The United States is the world’s most powerful country. If Xi can close a trade deal with Washington and mend Sino-U.S. relations, he will be able to pull the country out of crisis.
On April 4, U.S. President Donald Trump met with Chinese vice premier Liu He in Washington, and Liu brought him a personal letter from Xi Jinping. Trump described the letter as “beautiful;” meanwhile, Chinese state mouthpiece Xinhua reported that intensive negotiations over the course of the previous month had led to “new and substantial” progress on key issues.
Xi stated his desire for negotiations to be finished as soon as possible, and expressed willingness to maintain close communications with Trump, who for his part, had said that the two countries had reached agreement on some of the most challenging issues in the deal. On April 25, Trump told White House staff that he and Xi would soon meet to finalize the trade agreement.
Days later, the situation took an abrupt turn, when Beijing reneged on its prior agreements. The trade war resumed, with the Trump administration imposing new tariffs on 25 percent on $250 billion worth of Chinese export goods.
Where did things go wrong?
In my view, the setback in negotiations—as well as a host of other problems that Xi faces—stem from the unresolved nature of his anti-corruption campaign. Since coming to power, the Xi leadership has disciplined more than 1 million officials, yet his most powerful rivals remain at large.
At the core of the anti-Xi elements in the Chinese regime are former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) head Jiang Zemin and his fixer Zeng Qinghong, who served as vice president and in other key posts. Though retired, both men still wield considerable influence throughout the CCP establishment, having had decades to cultivate their factional network.
Now 93, Jiang is ailing and can’t personally cause much trouble; the present “leadership” of the Jiang faction thus falls to Zeng.
Zeng’s factional ties intersect many cliques, including the Shanghai and Jiangxi “gangs,” as well as the Chinese oil industry and red princeling community. Between 1989 and 1999, as chief of the CCP General Office, Zeng was Jiang’s most important aide.
From 1999 to 2007, Zeng accumulated an array of high-profile roles, including vice president of China, head of the Party’s Organization Department, executive secretary of the CCP Central Committee, membership in the Politburo Standing Committee, president of the Central Party School, and leader of the CCP’s leading group on Hong Kong and Macau affairs.
In his varied capacities, Zeng planted a multitude of confidants into Party, government, military, intelligence, and diplomatic institutions. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has barely touched the diplomatic and intelligence organs that have long been controlled by his rivals. Zeng’s confidants in these agencies continue to exercise the Jiang faction’s will, most recently undermining the Xi administration by interfering with Sino-U.S. relations.
Were the Trade Talks Sabotaged?
From March to December 2018, senior Party leaders were in tense negotiations with the U.S. government amid the trade war. On Dec. 1, Xi agreed to make concessions when he met with Trump at the G-20 summit in Argentina.
Just two days later, an overseas Chinese-language media group, Duowei, published an article, titled “Xi Jinping Should Take Responsibility for the Extreme Leftism That is Tearing Apart China.”
In a Twitter post, U.S.-based Chinese economist He Qinglian wrote: “An overseas media outlet [Duowei] associated with the national security organs seems to be signaling a call to overthrow Xi.” The Duowei article, she noted, presented its criticism of Xi as a matter of the CCP’s survival of fall.
Duowei, originally founded as an independent Chinese-language news website in New York, is now regarded as a pro-Bejing outlet associated with the Jiang faction.
“Only two possibilities: One; [the Jiang faction] is ready to fight until both sides are exhausted, or two; they are confident in their success [in taking down Xi],” He wrote.
The determination of the Jiang faction to oppose Xi may have had a hand in the breakdown of Sino-U.S. trade talks, on the eve of a potential deal. On May 5, Trump announced that new tariffs would soon go into effect, restarting the trade war.
The next day, the overseas Chinese-language media World Journal cited a source close to Beijing as saying the Chinese negotiation team’s proposal to make a deal with more concessions had been rejected by Xi. According to the source, Xi had told the negotiating team that he would “take full responsibility for any possible result.”
For Xi, the trade talks are of the utmost priority. From the Xi-Trump summit on Dec. 1 last year to May 1, when the U.S. and Chinese negotiating teams wrapped up their 10th round of talks, Beijing and Washington had reached consensus on 95 percent of the issues. On the Chinese side, the positions Vice Premier Liu He took during the talks reflect Xi’s own positions.
Multiple media quoted the World Journal report as proof that Xi was responsible for China’s backtracking on the agreements. But in my opinion, the report was very suspicious, and may be the result of disinformation concocted by those in the CCP leadership who don’t want to see Xi reach a deal with Trump.
Extreme Leftism and Growing Social Unrest
Who stands to lose from a successful trade agreement between China and the United States? In past decades, CCP elites leveraged the uneven trade system and loopholes in the state-heavy Chinese economy to amass huge fortunes. Among the most corrupt is Zeng Qinghong’s family. His son, Zeng Wei, reportedly acquired Lu Neng Group, the biggest enterprise in Shandong Province, for just 3.7 billion yuan (about $536.7 million), although the energy firm is valued at 73.8 billion yuan.
Ahead of this year’s Beidaihe meetings—the informal annual gatherings of CCP leaders and retired leaders at a seaside resort a few hours’ drive from Beijing—speculation has been circulating that regime elites may attempt to sideline Xi or depose him in a coup.
The biggest targets of Xi’s leadership, of course, are Jiang, Zeng, and their factional associates. At the peak of the anti-corruption campaign, two open letters circulated on the Chinese-language internet that demanded Xi’s resignation. One included three threats to the safety of Xi and his family.
Since March 2018, Chinese state media have run a campaign of extreme left-wing propaganda, boasting of China’s “confidence” in the trade war and pushing a bombastic ultranationalist narrative to pump up anti-U.S. sentiment in Chinese society. As the Communist Party used this hardline ideological approach to counter a national crisis, conflicts and tensions built up during the era of the Jiang faction’s political dominance came to a head.
The deterioration of the Chinese economy in recent years has caused a variety of disturbances to inflame social anger. Some examples include fake vaccines, the crash of peer-to-peer (P2P) lending platforms, the fall of China top actress Fan Bingbing for tax evasion, the sex scandal involving the head of the CCP-controlled Buddhist Association, or the Jiangxi provincial government’s heavy-handed exhumation of bodies to enforce cremation-only laws.
Last September, the CCP mouthpiece China Daily bought a four-page supplement in the Des Moines Register in Iowa to try to defame Trump. A full-page article, titled “Dispute: Fruit of a President’s Folly,” slammed the Trump administration for the trade war and encouraged local farmers to not vote for Trump and the Republicans during the midterm elections.
Iowa was the destination of Xi’s first official visit to the United States in 1985. In 2012, shortly after coming to office, Xi made another trip to Iowa while in the United States. Trump is aware of Xi’s connections with the state, which is one of the reasons why he chose former Iowa state Governor Terry Branstad as the U.S. ambassador to China. That China Daily picked Iowa to run its insert more or less shows that someone intended the move to embarrass Xi.
Resisting Xi to Preserve the Party
Despite being touted as the most powerful CCP leader since Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping is hemmed in by uncooperative officials who resist his directives, and are protected by the Jiang faction. Resistance to Xi is intended to preserve the Party’s political system, which enables their corruption.
On May 13, 2014, Xi voiced his objection to illegal construction of luxury villas in the Qinling mountains, part of Shaanxi Province in western China. But when provincial Party secretary Zhao Zhengyong received the instruction, he neither circulated the instructions to his leadership committee, nor started an initiative to address the issue. The only action he took was to order the provincial Inspection Office and the Xi’an municipality to investigate the matter and report back to the CCP central authorities. It wasn’t until June 10 that Xi’an set up an investigation team.
A month later, the province reported to the central government that all 202 illegal constructions had been investigated; however, it was later discovered that more than 1,000 properties had been left out of the investigation report. Xi then issued three more orders between October 2014 and February 2016, only to receive more fake reports from Zhao.
Zhao received protection from the Jiang faction, giving him the confidence to defy Xi. Earlier this year, he was placed under investigation by the CCP anti-corruption agency, but there is more to that story.
On Dec. 26 last year, Wang Linqing, a judge working for the Supreme People’s Court of China entrusted ex-CCTV host Cui Yongyuan with publicizing evidence of corruption in a 2016 case involving a multi-billion-yuan mining industrial dispute in Shaanxi Province.
According to Wang’s expose, which went viral, supreme court chief Zhou Qiang had dispatched people to steal documents related to the case, affecting the judgement. On Jan. 15, 2019, Zhao Zhengyong was placed under investigation, indicating that he had been taken down as a result of his own connection with the 2016 derailment of justice, and by extension, Zhou.
Zhou has done the Jiang faction’s bidding in his capacity as supreme court head since coming to his position in 2013. He has maintained a hardline stance on the banned spiritual practice of Falun Gong, which the CCP persecuted on Jiang Zemin’s orders since 1999.
As a result of his high rank, and association with the Jiang faction, Zhou seems to have escaped punishment for his role in the Shaanxi mining scandal.
On Feb. 22, the Party’s investigators announced that the court documents had been stolen by none other than Wang Linqing himself, something that hardly anyone watching the events could believe. The term “Linqing loses the documents” became an internet meme mocking the situation.
Since May of 2015, following a judicial reform allowing everyday citizens to file legal complaints to the court, over 210,000 Falun Gong practitioners and supporters of Falun Gong have submitted litigation against Jiang for ordering the anti-Falun Gong campaign. If Zhou Qiang were to fall, Jiang and Zeng’s hold over the judicial system would be weakened, which suggests that the Jiang faction engineered the outcome of the supreme court scandal in order to protect Zhou.
Under the direction of Zeng Qinghong, the Jiang faction has been using the ideology of the CCP to cover for their resistance against Xi’s foreign and domestic policy efforts, and are shifting responsibility for the Party’s crimes to Xi. They have taken advantage of the fact that thus far, Xi has relied on the CCP system to secure and maintain his political power as leader of China.
Wang Youqun holds a Ph.D. in Law from the Renmin University of China. He worked as an aide and copywriter for Wei Jianxing (1931–2015), a member of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee from 1997 to 2002.
Leo Timm contributed to this report.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.