Xi Jinping is widely misunderstood by the media and intellectuals because they don’t understand the power dynamics inside the Chinese communist regime today, according to maverick retired defense official Xin Ziling.
Born Song Ke in the province of Hebei in northern China, Xin joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1950 at the age of 15. Xin eventually made director of China National Defense University, the country’s top higher education institute for defense official.
Today, Xin is best known as a fiery critic of the regime who isn’t afraid to broach sensitive topics—he is the author of a highly critical book on former Chinese dictator Mao Zedong; he has spoken out against former Party leader Jiang Zemin’s persecution of Falun Gong, a traditional Chinese spiritual practice; and joined other scholars and journalists in calling for the regime to end censorship.
Recently, Xin Ziling was interviewed by the Chinese language edition of Voice of America as part of a series on the Communist Party’s 6th Plenum. Though the interview took place before the recently-concluded meeting, its identification of the faultlines in elite Party politics remains highly relevant. We’ve translated the interview, and edited it for brevity and clarity.
Question: What are your thoughts about the 6th Plenum?
Xin Ziling: This meeting concerns the infighting in the Chinese Communist Party. Xi Jinping is heading a group of reformists, and they are being opposed by a faction led by Jiang Zemin.
The 6th Plenum will bring a general resolution to this struggle, and there must be complete resolution in the lead up to the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress; otherwise, the 19th Congress can’t be held. For example, if Jiang is still allowed some say in matters of the day, he could pick another three Politburo Standing Committee members [serving Standing Committee members Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, and Zhang Gaoli are known allies of Jiang]. How is that acceptable? What will become of China then? I also believe that [Xi Jinping] will conclusively resolve organizational issues at the 6th Plenum.
Now the whole Party has essentially endorsed Xi Jinping assuming the title of “core” leader. In other words, Jiang Zemin’s position as the Party’s “core” is on the wane; previously, Jiang still had influence, but now many cadres are much clearer on the overall situation. I recently read that the leaders of 28 provinces were replaced within a span of nine months. If a cadre refuses to change his political mindset and stance, he will be replaced and dealt with by the Party organization.
I’m optimistic about the prospects. By that I mean that Xi Jinping will be victorious, the reformists will be victorious, and the Chinese people will be triumphant. China cannot possibly progress without the purging of corrupt officials—those big tigers, medium tigers, and old tigers. [“Tiger” is Party parlance for corrupt high-ranking officials.]
It’s also impossible for progress to be made on political reform and issues such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the political rehabilitation of Falun Gong if Jiang Zemin isn’t removed. With rows of big tigers obstructing the way, there’s no way to resolve these issues. The conditions and timing must be right for a comprehensive resolution to be reached, and its possible that something will come of the 6th Plenum that will jolt the people and the Party.
Q: Do you that think that Xi Jinping might resolve the issues of Tiananmen and Falun Gong when he becomes “core” leader?
Xin: It’s not a question of probability; Xi Jinping will definitely resolve these issues. Falun Gong practitioners can and have filed criminal complaints against Jiang Zemin with the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate … these judicial organs have already accepted these complaints. Falun Gong and Tiananmen must be resolved. Xi Jinping cannot carry this burden going forward; he is crystal clear on this matter.
Q: Human rights lawyers have been arrested, petitioners have been suppressed, freedom of speech is being restricted, and many people have been prosecuted for comments they’ve made on the internet. Could these incidents have happened if Xi Jinping didn’t give a nod?
Xin: Let me make a clarification. There are currently two power centers in the Chinese Communist Party. And Xi Jinping doesn’t have complete power before the 6th Plenum.
Take the political and legal apparatus, for example. In theory, after Zhou Yongkang was purged, Xi ought to have regained control over the apparatus. In reality, however, the apparatus’ direction can be influenced in countless ways; many officials are still carrying out Zhou Yongkang’s policies, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
Recently there was a man named Wang Zhiwen [the former Falun Gong coordinator in Beijing] who was prevented from leaving the country in Guangzhou. Xi Jinping is definitely not behind this. Because the people who blocked Wang still have some power.
Nowadays, who does the common folk blame when they are unhappy about something? They blame the top leader, and say that it’s Xi Jinping’s doing even when it’s not his idea. This situation arises from slandering and the so-called “advanced blackening” [gaojihei in Chinese].
Those old tigers and big tigers from the Jiang faction face the fate of being purged. So they think: If I’m a goner, then I’m going to bring you down, too. They then try to sabotage Xi, and damage his political reputation. But Xi is not behind many incidents; the shutting down of Yanhuang Chunqiu [a reformist publication ran by mostly elderly Party cadres] was the handiwork of Liu Yunshan [the propaganda and ideology chief].
Right now Xi Jinping cannot abandon his plans at the 6th Plenum or his overall objectives to deal with the specific problems caused by the Jiang faction. As the highest-ranking leader, Xi needs to deal with all these problems comprehensively in terms of strategy, direction, and policy. He needs to get all cadres to implement the Party Central’s policies; having the top leader rectify all problems caused by noncompliant cadres is impossible.
Given the circumstances, many people, including the media and the intelligentsia, have a lot of misunderstandings about Xi Jinping. They see increased restrictions on the media, and people getting arrested. But if Xi isn’t aware of a lot of things until they take place, what is he to do?
Q: Isn’t Xi Jinping aware that his reputation and credibility are damaged when these things happen?
Xin: Of course he is aware. And that is what drives him to resolve all these issues once and for all at the 6th Plenum! If Xi doesn’t take action, what he ultimately faces is Chinese officials dragging their feet, or even performing the opposite of what he wants. Some officials might think: You don’t allow me to take bribes, that’s fine. I will not do any work, and bring the entire government administration to a halt. Then the people will blame Xi Jinping.
The organizational issue can be resolved through the appointing of new officials and wiping the slate at the 19th Congress. Jiang Zemin has build up his factional networks in the Party for over two decades, and the roots he has sunk are intertwining and very deep. This is not an easy issue to resolve, but Xi won’t be able to push through his policies without fixing this issue. Then the case of orders not leaving Zhongnanhai [the officials headquarters of the Party leadership in Beijing] will persist.
Q: For several months, there have been many changes in the ranks of the top provincial leadership. Do you believe that Xi Jinping is responsible for the reshuffling?
Xin: Certainly. Now, many provincial-level cadres are Xi’s appointments. These personnel changes were made to prevent a political coup from taking place during the 6th Plenum and the 19th Congress. That’s also the reasoning behind the reshuffling of top leaders in 28 provinces in 9 months.
Q: After the recent military reforms, does Xi Jinping have complete control over the military?
Xin: You could say that. Military reform is a massive operation; frankly, Mao Zedong didn’t dare to do it, and neither did Deng Xiaoping. What Xi has done is unprecedented, but then again he was forced into it. Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou [two disgraced former military vice chairs] had Hu Jintao under their thumb for a decade; everyone in the military was loyal to them. If this issue isn’t resolved at a fundamental level, it’s impossible to gain control over the military.
In fact, Xi forcibly wrestled back control of the military, and the struggle continues to escalate. Recently, there were many personnel changes in the military; this was done to clean out the remaining influence of Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. Why is this necessary? Because many of Xu and Guo’s subordinates are still in office, and whose side they are on is still unclear. However, the overall situation has been settled, and Xi Jinping is firmly in control of the military. Without controlling the military, there can be no way for Xi to counterattack in this ongoing struggle. So it is reasonable for Xi to have started with military reform, and to purge Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong.