague Peter Mattis, there are five main elements to being the foremost leader in the People’s Republic of China: gun, paper, pen, knife and blood.
The ‘gun’ is the People’s Liberation Army. The PLA is the party’s armed wing—not the country’s army—and is the guarantor of the party’s power. As Mao Zedong famously wrote, ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’
The ‘paper’ is handled by the central paper-pushers in the General Office of the Central Committee and the Organisation Department, which play an important role in the party’s management of itself.
The ‘pen’ is the propaganda apparatus. The gun defeats enemies, but the pen, as Mao noted, unites the people (under the leadership of the party) and attacks and destroys the enemy. It also defines and interprets party orthodoxy.
The ‘knife’ is the internal security apparatus (the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Public Security) responsible for social and political control.
And finally, the ‘blood’, representing the core families of the party. They hold massive wealth, much of which sits outside of China, and command their own loyalists by extension.
Mao controlled these elements as he rose to power and as he stayed in power after the forming of the PRC. As chronicled in Gao Hua’s meticulous study of Mao’s seizure of power, he began with his base in the Red Army and steadily moved to control how the central party machinery functioned and the propaganda organs. Xi has gone after each of these areas, it would appear with great success.
Early in his tenure, Xi began an anti-corruption campaign targeting the PLA. Two former vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission were singled out for particular scrutiny: General Xu Caihou, who died of cancer in 2015 a year after being put under investigation, and General Guo Boxiong, who was sentenced to life in prison. Another PLA officer, General Gu Junshan, former deputy director of the PLA General Logistics Department (since rebranded as the Logistic Support Department), was given a suspended death sentence.
As analyst Kevin McCauley wrote in 2015, much of the early anti-corruption campaign and personnel changes focused on logistics and political officers responsible for money, personnel, materiel and construction projects. The significance of these posts is even more crucial in a political context, because the party’s ability to rely on the PLA to mobilise in a crisis requires political loyalty as well as preparedness for military action.
At the same time, Xi put himself in charge of huge PLA reforms with the establishment of the Leading Small Group on Deepening Reform of National Defence and the Military in 2014. He oversaw the establishment of the PLA Ground Force headquarters, the PLA Rocket Force and the PLA Strategic Support Force in 2015, and directed a major PLA restructure that began in 2016.
Xi was quick to focus on ensuring that the propaganda apparatus was on his side. Propaganda controls party dogma and helps Xi to project an image of strength, domestically and internationally. Huang Kunming, a Xi ally, was appointed head of the Central Propaganda Department, under the CCP’s Central Committee, in 2017. During Xi’s tenure, the department has tightened its control over media, with the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television being moved from the State Council to the Central Propaganda Department’s control in 2018. This strengthened Xi’s ability to define how the party’s theory about achieving national rejuvenation suggested Beijing’s direction in light of real-world events.
Like every party general secretary, Xi has his supporters in key positions, like the person running the CCP General Office. He also has enough control of the party discipline and anti-corruption organisations to use them against political opponents—as he clearly did in July with the sentencing of white-glove financiers for his political opponents and in September with the sentencing of a number of officials linked to the Ministry of Public Security.
To control the knife, Xi launched a rectification campaign against the political–legal apparatus last year. One of the most senior officials taken down in the anti-corruption campaign, Zhou Yongkang, had most recently been head of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, an area of the party-state apparatus that had resisted Xi’s efforts to politicise everything. Xi had either neutralised people or put his own in places of political power. Zhao Kezhi, who held the post of minister of public security, was recently replaced by Xi ally Wang Xiaohong. Zhao had earlier been replaced by Wang in the concurrent role of party secretary in the Ministry of Public Security.
Xi has generated the most resistance from the CCP’s elite families. The question here is whether the old power-broker system continues to function and has enough influence to unseat someone like Xi. It’s possible that the system has changed so fundamentally that the party elders can no longer act as a check on Xi.
The video message of Song Ping, the elderly representative of a significant PLA faction, is one of the most dramatic signs that the party’s bloodlines may be opposed in the current moment. (It is worth noting that signs of such dissatisfaction go back years.) As commentator Dimon Liu pointed out in June, criticisms of Xi by individuals writing from within the PRC have been published. None of those people are known to have been arrested, which is only possible if they are being protected by someone powerful in the PRC.
Yet, despite his consolidation of power, Xi has clearly made some mistakes.
The dynamic zero-Covid policy has created widespread dissatisfaction and left a trail of economic damage. Its disruptions have encouraged companies to think more directly about diversifying supply chains and forced new conversations about quality of life.
Xi’s decision to enter a ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia on the eve of its invasion of Ukraine put the PRC on the other side of an issue that has united the US and Europe. Although European countries are grappling with the energy crisis brought about by their dependence on Russian gas, new conversations are beginning about dependence on PRC supply chains.
Xi’s pressure campaign on Taiwan has closed off pathways for peaceful unification and encouraged the US to more explicitly state its support for Taipei. Last month, President Joe Biden for the fourth time stated that America would defend Taiwan if the PRC launched an unprovoked attack.
Xi also has doubled down on state-owned enterprises leading the economy, refusing to look at rebalancing the economy towards consumer demand. Now the headwinds are rising quickly and economic forecasts look increasingly grim.
So, the control solidified early on could be wearing down, and we are left to ask, by how much? At what point does dissatisfaction become opposition? Have generational change and Xi’s anti-corruption drive disrupted the familial and patronage networks that gave party elders power in the past?
For the CCP, the party congress is not when and where major political and personnel decisions are made. It is the platform the party uses to formalise and announce what already has been decided in backrooms. It isn’t always clear what those decisions might be until they become known to the world. It’s even possible that a palace coup and political manoeuvre forcing Xi out could go unmarked until the party congress provides the opportunity to tell the world.
In uncertain times when the rules have been cast out, regional specialists should be more open to possible discontinuities. As former director of US Central Intelligence Robert Gates noted, ‘Area experts, country experts, are sometimes the very last to see a revolutionary change coming, because the history of most countries is a history of continuity. In discontinuity, they find too many reasons why that won’t happen.’
The history of the CCP is littered with political crises, the most dangerous of which involved questions of leadership succession and economic policy. Even if the coup rumours were a false alarm generated by wishful thinking, the current dynamics should have us systematically assessing potential discontinuities because of the potential for another crisis to emerge that tests the resilience of the CCP. Xi’s behaviour shows that he knows that the struggle for power is never over. We should take note of this in our own thinking.
Samantha Hoffman is a senior analyst at ASPI, where this first appeared.