Did Xi Jinping carry out a purge at the CCP's 20th Party Congress?
Former Chinese President Hu Jintao's forced removal from Saturday's closing ceremony and his proteges being replaced by Xi loyalists the next day surely makes this the more likely explanation.
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Did Xi Jinping purge the former Chinese leader Hu Jintao?
On October 22, at the closing ceremony for the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress, the former President of the People's Republic of China, Hu Jintao, was forcibly removed from his seat at the front table. The episode occurred while Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, looked on indifferently from the next seat.
Hu was then escorted by the two men from his seat, with the staff member holding his arm, as other party members seated behind the main table looked on. The circumstances surrounding Hu’s exit are not clear.
On his way out, Hu was seen to pause and appeared to say something to Xi and then patted Premier Li Keqiang on the shoulder. Both Xi and Li appeared to nod. It was not clear what Xi said in reply.
At one point, while Hu was still seated, Xi appeared to place his hand over a document that Hu was attempting to reach for preventing him from doing so.
Here’s video of the event in case you’d like to see for yourself.
The inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elite are rarely discussed publicly, so it’s not surprising that there has been no comment from government officials as to the rationale for Hu’s sudden departure. The closest we’ve come to an official statement are these two tweets from the Chinese state-run media company Xinhua News, seen here:
“Now, he is much better,” seems to tie a rather convenient bow on this firestorm. Should we really believe that’s what happened?
As the CNN article I mentioned earlier stated, the removal of Hu happened after the Party Congress had rubber stamped Xi's third term as president and replaced Hu's remaining proteges in the Standing Committee with Xi loyalists. There was no need to remove Hu as a show of force. He'll be eighty in December. His influence over the decision-making process, already minimal, had become nonexistent, but even if it appears unnecessary to us, Xi may not feel the same way.
Bear in mind that Xi used extremely harsh language in his opening work report to describe the situation within the party when he took over, speaking of a “slide toward weak, hollow, and watered-down party leadership in practice,” though without mentioning Hu or others by name.
Humiliating Hu in this fashion would also send a clear signal to the “retired elders,” the former high-level leaders who long remained a force within the party, that Xi’s power was unbound. In that case, Li Zhanshu’s gesture of offering assistance to Hu would have been one of instinctive—but dangerous—kindness toward a former colleague.
“Given how carefully these meetings are rehearsed and arranged, the fact that they let this happen in front of everyone, in front of the media, is the most important thing,” said Henry Gao, a law professor at Singapore Management University.
Last Sunday, in his keynote speech at the opening of the Party Congress, Mr. Xi went down a list of dissatisfactions, those accumulated during the decade before his rule. They included weakness in the Party, in the economy, and in national security, as well as the Party’s posture toward Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“With Xi, he doesn’t do these things for nothing,” Mr. Gao said. “Hu was the one in power 10 years ago.”
Xi, 69, installed six trusted associates alongside him on the Politburo’s supreme Standing Committee on Sunday, putting his former chief of staff, Li Qiang, in line to become the country’s premier. Those associated with other camps failed to secure any positions of power, with Vice Premier Hu Chunhua kept off the broader 24-member Politburo altogether.
The extent of the changes exceeded all but the most sweeping predictions of a Xi victory at the twice-a-decade party congress held over the past week in Beijing. The move effectively puts a group of Xi’s loyal aides in key positions throughout the government, tearing down divisions between party and state instituted following Mao Zedong’s chaotic rule that ended with his death in 1976.
“One-man rule is now complete,” said Hui Feng, co-author of The Rise of the People’s Bank of China and a senior lecturer at Griffith University in Australia. “Even who will become premier is not that relevant any more,” he added. “Economic policies will be less of technocratic policymaking, and succumb to political statecraft. China is indeed in a new era.”
While we can’t say for sure that Hu’s forced removal was a purge, his removal on Saturday and his proteges being replaced by Xi loyalists the next day surely makes this the more likely explanation.
This move effectively returns China to the days of Mao's sole rule. If you're more familiar with the Soviet system (as I am) than China's, then we may be seeing shades of Stalin’s purges of the mid-1930s which targeted the Old Bolsheviks, some of them original party leaders, and labeled them “traitors”. Then too, Stalin’s complete control over the Soviet system had already been secured. Trotsky had by then been exiled abroad, and Stalin’s former allies and later Party rivals Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev had been marginalized and then expelled from the party.
Trotsky was later assassinated by the KGB while Zinoviev and Kamenev were executed after being subjected to show trials in Moscow. Why go to all this trouble with your power secured? As a warning to anyone now or in the future who questions the paramount leader. We’re unlikely to see any show trials in the near future. If this was a purge, then it's fair to say Xi’s point has been made. The entire world witnessed this event and none more so than the country’s elites.
Why do it now?
There have been ongoing rumors of dissent within the CCP elite regarding Xi’s strict COVID-19 lockdown policies. Before that, there was disagreement over Xi’s brutal crackdowns against the protestors in Hong Kong, and Xi’s decision to effectively do away with the “one country, two systems” policy which was the status quo since the British relinquished control over its former territory in 1997.
While Xi’s actions of late have flexed China’s muscle and presented formidable challenges to the world order, they have caused problems for China’s economy. The lockdowns have exacerbated global supply issues. There were even serious food shortages in Shanghai this past spring. Hong Kong stocks have taken a nosedive this week as well.
Writing for CNN Business, Laura He noted today:
Foreign investors spooked by the outcome of the Communist Party’s leadership reshuffle dumped Chinese equities and the yuan despite the release of stronger-than-expected GDP data. They’re worried that Xi’s tightening grip on power will lead to the continuation of Beijing’s existing policies and further dent the economy.
Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng (HSI) Index plunged 6.4% on Monday, marking its biggest daily drop since November 2008. The index closed at its lowest level since April 2009.
Whereas the West was once essentially begging for access to Chinese manufacturing and markets, there is now a growing reluctance to invest in China. This is partly due to national security concerns being relayed from Western governments, but it’s also an awareness that Chinese companies are now subject to the whims of its ruler. If even Alibaba founder (and previously China’s richest man) Jack Ma can be sidelined for criticizing state policy, then anyone can at any times.
This explains why CCP elites have been fleeing China with whatever money they can bring with them in increasing numbers. There most recent destination of choice appears to be Singapore, but there remain significant numbers of exiles in both Canada and the United States.
Both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday have recently sounded the alarm on a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan happening in the near future. There does seem to be some disagreement in terms of when China will invade Taiwan, but there appears to be consensus that an attempt is coming in the next five years. Xi has now ensured what dissent there remains to this decision won’t have the power to stop him. There’s always the chance that outside factors could prevent any invasion from occurring, but again, with Xi’s loyalists installed on the Politburo Standing Committee, intraparty dissent isn’t likely to change the CCP’s calculus.
Writing for the BBC, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes writes:
"China is now doing all sorts of things that it's always wanted to do but wasn't powerful enough to do," [Richard McGregor, the former Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times] says. "Taiwan was always there. The South China Sea was always there. Taking on America, driving it out of Asia was always an ambition, but they didn't say it out loud."
Now China is saying it out loud, and its "wolf warrior" diplomats, named after a patriotic action film franchise, are going on the verbal offensive. In China this is hugely popular.
But Xi's policies are only creating the hostile world he claims he is defending against, believes Susan Shirk, a China expert in former US president Bill Clinton's administration.
"Picking fights with your neighbours. Dusting off plans to build large artificial islands and fortify them with military installations. Ramping up the pressure on Japan and Taiwan. It's a kind of self-encirclement that Chinese foreign policy has produced," she says.
It is in this context that we should consider this past Monday’s DOJ press conference—one day after the Politburo Standing Committee’s members were announced—led by Merrick Garland and discussing the crackdown against Chinese espionage operations against the United States.
The Justice Department announced charges Monday against six Chinese citizens, including five alleged spies, accused of working on behalf of the Chinese government to recruit US citizens as sources and undermine the federal prosecution against a major Chinese company.
According to charging documents, the Chinese telecommunications company was facing federal prosecution in Brooklyn, New York. Though the indictment does not name the company, a person familiar with the investigation confirmed to CNN that the company is Huawei.
The announcements highlights the department’s increased efforts to crack down on Chinese spies working on American soil to undermine the interests of the US government, Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a news conference Monday.
In a separate scheme, prosecutors allege that four Chinese nationals engaged in a decade-long scheme to recruit individuals in the US to work as assets to the Chinese government and relay information that they deemed helpful to China’s intelligence objectives.
According to the indictment, the defendants – some of whom were Chinese intelligence officers – worked under the cover of a fake think tank to try and recruit Americans, including university professors, a former federal law enforcement and state homeland security official. The defendants tried to bribe their targets with lavish gifts, prosecutors allege, including with an all-expense paid trip to China.
Her piece concludes by mentioning an indictment unsealed last week "outlining a plot to intimidate a US resident into returning to China to face criminal charges." That case relates back to a Chinese government operation dubbed “Operation Foxhunt” that started in 2014 (during Xi's second year as President) which seeks to return wealthy Chinese citizens who fled the country rather than face corruption charges back home.
In an earlier CNN article from September 2015, it was noted how the Obama administration appeared to be quietly cooperating with the Chinese government in some of these cases. They evidently assisted the CCP by deporting individuals back to Beijing to face criminal charges charges.
Now, seven years later, with Biden in office but many of Obama’s people back at the helm of government, it seems we’re no longer cooperating. Not only that, we’re actively sending a message that such tactics won’t be allowed on US soil. It’s quite the turnaround, but it is indicative of the shifting geopolitical landscape.
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