A series of incidents has experts speculating that deep divisions could exist at the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, amid an ongoing trade war with the United States.
On July 15, the Party’s mouthpiece newspaper People’s Daily failed to mention Chinese leader Xi Jinping on its front page—the second such omission within a week, reported Voice of America (VOA). Many independent overseas Chinese media have reported that the repeated omission is the first such occurrence since 2013, around the time Xi officially took power.
The Chinese regime keeps an iron grip on what stories are reported by the media, and even exact wordings are carefully crafted to toe the Party line. Thus, the omission is not likely to be a coincidence.
For the Party’s official newspaper, it is shocking that its leader’s name does not appear on the front page. The omission is considered to carry particular political significance given how in March 2016, Xi told state-run media to “have the Party be your last name”—a move to consolidate power, likely so that Xi could ensure his anti-corruption campaign carries on without a hitch.
In other words, control of China’s state-run media—critical to the dissemination of Party propaganda—is vital for Xi to enforce his policies within a fractious Party rife with his political opponents.
Another glaring absence from the front page was news coverage of tit-for-tat tariffs imposed by China after the United States announced that duties on $34 billion worth of Chinese imports would become effective beginning July 6.
According to VOA, the omission of Xi’s name was an indication that he is losing control over the state media—and indirectly reveals that the Party was displeased with how Xi has handled the trade war with the United States.
A protracted trade war could deal a serious financial blow to the Chinese economy. Chief among the concerns is how China can meet its soybean demand from other countries, given that the United States is among the world’s top soybean exporters. China’s large demand in the face of limited supply could drive soybean prices up.
The trade war has already scared investors and driven down Chinese stock markets. Meanwhile, some foreign companies, worried that they might be caught in the crossfire between the two countries, have already said they plan to pull out of the Chinese market.
On July 11, state-run media Xinhua also carried a report that was intended to criticize the current Party leadership, according to Zha Jianguo, a dissident living in Beijing, in an interview with Radio Free Asia.
The Xinhua article described an incident in 1980, when the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s internal anti-corruption watchdog, announced that it would investigate three incidents of “personality cult worship” toward then-Party chairman Hua Guofeng, who briefly succeeded Mao Zedong before Deng Xiaoping came to prominence. A local government in northern China’s Shanxi Province had renovated Hua’s old home into a museum. According to Xinhua, Hua later apologized for the incidents.
Since Xi eliminated Party leader term limits and enshrined his Party ideology into the Party constitution—making him the most powerful CCP leader since Mao—Xi’s political enemies have intentionally used propaganda to excessively glorify Xi, leading to public perceptions that Xi is becoming a Mao-like, cult-of-personality figure.
No one knows for sure the motivation behind the People’s Daily omissions and Xinhua’s article on Hua, but a recent protest against Xi has gathered a lot of attention, with copycats inside and outside of China mimicking the event.
Dong Yaoqiong, a manager at a real estate company in Shanghai, started a live broadcast on Twitter at around 6:40 a.m. on July 4, according to Taiwanese newspaper United Daily News (UDN). The roughly two-minute-long broadcast showed her pouring ink over a poster of Xi Jinping that was hanging in front of a skyscraper in busy Lujiazui District, while voicing her displeasure at Xi’s “authoritarian rule.”
According to UDN, “spreading ink” has become a censored term on the Chinese internet. Taiwanese newspaper Liberty Times reported on July 14 that both Dong and her father have since been arrested. The event was a rare display of dissent against Xi despite heavy censorship.
Could the subtle digs at Xi hint at division within the Party leadership, or that Xi has lost his dominance over the Party? These remain key questions as the Chinese senior leadership prepares for its upcoming political meeting, held annually at the resort town of Beidaihe, a few miles from Beijing on the coast of the Bohai Sea.
According to a July 14 report by Hong Kong media Apple Daily, citing sources within Beijing’s political circle, the seaside meeting will be held in August this year, and at the top of the agenda will be discussing “major errors” committed by top Chinese officials since the Party’s critical conclave held last October. The report did not specify what kind of problems will be discussed.
A July 15 analysis by the World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper published in the United States, indicated that a political coup could be brewing to unseat Xi, and that Wang Huning— a key political strategist for Xi and a member of the most powerful decision-making body in the Party, the Politburo Standing Committee—could be the first casualty amid the Party’s internal turmoil.
Wang would be replaced by Hu Chunhua—the country’s vice premier and a member of the Politburo, the second most powerful body—according to World Journal.