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Xi Enters 2024 Facing ‘Severe and Complex’ Political Troubles

Xi Jinping appears to be addressing his political problems by doubling down on the anti-corruption campaign. 

In a speech at an important meeting of the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-corruption agency in January 2024, Xi Jinping declared that his leadership had secured “overwhelming victory” in the “fight against corruption.” The situation, however, still “remains severe and complex,” Xi added, and a “tough and protracted battle against corruption” must be waged and won. 

Xi’s indirect acknowledgment of anti-corruption difficulties offers some insight into the mostly opaque world of elite Party politics. Xi’s continued call for “self-revolution,” the removal of several senior military officials and defense industry executives from the regime’s rubber stamp legislature and political consultative body, and rumors that members of the “red aristocracy” are plotting against Xi suggest that political instability is growing in the regime. 

Military purges

The sudden “disappearance” and removal of Li Shangfu as defense minister of the People’s Republic of China in the third quarter of 2023, as well as the shakeup of senior officers in the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, was a sign that things were not quite right in the military. 

Several developments in the last weeks of December 2023 and early January 2024 suggest that Xi Jinping is struggling to address the military’s serious corruption problems. 

On Dec. 14, Asia Sentinel reported that an investigation into the PLARF led to the arrest of at least 70 individuals, citing an analyst from Canadian geopolitical consulting firm Cercius Group. On Dec. 27, the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference revoked the seats of three senior executives from PRC defense industries, including two executives from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. And on Dec. 29, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress removed nine military generals as deputies of the body and from other positions, including several former senior commanders from the PLARF and the Equipment Development Department. 

Meanwhile, Bloomberg News reported on Jan. 6 that Xi embarked on a sweeping military purge after learning that “widespread corruption undermined his efforts to modernize the armed forces and raised questions about China’s ability to fight a war,” citing people familiar with a U.S. intelligence assessment. Bloomberg added that the corruption inside the PLARF and the PRC defense industrial base is so widespread that U.S. officials now believe that Xi is “less likely to contemplate major military action in the coming years than would otherwise have been the case.”

Xi faces more than just military readiness issues in targeting PLA corruption. If the scale of the probes is truly as claimed in various reports or even higher, then Xi is heightening his personal political risks and increasing political instability in the PRC with his anti-corruption moves. For instance, panicked active and retired senior military officials could become increasingly disillusioned with Xi and come to believe that they must take drastic action to preserve their interests and save their skin. Prolonged and escalated probes would also damage military morale and hurt Xi politically. 

Disgruntled elites

Senior PLA officials may not be the only ones spooked by Xi’s anti-corruption efforts. According to an account by Yuan Hongbing, an Australia-based Chinese dissident and jurist with channels to CCP elites, prominent members of the “second generation red” (i.e. children of founding revolutionaries) are allegedly planning to move against Xi Jinping should he follow in Mao Zedong’s footsteps and subject them to political repression. 

Citing Party insider sources, Yuan claimed that “second generation reds”—including the offspring of Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, and Chen Yun—had reached a “three-point political consensus” in around the third quarter of 2023 on criticizing Xi and shifting the regime towards a parliamentary system. Yuan also alleged that Xi sought to get some “second generation reds” to deny the existence of the “consensus” but to no avail and had taken political actions that were partially a response to the move by his peers in the Party elite. 

It is impossible to authenticate Yuan Hongbing’s information about “second generation reds” opposing Xi. However, the period that the “consensus” was reached does tally with certain unusual moves by Xi in the same period, including his unusual trip to Xinjiang after returning from the BRICS summit in South Africa near the end of August 2023 and his skipping the G20 leader’s summit in India in September 2023. Under these circumstances, Yuan’s revelations suggest that the political situation in the CCP is likely much less stable than appearances show.

More ‘self-revolution’

Xi Jinping appears to be addressing his political problems by doubling down on the anti-corruption campaign. 

In his speech at the third plenary session of the 20th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection on Jan. 8, Xi dropped several hints that his leadership would be targeting parts of the regime where corruption has long thrived and where his factional rivals and other political and business elites have extensive interests. For instance, Xi called for a more thorough “rectification” of areas where “power is concentrated, capital is intensive, and resources are abundant, including the financial sector, state-owned enterprises, energy, medicine, and infrastructure projects.” The targeting of those areas suggests that Xi is keen on dismantling the so-called “independent kingdoms” of the CCP political and business elite. 

Meanwhile, Xi also called for the “purification” of the “political ecology” and the elimination of “political swindlers” and “black sheeps,” as well as the maintaining of a “high-pressure posture” in punishing corruption. This hints at the continuation of factional politics in the CCP regime despite Beijing’s vigorous attempts to stamp it out. 

On the one hand, Xi’s strengthening of the anti-corruption campaign seems to suggest that his grip on power is secure. However, the more Xi taps the campaign to “turn the knife inward” and “scrape poison from bone,” the more he will endanger the fundamental interests of the “second generation reds” and other political and business elites in the regime. In doing so, Xi risks “uniting” the various political groups in the CCP, including factional enemies like the Jiang Zemin faction, the princelings, and even his own allies against him. Political Black Swans could emerge in China should the “anti-Xi coalition” decide that their self-preservation demands decisive and potentially extreme action. 

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