On March 4th, a short, anonymous letter was posted on the internet. In a few paragraphs, the letter raised the same criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping that is constantly raised in the western press: accusing him of “centralizing power” and breaking away from “collective leadership.” The letter further accused Xi of antagonizing the United States and mismanaging China’s affairs. The letter condemned Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, saying it made government bureaucrats afraid to do their work. It also condemned Xi’s call for tighter control of government media, and, with words that have been described as “bombastic”, demanded that he step down.
The author or authors of the letter, who signed it simply as “Loyal Communist Party Members,” have so far remained anonymous. While very little information about the letter has been discovered, one thing is overwhelmingly clear: the western press loves it. After columnist Jia Jia was briefly detained and released, the western press speculated, without any evidence, that this was somehow related to this mysterious publication.
As of March 28th, the western press continues to talk about the letter and promote unsubstantiated claims about arrests related to it. Wen Yunchao, a professional anti-China dissident based in New York City, claims his family was arrested in retaliation for the letter. The US press is repeating Wen’s claim almost as if it is a known fact, despite the reality that neither Wen Yunchao nor his arrested relatives are members of the Communist Party.
This letter could represent as few as a single party cadre, assuming its author or authors are even part of the 86 million-strong Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As an organization following the “party of a new type” model pioneered by Lenin, the CCP presents a unified public face and keeps its arguments internal. Despite the Party’s reputation for iron-clad discipline, any organization with 86 million members can be expected to have, at least, a few internal disagreements.
Criticism of the Chinese government is coming from many different places. While China’s economy has rapidly grown in the last several decades and living standards are improving across the country, this prosperity has not been evenly distributed. While the wages of industrial workers have substantially increased in the last decade, a small number of Chinese people have become millionaires and billionaires. A large number of Chinese Communists feel that the market sector has too much power and has undermined the revolution. President Xi’s crackdown on corruption, which is highly popular among the Chinese people, is driven by widespread frustration with the rise of economic inequality.
While the millions of Chinese “hardliners” and “neo-Maoists” have been the subject of a few articles in “The Economist,” and portrayed as dangerous in the New York Times, their critiques of Chinese leadership for not being revolutionary or communist enough have never received anything near the amount of publicity given to this mysterious letter.
In addition to the anonymous letter, the western media has also magnified the grievances of employers and newly wealthy people. A number of Chinese capitalists think the government is far to friendly to working class. The March 10th edition of the Wall Street Journal quoted a real-estate chairman as saying: “China, as a developing country, has adopted labor laws of a European welfare state… businesses have been hurt.”
What Has Xi Done?
Yum Brands is a fast-food conglomerate based in the US state of Kentucky. The reality of China’s market reforms was shown to world when Yum subsidiaries Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Pizza Hut first set-up shop in Beijing during the 1980s. The owners of the Kentucky-based corporation are announcing that they now intend to sell off the Chinese wing of their business. Why? Reports cite “turbulence stemming from food safety scares.”
“Food Safety Scares” is an unmistakable reference to the crackdown on Yum’s Chinese meat supplier, OSI, which made global headlines. The Chicago-based meat corporation, which partners with Yum Brands in distributing meat to its restaurants across the Chinese mainland, was caught intentionally serving rotten meat in 2014. Leaders of OSI were dragged out of their offices in handcuffs, and some executive officers are now in prison for endangering the public.
The crackdown on OSI has become symbolic of Xi’s reorientation toward foreign capitalists. In the USA, officials who serve rotten meat might be forced settle a class action lawsuit, or perhaps pay a heavy punitive fine. But in Xi Jinping’s China, wealthy corporate executives and business owners are not insulated from the rule of law.
Immediately after taking office in 2013, one of Xi Jinping’s first moves was to arrest the wealthy mine owner Lui Han, who had been operating a mafia-like cartel, running casinos and illegal firearms while assassinating business rivals. When Lui Han and four of his collaborators were executed on February 9th, 2015, the world was reminded that in one country, even billionaires can be subject to the death penalty.
Xi’s “Mass Line” campaign has not only targeted corporate executives, but also CCP members who take bribes and enable corporate malfeasance. Government media has been essential in Xi’s campaign. Investigative journalists on state TV in Shanghai were the ones who caught OSI serving rotten meat and exposed this scandal to the public. Party members who have been caught engaging in corruption are forced to apologize on national television, a revival of the “Jiantao Culture” that defined the Cultural Revolution.
The letter – so widely celebrated by in western media – is interpreted by the BBC as condemning Xi’s visits to Chinese media in February, in which he emphasized that “their primary duty was to obey the party.” He has also passed a new law restricting the activities of NGOs known to collaborate with the National Endowment for Democracy and the CIA.
Wall Street Fears ‘Cult of Personality’
Xi Jinping’s presidency has been a turning point in China, with the market sector facing far more regulation and discipline from the state. Much of the criticism of Xi Jinping invokes the phrase “cult of personality,” a term with loaded in history in the world communist movement.
In 1956, Khrushchev attacked Joseph Stalin, the recently deceased leader of the Soviet Union. The famous “secret speech” was applauded in the western press, as were his attempts to appease the United States and de-centralize the Soviet economy. It was in Khruschev’s 1956 denunciations of Stalin that the now widely used phrase “cult of personality” originated.
When Khruschev denounced Stalin’s “cult of personality,” he was denouncing what was an apparent source of Stalin’s political strength. From 1928 until 1954, Stalin was put forward as the public face of Soviet Communism. Representing the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Stalin was presented in Soviet media as a kind of the fatherly figure who carefully articulated the party’s goals and policies while charismatically inspiring people to carry them out.
In reality, Stalin was not a “dictator” in the way the term is commonly understood. The popular definition of the term is a misconception. At no point in history has one person ever had the time or ability to make every decision in running the affairs of any country. In no society, not even absolute monarchies, does any individual hold absolute power. Under all systems, leaders and ‘heads of state’ function as de facto representatives of a much larger faction or clique.
As a representative of the leadership of the Soviet state, Stalin excelled in tasks the party assigned him. The words he said on the radio and wrote in newspapers were vetted, trusted and obeyed. Pushed forward by Stalin’s “cult of personality” in the 1930s, the Soviet people raised their country to the status of an industrial world power. What was previously a primitive agrarian society became fully electrified, with running water and mechanized agriculture. In the 1940s, the Soviet people carried out world-renowned acts of bravery while defeating fascism. By the 1950s, the children of illiterate peasants had been educated in newly constructed universities, and grown up to become the scientists and engineers behind Sputnik.
Though Stalin’s “cult of personality’ was quite effective, it was something that many within the party bureaucracy disliked. It had the effect of establishing and enforcing almost a single, unified policy on the country. It removed the “wiggle room” and “gray area” in which gatekeepers, power-hungry bureaucrats, and cynically corrupt elements in any system can grow and thrive. Because of Stalin’s ability to mobilize the public, figures within the party bureaucracy were not free to exploit their privilege, or to flaunt the anti-capitalist goals of the revolution. The overwhelming majority of the individuals arrested and imprisoned during the so-called “Great Terror” of 1937 were not ordinary workers, but party bureaucrats.
While the Soviet Union was certainly much less “free” and “open” during the Stalin period, it was also far more impenetrable. The Soviet Union was brought down in 1991, after many decades of “de-Stalinization”; “openness” and “reform” had created a space for allies of western capitalism. As Xi tries to move China in a more anti-capitalist direction, the western press invokes Stalin and “Cult of Personality” rhetoric to attack him.
Much like the US right wing champions “state’s rights” as a way to weaken the federal civil rights legislation and protections for organized labor, the right wing of Chinese communism upholds “collective leadership” for the same reason. “Collective Leadership” is protecting the western capitalists and Chinese billionaires from feeling the brunt of a powerful state capable of controlling them and mobilizing the population.
Conspiracy Against ‘The Big Boss?’
Xi Jinping has begun to build a special relationship with the Chinese public. He is affectionately known as “The Big Boss”, and many see him as whipping the country back into shape and forcing private capitalists to obey the overall economic vision. A book of Xi’s speeches entitled “The Governance of China” has been published and widely circulated. Xi’s words are frequently quoted in the press, not just as the words of a political leader, but as ideological guidance. Not since Deng Xiaoping, Zhou En Lai or Mao Zedong has a living figure been treated with such reverence in China.
The anonymous letter, which is almost celebrated in the western press, may be completely irrelevant. The western press could be blowing it up into something far bigger than it is, hoping to discredit Xi and give the impression that he unpopular.
However, the letter could also indicate something more sinister. It is highly possible that Wall Street and the state department are maneuvering within China to depose Xi, and perhaps have allies within the party. It would certainly be to the benefit of many rich people in both the United States and China to replace Xi with more market-oriented leadership.
The letter and its trumpeting in western media could be a kind of call to rally the rightist factions, setting the stage for an attempted coup d’etat or intense confrontation within the party structure.
Chinese Communism is now facing many challenges, both on the international stage and among the Chinese people. As Xi continues to fight and restrict capitalism, strengthening “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” – and becoming more popular for doing so – the reaction from the rich and powerful is likely to grow more intense. The media fixation with the mysterious letter, the recent confrontations in the South China Sea, both coinciding with anti-China tirades from US Presidential candidates, all point to sharp confrontations ahead.