Analysis

Who Are Xi’s Enemies?

As he consolidates power, China’s leader faces a wide but hapless opposition.

A collage of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the CCP Party Congress, and academia and industry
A collage of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the CCP Party Congress, and academia and industry
Mark Harris Illustration for Foreign Policy
By , a Chinese writer and scholar.

Telling friend from foe is the first order of business for any revolution, or so Mao Zedong once said. As Chinese leader Xi Jinping prepares for his third term, he faces a similarly tough question. Although his tenure as head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will soon be unanimously extended by nearly 2,300 delegates—most of them members of China’s elite—at the 20th Party Congress that begins on Oct. 16, the power base grounding his rule may actually be much smaller.

The sheer number of elites whom Xi has crossed during his first decade in office would have forced his departure under any ordinary logic, yet Xi’s grip on power appears to be as secure as ever. Rumors of secret coups have proved false, time and again. The secret of Xi’s success lies in those roughly 2,300 party delegates: While the delegates are chosen before the Party Congress, final approval of the names is controlled by Xi, who can easily and legally ensure that they will all be his supporters. Even if they dislike Xi, they will pretend loyalty in order to keep their position. Xi’s campaigns have smashed the iron triangle of officialdom, industry, and academia created by the 1980s economic and social reforms of the last leader to hold anything close to his level of power, Deng Xiaoping.

The first order of business for Deng’s policy of “reform and opening up” was to secure the support and cooperation of China’s officials, businesspeople, and intellectuals by ensuring they benefited from reform. The early stages of the reform period thus created something that might seem strange to Western eyes but entirely reasonable in the Chinese context: Corruption became the lubricant of reform. This was the dirty little secret of the Deng era—after all, decent people don’t talk about corruption, much less promote it openly.

Telling friend from foe is the first order of business for any revolution, or so Mao Zedong once said. As Chinese leader Xi Jinping prepares for his third term, he faces a similarly tough question. Although his tenure as head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will soon be unanimously extended by nearly 2,300 delegates—most of them members of China’s elite—at the 20th Party Congress that begins on Oct. 16, the power base grounding his rule may actually be much smaller.

The sheer number of elites whom Xi has crossed during his first decade in office would have forced his departure under any ordinary logic, yet Xi’s grip on power appears to be as secure as ever. Rumors of secret coups have proved false, time and again. The secret of Xi’s success lies in those roughly 2,300 party delegates: While the delegates are chosen before the Party Congress, final approval of the names is controlled by Xi, who can easily and legally ensure that they will all be his supporters. Even if they dislike Xi, they will pretend loyalty in order to keep their position. Xi’s campaigns have smashed the iron triangle of officialdom, industry, and academia created by the 1980s economic and social reforms of the last leader to hold anything close to his level of power, Deng Xiaoping.

The first order of business for Deng’s policy of “reform and opening up” was to secure the support and cooperation of China’s officials, businesspeople, and intellectuals by ensuring they benefited from reform. The early stages of the reform period thus created something that might seem strange to Western eyes but entirely reasonable in the Chinese context: Corruption became the lubricant of reform. This was the dirty little secret of the Deng era—after all, decent people don’t talk about corruption, much less promote it openly.

But in China, the idea that corruption and reform complemented each other was a mainstream one among intellectuals, cemented by the realities of state policies. This created a robust alliance of elites, who all grew fat off the Deng Xiaoping-Jiang Zemin-Hu Jintao years between 1978 and 2012. Businesspeople paid bribes—but got returns on their investments as officials smoothed the path for enterprises and looked the other way on regulation, and the intellectuals participated by justifying the whole affair.

But an alliance grounded in corruption proved unsustainably corrosive. Slowing economic growth by the late 2000s left elites less able to capitalize on economic development, forcing a greater reliance on corruption for profit. The prevalence of corruption, meanwhile, drove transaction costs ever upward, ultimately preventing further reforms, suppressing economic growth, and setting in motion extremely harmful political consequences, as public complaints and protests about the level of graft grew. Xi inherited the vicious cycle that had begun in the later years of Hu’s tenure.

Rather than continuing to gamble with the CCP’s political power, Xi had no choice but to fight corruption, smash the elite alliance, and transform the party’s corrupt inheritance, culture, and structure—even though doing so would pit him against the entire elite class. To preserve his own political power, Xi set off on a road of no return.


Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to deliver a speech during a military parade in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to deliver a speech during a military parade in Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to deliver a speech during a military parade for the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019.Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

The knives came out inside the party first. Xi understood that his chief political opposition was inside the elite alliance, of which he was a member and which had benefited most from the fat years.

There are plenty of dissidents and idealists in China, but they are a minority of Xi’s enemies. The majority of opposition comes from those whose interests have been infringed on to one degree or another, although there are also those who oppose him purely out of principle. Some are firm in their opposition; others, less so. Some disapprove of Xi’s ideas, and still others might agree with his ideals and stances but nevertheless think he has taken the country in the wrong direction.

Let’s start with those inside the system. Reformist officials are a silent opposition within the party and officialdom. These officials are between 40 and 75 years of age and include retirees, individuals nearing retirement, and officials currently in leadership positions. They generally came of political age during the “reform and opening up” period in the 1980s, for which some of them drafted policies or provided ideological, theoretical, or discursive support.

As such, they approve of and accept the reformist ideology and policies of the Deng era and aim to maintain a reformist line for the party; the greatest beneficiaries of the reform era are often in key positions within the CCP. In many cases, they believe that reform is the key to the party staying in power. Yet those who took part in the early planning and policy stages of the reform era have generally retired or retreated. Those who remain are older and still occupy key leadership positions at every level of the party, forming the backbone of its current cadre base.

This group opposes Xi’s betrayal of Deng’s reformist line, to which it hopes to return, and advocates reconciliation with the United States and the West. Due to the positions they occupy within the party and the resources and benefits they enjoy, however, these individuals do not dare publicly oppose Xi or his line. They are a silent opposition, afraid of the strictures of party discipline, already deployed by Xi against many of his rivals. While the reformists are relatively politically liberal and call for the party to reform, their consideration of their own interests and China’s current conditions leads them to still be fundamentally invested in the CCP’s power, calling at most for intraparty democratization. As far as party rule is concerned, their interests align with Xi’s—the fundamental reason for which the reformist faction cannot openly break with Xi.

Since taking power, Xi has since stablished a dictatorship that leaves the elders unable to steer him—not least because these party elders and their associated factions have been a target of his anti-corruption campaigns.

There are a great many elders within the party, but the key factions are the so-called Jiang faction and Communist Youth League faction, associated with former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, respectively. Hu was a leader of the Communist Youth League, a party-run group for those between the ages of 14 and 28, and he built his own power base on the backs the organization’s veterans. The political influence of Jiang is particularly widespread. There is a great degree of overlap between these two factions—particularly Jiang’s—and the reformist faction.

According to insiders, Xi was selected by a small group of 600 individuals within the party, primarily led by the Jiang faction at the time—even though the choice, in 2007, took place during the Hu era. Xi’s move from Zhejiang, where he was party secretary from 2002 to 2007, to the key city of Shanghai to serve a seven-month tenure as party secretary was a critical one for his career. The scuttlebutt is that Jiang and his key assistant Zeng Qinghong chose Xi over another princeling, as the children of powerful members of the party are called: future Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai. They believed that the unassuming, low-key Xi would be more easily controllable than the flamboyant Bo, who would eventually fall in 2012 after a convoluted scandal. If this is true, one can only imagine their regrets. But Jiang and Zeng were hardly alone among party elders in settling on Xi.

Since taking power, Xi has since stablished a dictatorship that leaves the elders unable to steer him—not least because these party elders and their associated factions have been a target of his anti-corruption campaigns.

The tradition of collective leadership by party elders was established under Deng—and Jiang and Hu were unable to escape it. Under this system, China’s true rulers were not the general secretary up on the rostrum but rather the elders standing behind him. When the revolution-era generation died off, Jiang, Hu, and the others took their places as party elders.

This tradition was broken by Xi, whose anti-corruption campaigns warned party elders to watch their step. Former Premier Wen Jiabao’s wife, Zhang Peili, for instance, accumulated billions of dollars during his tenure despite her husband’s reputation as a reformer. Zhang’s main fixer, Duan Weihong, was detained in 2017—but the Wen family itself landed on its feet, thanks to Wen’s submission to Xi. During the Deng era, a disobedient general secretary whose policies and goals did not align with those of the elders would have been replaced. Now, it’s the elders who are being kept in check by Xi. In this sense, the elders have become opponents.


A poster of Xi sits among papers littering the road after demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019.
A poster of Xi sits among papers littering the road after demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019.

A poster of Xi lies among papers littering the road after demonstrations in Hong Kong on on Oct. 1, 2019. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

Xi is what Chinese call a “Second-Generation Red,” the son of Xi Zhongxun, who established the party base in northern Shaanxi that served as the Valley Forge of the Chinese Revolution. Though out of favor and shut out of core party leadership under Mao and Deng, Xi Zhongxun rose to hold a seat in the Politburo, a position as secretary of the Secretariat, and a vice chairmanship of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in his later years.

Xi’s fellow princelings were originally the base of his power. But since rising to the top, he has made no further use of them—though he has not made things difficult for them, either. Second-Generation Red is the catchall term for the children of the old generation of politicians. But they are not a unified group politically. There are conservatives who firmly support party rule; liberals who advocate intraparty democracy and systemic liberalization, represented by such figures as the real estate magnate Ren Zhiqiang, the son of a former vice minister, the former Central Party School professor Cai Xia, the daughter of a military family, and Hu Yaobang’s son Hu Deping; and centrists such as Liu Shaoqi’s son Liu Yuan and his consigliere Zhang Musheng.

Among the three factions, the liberals are most sharply dissatisfied with Xi for his break with Deng’s political reforms and ideology. Xi’s anti-corruption efforts have mainly left Second-Generation Reds alone—but have shown no mercy to outspoken dissenters from the liberal faction. Ren, for example, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for a February 2020 essay he wrote criticizing and mocking Xi’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, and Cai now lives in exile.

While the conservatives may support Xi politically, there is considerable dissatisfaction among them for being passed over by Xi, and they have little personal affection for him. Most Second-Generation Reds are centrists who will not denounce Xi publicly but are privately opposed to Xi’s dictatorship and policies—and unsparing in their criticism. On the whole, Xi will be hard-pressed to find allies among his fellow Second-Generation Reds.

Xi’s opponents within the party also include senior officials unseated in anti-corruption campaigns, such as security chiefs Sun Lijun and Fu Zhenghua. Their opposition comes not from political differences but conflicting interests: Their reversals of fortune greatly affected their own interests and those of their family members. Naturally, they hate Xi with a passion. Had Xi not launched his wide-ranging anti-corruption campaigns, these officials would have continued to enjoy the wealth, status, and respect that came with their positions as social elites—but all of these things vanished the instant they were branded as corrupt, to say nothing of the threat of sentences ranging from death (suspended) to life in prison and the fallout for their family members.

Several hundred high-ranking officials were arrested during Xi’s first decade in power, as well as more than 100,000 mid-level and low-ranking officials. The group swells further when one includes their business partners and relatives. Beneath their mandatory contrition, they must surely harbor a deep-seated hatred for the source of their distress.

If intraparty opponents are Xi’s greatest foes, opposition from outside the party cannot be overlooked. The most notable members of this category—and the targets of official crackdowns—are the liberal universalists, represented by public intellectuals and human rights activists, who are represented by human rights lawyers. China’s reforms allowed the emergence of intellectuals influenced by Western civilization and notions of universal values: During the salad days of the Jiang and Hu years, China’s public intellectuals were highly influential in the arena of public opinion, considered it their mission to criticize the government, and were capable of mobilizing. The official attitude toward them long seemed to be one of bemused helplessness: Officials couldn’t be too heavy-handed, out of fear of public backlash, but neither could they adopt a light touch. This situation did not fundamentally change until two or three years into Xi’s first term.

But Xi then abandoned his predecessors’ passivity and defensiveness—and began to use the dictator’s toolkit. The official show of force against civil society and harsh crackdown on public intellectuals advocating universal values ended in a rout for the latter. The community of public intellectuals was more or less wiped out over the course of the Xi years, with leaders, save for a few brave souls, either falling silent or fleeing abroad. The authorities have so effectively debased the term “public intellectual” that it is used as an insult in Chinese discourse today.

Among Xi’s civil opponents, the rights defenders most alarm the powers that be, due to their capacity for collective organizing and action.

Among Xi’s civil opponents, the rights defenders most alarm the powers that be, due to their capacity for collective organizing and action. Generally, these are people driven to defend their rights after their interests were impinged on by officialdom or businesses, making these opponents particularly resolute and often organized. The authorities crack down more heavily on organized opposition than on any other speech or criticism, with particularly harsh penalties meted out to those believed to be organizers or leaders, such as during the 709 Crackdown on lawyers in July 2015.

Private enterprise, by contrast, has generally kept its distance from politics—but there is still opposition to Xi to be found there. It is rare to find an entrepreneur whose interests are not in some way aligned with officials, and some even marry into party aristocracy and act as their cat’s-paws. Cases in point include Anbang Insurance Group’s Wu Xiaohui (associated by marriage with the Deng family), the Tomorrow Group’s Xiao Jianhua (seen as a cat’s-paw for major state and party functionaries), and HNA Group’s Chen Feng (a former aide to Vice President Wang Qishan). Entrepreneurs are invariably caught up in the blowback from cases of official corruption; small wonder that they consider Xi an enemy.

But the problems go deeper. The protection of private property may be enshrined in China’s constitution, but in actual practice, entrepreneurs’ assets are frequently at the mercy of the government or officials. Investments that go against the wishes of the authorities or private wealth that is large enough to make the government fear an alternative center of power—even cases where entrepreneurs have simply failed to cozy up to authorities—can result in harsh consequences.

In Hebei, for instance, the billionaire Sun Dawu was hit with a harsh prison sentence over a land dispute between his firm and a state-owned farm, and authorities confiscated the assets of his Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group. The authorities’ crackdowns on and reorganizations of Jack Ma’s Alibaba and its subsidiaries, platforms such as the ride-hailing service Didi, and educational businesses such as Yu Minhong’s New Oriental are in fact instances of the government treating private capital and entrepreneurs as dissident forces and seeking to shore up the security of the regime against the potential power of capital. Entrepreneurs might oppose Xi, but with rare exceptions, it is a secret, silent opposition that does not take the form of direct clashes with authorities.

No discussion of civil opposition to Xi would be complete without mentioning the hard-left Maoists, whose position is less surprising than it may seem. Despite waving the flags of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, the Xi regime merely uses this as a fig leaf to conceal the interests of the party’s upper echelons. The hard-left Maoists deploy their belief in Marxist equality to criticize—and act against—authorities’ indifference to lower-class people and workers’ interests. (The anti-Xi slogans unveiled over a highway in Beijing on Oct. 13 suggest the influence of this group, calling for both students and workers to strike.)

As a result, authorities have employed dictatorial measures in arresting hard-left Maoists, particularly those younger Maoists who are well-versed in Mao’s writings and follow his directive to organize with workers. The treatment meted out to the hard left has been no gentler than that visited upon China’s liberals, and it has driven them toward the ranks of Xi’s opponents.

Other groups outside the party also harbor no love for Xi, including China’s 100 million or so Christians, who have seen house churches driven partially underground and priests arrested, and now largely overseas groups such as Falun Gong or the generation of exiles created after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Outside China, opposition mostly plays out on social media. The 20th Party Congress has been the occasion for rumors about internecine power struggles, including false claims of a political coup—particularly the rumor that “Xi falls, Li [Keqiang] rises.” By and large, these rumors are consciously devised and disseminated overseas by anti-Xi forces who hope to sow confusion and dissent within the party and amid the public, with the ultimate goal of preventing Xi from serving another term.


Xi inspects People's Liberation Army soldiers at a barracks in Hong Kong.
Xi inspects People's Liberation Army soldiers at a barracks in Hong Kong.

Xi inspects People’s Liberation Army soldiers at a barracks in Hong Kong on June 30, 2017. DALE DE LA REY/AFP via Getty Images

Seldom in human history has a dictator like Xi managed to enrage virtually the entire elite of his country without that elite doing anything about it. This is due to a complex interplay of factors, including Xi’s use of the state apparatus, as well as modern digital surveillance technologies, to more effectively monitor the political opposition and leave it less able to coordinate and rally. What’s more, several of the intraparty forces—such as the reformers, Second-Generation Reds, and party elders—might be opposed to Xi but have an interest in protecting the party, which further ties their hands.

But it would be a mistake to assume that Xi has no allies or that his support is weak. He has allies and supporters at every level, from the bureaucracy to the grassroots to the middle class to intellectuals and the military. Consider those 2,300 party delegates gathering in Beijing: For the majority, winning Xi’s favor will be their only path to continued advancement. Additionally, Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns have left hundreds of senior positions vacant across all industries and fields, and the interests of any aspiring replacements will align them with Xi.

Xi’s staunchest support comes from rising forces within the party—primarily the Fujian faction and the “New Zhijiang Army” of associates from Xi’s time as Zhejiang party secretary. Xi spent nearly 20 years in Fujian and five in Zhejiang, making these two key bases of support and manpower as he promotes and reappoints former associates to pivotal positions of power.

Besides officials from Fujian and Zhejiang, the new intraparty nobility also includes a minority of Shanghai officials and the occasional schoolmate. Alongside officials who transferred their allegiance to Xi from other factions, these oversee court politics and protect Xi’s power. I estimate that the current Politburo contains 12 individuals with clear affiliations with Xi, in addition to Xi himself, comprising half of the Politburo as a whole. I expect that the next Politburo will increase the proportion of Xi-affiliated figures to 60 percent or more.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns and targeted poverty alleviation efforts have won him support among the underclass. While the anti-corruption campaigns may have served to settle scores with political foes, the sheer degree of corruption has also meant public support for the authorities’ anti-corruption efforts. The poverty alleviation efforts, meanwhile, have gone some way toward providing food and housing for those who were still living in abject poverty.

Xi’s decade in power has also witnessed a successful nationalist mobilization of the Chinese public, satisfying the majority’s need for a vain narrative of national strengthening and prospering.

Xi’s decade in power has also witnessed a successful nationalist mobilization of the Chinese public, satisfying the majority’s need for a vain narrative of national strengthening and prospering. The nationalist public forms a base of support for Xi in a broad sense: Foreign observers can gauge the strength of nationalist sentiment by looking at widespread public opposition to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, as well as support for China’s military exercises around Taiwan. While there is a great degree of overlap between the underclass and the nationalists, the latter also include part of the middle class and some elites. Nearly three years of zero-COVID policies may have made these groups somewhat less well-disposed toward Xi, but overall support remains high.

Intellectuals are by and large against Xi, but he retains the support of many leftist intellectuals and scholars, as well as those with a statist bent. Whatever else might be said of him, Xi’s use of socialism as a rallying banner and portrayal of himself as a protector of China’s national interests seeking to lead China to fresh strengths still have the power to attract leftist and statist intellectuals. They may still have areas of dissatisfaction, but if presented with a straight choice of yes or no, the majority would still choose yes to Xi.

The military—as Mao phrased it, the gun barrel from which political power ultimately stems—holds a special position among Xi’s supporters. Xi is the chairman of the Central Military Commission, but that by itself doesn’t guarantee personal loyalty. But he has expanded the power of the position and used internal anti-corruption campaigns within the military to place trusted figures in senior positions. His reforms and efforts to increase training, improve combat readiness, clear dead wood out of the military, and restore a sense of purpose to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which was badly burdened by corruption, have given the rank and file—especially mid- and low-ranking officers—hopes and opportunities for advancement. The PLA has, to a degree, already become Xi’s personal army.

Xi’s sources of support mean that while his power may have been challenged, it has not suffered any attrition. He has his own solid bases of popular support. As varied and large as his opposition may be, especially among China’s elites, it is also disunited, fearful, unable to organize, and lacks a shared vision of any alternative or avenue for change. Xi’s enemies are many, but so are his weapons.

This piece was translated from the original Chinese by Brendan O’Kane.

Deng Yuwen is a Chinese writer and scholar.

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