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Analyzing Fang Zhou’s ‘Objective Evaluation of Xi Jinping’

◎ The following analysis was first published in the February 10, 2022 edition of our subscriber-only SinoWeekly Plus newsletter. Subscribe to SinoInsider to view past analyses in our newsletter archive.

On Jan. 19, an article titled “An Objective Evaluation of Xi Jinping” (客觀評價習近平) was published on the PRC-sponsored overseas Chinese language internet forum 6park (留園網). The over 42,000 character-long article was bylined “The Ark and China” (“Fang Zhou and China”; 方舟與中國), was split into three parts (compiled into one piece here by the Chinese language edition of Radio France Internationale), and carries a clear Jiang Zemin faction bias. The piece made the rounds in overseas Chinese language circles, where it was widely reported and commented on in early February. 

The article is highly critical of Xi and his nearly decade-long reign. Xi is depicted as repressive, regressive, and a potential renegade who will usher in the collapse of the CCP regime if allowed to remain in power, with his failed policies, anti-Midas touch, and “bad luck.” Virtually every single negative trope about Xi that readers of Chinese and English press would be familiar with are recycled in the piece—Xi is presented as a “worst-of-the-worst” tyrannical dictator, a gross human rights violator, an anti-intellectual, power-hungry, dangerous, etc. Xi is also blamed for all of the regime’s ills, including a deteriorating economy, an uninspired officialdom (prevalence of the “prefer left rather than right” attitude towards policy implementation under Xi), and courting “systemic” and “zero-sum” competition with the Western powers. 

The article’s portrayal of Xi is unflattering to the point of being self-contradictory. One sentence casts Xi as a sort of strategic mastermind (“Xi is very good at strategy and also acts systematically”) before immediately slamming him for possessing “serious cognitive bias.” Xi is further described as lacking in confidence, and comes across as woefully incompetent country bumpkin—descriptions that are hard to square with the ruthless, Machiavellian strategist that he supposedly also is. 

Xi is compared very unfavorably to his predecessors, most of all Jiang Zemin, as well as his fellow Party princeling Bo Xilai. For instance, Xi is portrayed as a leader lacking in confidence and charisma (領袖魅力) whose efforts to emulate the “charismatic” Jiang and Bo end up being poor imitations. Xi’s “common prosperity” policy is dismissed as a “copy” of Bo’s “twelve articles of common prosperity” policy in Chongqing, while Xi’s attempts to imitate Jiang’s diplomatic “cultural temperament” are described as “out of place.” In contrast, Bo is depicted as capable, savvy, practical, accepting of Western society and openness, and having good rapport with intellectuals; Xi comes across as being everything Bo is not and preparing to set China on the path to becoming North Korea. Meanwhile, the article claims that “many people are vaguely nostalgic for the Jiang Zemin era.” 

Praising Jiang Zemin and Bo Xilai aside, the article’s Jiang faction bias can also be discerned from how it tackled the topic of religious persecution during the Xi and Jiang eras. Xi is blamed for cracking down on Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, with the word “Christianity” mentioned six times in the article. However, there is no mention of the persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang although that campaign is what Xi is most notorious for, with the article only noting that Xi “began to assimilate minorities”; this is very likely because the modern-day persecution of the Uyghurs had its roots in the Jiang era while the “assimilation of minorities” is a longstanding CCP policy. The article also fails to mention that the Jiang Zemin and the Jiang faction too severely persecuted adherents of religious groups during their time, including Christians, Muslims, and those of other faiths, and particularly practitioners of Falun Gong. Instead, the article spun the Jiang faction’s top political liability—the persecution of Falun Gong—into an “asset” for Jiang Zemin vis-à-vis Xi Jinping. “Among China’s leaders, there are few like Xi Jinping who have been totally rejected from personality to policies. If Jiang Zemin attracts Falun Gong’s hatred, Xi courts resentment from all classes,” the article said. 

The article unwittingly reveals the Jiang faction’s fears and schemes. On the one hand, the Jiang faction appears confident that Xi’s incompetence means that he is essentially on his last legs. “2022 will be the biggest turning point for [Xi Jinping]. Even if he manages to stay in power by some magic trick, he’ll face a thorny road ahead and complete collapse by 2027,” the article said. The article also notes on several occasions that Xi lacks mass support in the Party (“aside from his allies, he has hurt almost everyone [in the Party]”), and starkly puts him on notice near the end: “The CCP will not wage a cold war with the world for Xi’s benefit; if he insists on destroying the common good, he will eventually offend everyone. It would be dangerous for Xi at this juncture because people will adopt an ‘anti-Xi, not anti-CCP’ [反習不反共] strategy.”  

On the other hand, the Jiang faction is increasingly concerned about Xi’s focus on factional struggle and growing paranoia. Xi “believes that the reason for all his troubles is the lack of power centralization; there are still many factions in the Party constraining him, leading to political disunity,” the article notes. With Xi “unable to create his own legitimacy through achievements” and with the “failure of popular sentiment,” he will find it “easier to choose Mao Zedong’s way rather than Deng Xiaoping’s way to maintain his position in the face of challenges”; Mao’s “way” is explained as “a dead-end of class struggle.” Further, Xi has “ill feelings” about “collusion between Western dignitaries and Chinese elites,” an observation which suggests that the Jiang faction believes that Xi suspects and is on guard against challenges to his rule from a broad “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” coalition of domestic and foreign opponents.

Finally, the Jiang faction is very worried that Xi could attempt desperado tactics that imperil themselves and the regime. The above reference to Xi choosing “Mao Zedong’s way rather than Deng Xiaoping’s way” to stay in power indicates that the Jiang faction is wary that Xi would crush them mercilessly (including purging Jiang Zemin and Jiang faction number two Zeng Qinghong) and pit the masses against the elites (but the article does not explain why this is a concern given Xi’s “failure of popular sentiment” and courting of “resentment from all classes”) through political campaigns like “common prosperity” and “self-revolution.” 

The Jiang faction is also deeply concerned that Xi has been secretly laying the foundations all these years to disintegrate the Party and throw them under the bus. The article notes that Xi has been “eroding the CCP’s ruling foundation layer by layer,” “precisely attacking all of the regime’s vital organs,” “constantly dismantling this totalitarian government in an almost surgical manner,” and has “cut off the Party’s escape route.” The article then speculates that Xi “may have retained his father’s influence,” observing that the “enlightened” Xi Zhongxun found it impossible to push through reforms during his time given great resistance within the Party. “But if Xi Jinping switches tactics and adopts a politically regressive approach, he is instead more likely to [succeed in] subvert(ing) the system,” the article added. “Many people have been wondering from the beginning to the end whether Xi has some democratic intentions beneath his authoritarian appearance; the more people observe him, the more they think that it is he who is subverting the regime.”  

Lastly, the article comes across as unpolished, long-winded, and repetitive in several parts, leading some Chinese observers to believe that it is the work of a collective rather than an individual. Moreover, the article contains small but glaring errors, including the use of the Chinese character for “era” instead of “belt” in the “Belt and Road Initiative” (“一代一路” instead of “一帶一路”) and claiming that Mao Zedong headed the Cultural Revolution Group (it was chaired by various elite cadres during its existence, but never by Mao himself).

The length, scope, and content of “An Objective Evaluation of Xi Jinping” positions it as a sort of unofficial Jiang faction counter to Xi Jinping’s “historical resolution.” The article’s dissemination via an overseas Chinese language internet forum is likely intended to get people talking about how Xi is hugely unpopular within the CCP and how there remains substantial, influential opposition to the Xi leadership despite purges and tightening of control over the elite. Further, the article appears to be a Jiang faction attempt at propaganda and political mobilization in response to Xi’s own recent efforts; the Jiang faction is making the case that to domestic and foreign audiences that allowing Xi to continue his tenure will lead to the inevitable collapse of the CCP regime in what appears to be a bid to frighten them into taking more concrete action in opposing Xi.

The article’s byline, “The Ark and China,” seems like a reference to Noah’s Ark and flood narrative in Genesis. This can be read as the Jiang faction positioning itself as the “savior” of a doomed China under Xi Jinping. The glowing portrayal of Bo Xilai in the piece also positions him as Xi’s replacement in the event that the latter is ousted. 

“The Ark and China” has a social media account with 21 articles, the earliest of which was published on Nov. 10, 2020. The articles are critical of China’s politics and economy under Xi Jinping’s leadership, but do not target the PRC totalitarian system. The social media site posted a 17,000-character article promoting Bo Xilai on the same day that it published “An Objective Evaluation of Xi Jinping” on Jan. 19; the article before those on Jan. 19 was posted over half a year earlier on June 10, 2021. 

2. The article makes no effort to conceal its Jiang faction bias. Positive depictions of Jiang Zemin and Bo Xilai aside, the article contains crucial details concerning Jiang faction interests and are written in a manner that preserves those interests. This includes the Falun Gong issue, “collusion between Western dignitaries and Chinese elites” on financial issues and the “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” effort, and the point about how Xi’s continual accumulation of power and changes to the Party system could actually be paving the way for him to blame the CCP’s ills on the Jiang faction and dismantle the Party.

The last point is not a figment of the Jiang faction’s imagination. We observed on numerous occasions that Xi has been “signaling left to turn right” on policy (see here, here, and here for explanation). The most illustrative case is Xi dismantling the Jiang faction’s supra-authority “610 Office” and replacing it with the national security apparatus, his own supra-authority organization. The national security apparatus allows Xi to sway various organs (at least on paper) from Party Central down to local governments on the pretext of safeguarding “national security”; previously, persecuting Falun Gong was the Jiang faction’s excuse for using the 610 Office to wield supra-authority power over the various government apparatuses. From the Jiang faction’s perspective, Xi’s removal of their supra-authority organization would seem like him “precisely attacking all of the regime’s vital organs” or “constantly dismantling this totalitarian government in an almost surgical manner,” in the words of the article. Worse for the Jiang faction, they have no way to protect Jiang Zemin’s political legacy of persecuting Falun Gong with the 610 Office no longer in place, or ensure that Xi does not some day reverse the campaign and use the momentum to establish “quan wei” to achieve his political ends, including realizing “democratic intentions.” Indeed, the article reveals that the Jiang faction fears that Xi is “cutting off” their and the Party’s “escape route” in preparation to sacrifice both. We believe that Xi will only actualize the Jiang faction’s “nightmare scenario” when he concludes that his political situation is dire, has no other way to save the regime and the Party, and needs to prioritize his personal as well as political future.

Meanwhile, the article’s explicit mention of the “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” strategy affirms our previous analysis of it. Recent Western signaling suggests that the strategy is well underway and could become more obvious as the 20th Party Congress draws closer. Also, the article’s mention of Xi being “unable to create his own legitimacy through achievements” also tallies with our observation that Xi lacks genuine political achievements aside from the anti-corruption campaign and hence is short on “quan wei.”

3. The fact that the Jiang faction laid out its fears and threats relatively unambiguously in its anti-Xi screed indicates that intra-Party factional struggle is well into its “perish together” (同歸於盡) phase. The Jiang faction is no doubt aware that Xi Jinping is planning to step up “self-revolution” and the anti-corruption campaign before the 20th Party Congress, which spells catastrophe for them and their fortunes. The article suggests that the Jiang faction is prepared to struggle with Xi to the bitter end and wants the Party elite and foreign interest groups to know the consequences of their actions in the hopes that the latter groups will take action.

However, the Jiang faction’s political mobilization article will likely deepen Xi Jinping’s paranoia about challenges to his rule. This will push the Xi camp to speed up and intensify its ongoing factional struggle endeavors and purges to ensure that Xi Jinping’s third term bid is unopposed. This sets the stage for political Black Swans to emerge in China this year. 

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