The Beijing political rumour-mill has gone into overdrive in recent weeks, seizing upon every nuance and reading between every line for signs of the impending downfall of ‘Xi dada’ (Big Daddy Xi). All kinds of rumour is being going around: that President Xi Jinping is seriously ill and is refusing surgery leading to squabbling over his succession with Li Keqiang mentiond as a likely successor. And on it goes.
The predicted replacement of Xi by Li has its roots in differences on the economy and Covid-19, so the rumours go – and there does appear to be a split of sorts. In his public pronouncements Xi has doubled down on zero-Covid above all else. He has made little mention of China’s economic hardships, urging officials to stick with his Covid elimination strategy as a mark of loyalty. Meanwhile, Li has taken to stressing the problems that Xi avoids talking about, and has reportedly issued grim warnings about the damage during meetings with officials. Li is nominally in charge of the economy but has been side-lined for much of Xi’s rule. Recent moves to reverse Xi’s policies and ease up on action against technology firms and bloated property companies and generally pump more money into the economy are seen as a re-assertion of Li’s influence.
One prominent overseas Chinese YouTube host even had a date for Li’s takeover, claiming Xi would ‘abdicate’ peacefully on May 20. That deadline has come and gone, but there will no doubt be another rumour to explain why.
There is a pattern with these rumours. Most emerge first via overseas Chinese sources. This is a well-established system for nurturing political intrigue – discontented officials push rumours out via the Chinese diaspora, where they are amplified and then come back into China and generate gossip and further rumour.
Other rumours have pointed to Xi’s apparent reduction in public appearances as a sign of his fading power. Confirmation is all but impossible. The Chinese Communist Party is the blackest of black boxes, and that opacity has increased under Xi. What we can say with reasonable confidence is that Xi has made enemies from his years long anti-corruption drive to eliminate his rivals. There are plenty of disgruntled officials who would like to see him thwarted in his efforts of secure another five-year term. A decision on this, scheduled for a CCP congress in the Autumn, had been regarded as a formality. The rumours suggest there is still manoeuvring going on. Earlier this month the Party issued a set of guidelines that explicitly banned retired officials from gossiping ahead of the congress. They must not ‘discuss policies and decisions in an irresponsible manner and spread negative political comments’, according to the guidelines, and should ‘resolutely resist and oppose all kinds of wrong thinking’.
Xi’s pursuit of zero-Covid is the most immediate cause of disagreement, with the Shanghai lockdown widely regarded as a disaster. There has been more open criticism online than at any time since the virus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019. At the weekend, officials faced widespread mockery after Shanghai University announced that it was moving the practical swimming exams that all students are required to take ‘online’. One user asked on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, ‘Is it a reality version of surfing the internet?’. One suggested using the bathtub, while another said, ‘Hahaha, detach the swimming sport from the water completely. What a brilliant idea!’ The CCP hates criticism, but it hates mockery even more.
Another recent source of anger will be a party directive ordering senior officials to shed property or other assets they hold abroad. This is part of an attempt to make China more resilient to any future Western sanctions, but an overseas bolt-hole or a nest-egg or two has long been de rigueur for party officials.
So the rumours will likely continue in the run-up to the critical party congress and there will be plenty of people who want to believe them. At such times, Chinese people frequently turn to the wisdom of Otto von Bismarck, who once said, ‘Never believe anything until it has been officially denied.’
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