The enemies of Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping could be behind an online letter that leveled a potent attack on Xi’s rule and threatened his family—this is the tentative conclusion suggested by a review of the political loyalties of many of the key players involved in the Xinjiang-based outlet that published the letter, and an examination of the current landscape of politics in China.
For over a decade, the Party chiefs of Xinjiang in westmost China have been connected with a powerful Party faction overseen by former Chinese regime leader Jiang Zemin. Jiang has managed to stay influential and relevant in Chinese politics despite having relinquished all official positions over a decade ago, due to the placement of strong allies in key positions.
Xinjiang was, between 2002 and 2014, under the purview of two staunch loyalists of Jiang, former security czars Luo Gan and Zhou Yongkang. Zhou succeeded Luo in heading a small but crucial policymaking and implementation body that oversees the region.
Jiang’s loyalists in turn brought their own cronies up the ranks. Zhou Yongkang had in 2010 strongly recommended that current Xinjiang Party chief Zhang Chunxian replace the outgoing Wang Lequan, according to Duowei News, an overseas Chinese language news outlet. Both Zhang and Wang are known cronies of Zhou, according to reports in Chinese overseas and dissident news media.
While Zhou Yongkang was purged and handed a life prison sentence in 2015, Zhang Chunxian remains at large in Xinjiang—and openly bristles at Xi Jinping’s efforts to assert control.
Dozens of senior Party leaders have recently acknowledged Xi as the Party’s “core”—a historically significant title used to laud Party paramount leaders like Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin (but not Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao)—but Zhang instead curtly declined the opportunity to profess fealty during an official media session at an important annual Party conclave on March 8.
Four days before Zhang Chunxian’s show of recalcitrance, a mutinous letter signed by “loyal Party members” and addressed to Xi Jinping appeared on the website of the Xinjiang-based Wujie News.
Launched in 2015, Wujie was meant to promote Xi’s “belt and road” policy, a new economic initiative with countries in Eurasia. After the letter, which also criticized the very policy that Wujie was supposed to promote, was taken down, Wujie carried only articles from state mouthpieces People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency.
Given the brazen nature of the letter, many speculated that Wujie had been hacked. But inspectors from the Cyberspace Administration of China said they didn’t find any trace of cyber intrusion, and wondered how a website hosted by Alibaba, one of the most secure hosting services in China, could be hacked. The inspectors then suspected an “inside job,” according to Chinese overseas media Boxun.
The two men on top of the Wujie hierarchy, board chairman Li Wanhui and chairman Ouyang Hongliang, are directly linked with the Xinjiang Party elite.
Li Wanhui holds several portfolios, including chief editor at Tianshan Net, a news portal owned by the Xinjiang government, and heads the Internet Division at the Publicity Office of Xinjiang’s Propaganda Department. According to Mingjing News, a New York-based Chinese publication that trades in political gossip from Beijing, Li is a “close aide” of Zhang Chunxian, the Xinjiang chief. And Ouyang Hongliang is known to be “quite well acquainted” with Xinjiang higher ups, according to Deutsche Welle.
As of the end of March, Li and Ouyang number among the over 20 people who have been detained over the letter to Xi Jinping, according to Radio France Internationale.
It is of course impossible to prove that the letter was a plot by Xi’s political enemies—but it is a possibility in the context of the lethal struggle for power in the Chinese Communist Party.
As put by Xiao Qiang, the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese propaganda and social media: “Bluff or true, this tone sounds more like coup plotters talking to the leader they want to depose, rather than an open letter with dissenting political views.”
Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has destroyed the wealth and authority amassed through an unprecedented level of corruption by powerful political families around China, many of them tied in one way or another to the network that took root during the reign of Jiang Zemin and his lieutenants.
Anyone involved in such an enterprise risks exposing themselves to the retribution reserved for those guilty of treason against Party Central.
No official in China could be ignorant of the methods employed by the Party’s secret internal investigators as they force confessions from the accused. Zhou Wangyan, a former land bureau director, told the Associated Press in 2014 that interrogators had snapped his leg, deprived him of sleep, and forced him to eat feces. A year earlier there were reports of Party officials dying from torture in custody.
If Party officials linked with Jiang were indeed behind the letter, then they were clearly prepared to stake their health and career on stealing a march on Xi Jinping. And the gamble has somewhat paid off: The international community of China watchers has ignored the likely factional origins of this letter in rushing to take it as an example of how there is genuine grassroots anger towards Xi.
Xi Jinping’s opponents have much to gain by turning the tables. If Xi feels besieged, for instance, he might slow down or even forgo his efforts at gaining full political control through the anti-corruption campaign, thus allowing Party elders and their loyalists to maintain influence, protect their remaining interests—and eventually unseat Xi.
Before Xi took office in 2012, there was talk of Jiang’s lieutenants seeking to replace or even assassinate him. This was confirmed in a 2015 speech by Xi where he singled out the lieutenants—former security czar Zhou Yongkang, the late General Xu Caihou, scheming former General Office director Ling Jihua, and the wily ex-Chongqing chief Bo Xilai—as coup plotters who sought to “carry out political conspiracies to wreck and split the Party.”
A key factor driving Jiang Zemin, and his loyalists’, resistance to Xi Jinping is the desire to not be held accountable for his crimes against the Falun Gong spiritual practice, according to Xia Xiaoqiang, a political commentator for the Chinese language edition of this newspaper. Jiang launched the persecution of Falun Gong in 1999 and went to great lengths to perpetuate it. In particular, as evidence continues to emerge illustrating the scale of the killing of Falun Gong for their organs, this motive becomes more readily creditable.
Those officials who fear losing the gains they have gotten through corruption—or even being punished for those gains—are potentially fertile recruits by any effort by the Jiang faction to oppose Xi. The letter may thus have also been an attempt to appeal to officials among the broader elite who are keen on keeping and protecting their interests to resist Xi.
More recently, an even bolder anti-Xi Jinping missive was published in Mingjing News. This letter was said to have been penned by 171 “loyal members of the Chinese Communist Party” in the “Party, government, military, and other organizations.” It accused Xi Jinping of five “grave mistakes” and called for his immediate removal.
Given the chutzpah it takes to draft and publish such letters, and the attendant risks, what are the chances they were really just the work of a group of grassroots “loyal Communist Party members”?