Anti-Xi rumour mill goes into overdrive : The Tribune India

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Anti-Xi rumour mill goes into overdrive

Negative reports about Chinese President point to growing popular dissatisfaction

Anti-Xi rumour mill goes into overdrive

Inroads: Xi Jinping has encroached upon the traditional turf of the Premier and taken charge of the economy. Reuters

Jayadeva Ranade

President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy

RUMOURS aren’t usual in authoritarian societies and are, in fact, actively discouraged. In China, the authorities have imposed stringent controls on the Internet and co-opted members of the public into keeping a watch on Internet users and ‘rumour-mongers’. Despite this, China’s political capital Beijing and financial capital Shanghai have been awash for the past few months with rumours about President Xi Jinping.

Private entrepreneurs have lost confidence in the Chinese Government. This is reflected in the flight of capital from China.

According to posts by overseas Chinese on social media, a nurse in Beijing ‘leaked’ the news last month that Xi had undergone medical tests in the capital’s 301 Military Hospital, which attends to senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders. The tests are reported to have revealed that Xi has pancreatic cancer. Nothing has been heard subsequently. However, except for reports and pictures of Xi losing weight, there are yet no signs that he is suffering from a terminal illness. If true, though, or the rumour resurfaces, the news will seriously impact China’s politics and, if confirmed, has the potential to even trigger a succession struggle.

This week, another rumour, also relating to Xi, surfaced. This claimed that his wife, Peng Liyuan, a former Major General in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), will be elevated to the CCP Politburo. This is the second time such a rumour has surfaced and it has spread widely. It was probably sparked by Peng going to Changsha alone to inspect tuberculosis prevention and control work and the National Health Commission releasing a rare graphic, text and audio-visual report titled ‘Peng Liyuan investigates grassroots tuberculosis prevention and control work in Changsha, Hunan’ on its official website. March 24 was World Tuberculosis Prevention and Control Day.

Xi, accompanied by Hunan Provincial Party Committee Secretary Shen Xiaoming and Governor Mao Weiming, visited Changsha, Changde and other places from March 18 to 21. The National Health Commission video shows that Peng inspected tuberculosis prevention and control work in Changsha on March 20. It is likely that Peng came to Changsha with Xi. She also certainly has a higher public profile than wives of other senior Chinese leaders before her. This rumour will add to the criticism of Xi building a personality cult.

Speculation about the extent of intra-party opposition to Xi — and now his health — has been in circulation because of the unusual developments since mid-2023. The first was the sudden and, as yet unexplained, disappearance of Xi’s protégé, Foreign Minister Qin Gang. While his predecessor and Politburo member Wang Yi has been brought back to the job, it took over three months for a formal announcement to be made that Qin had been divested of the post. Just days prior to the second session of the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC), Xinhua reported that he had ‘resigned’ as a Deputy to the NPC. It did not say that he was ‘dismissed’. He has also not yet been removed from the CCP’s Central Committee, of which he was made a member by Xi. Soon after Qin Gang, another Xi protege and close second-generation family friend, Defence Minister Li Shangfu, also suddenly disappeared from public view. These removals strongly hint at political instability.

Reports suggest that Li Shangfu’s removal was linked with the corruption cases uncovered in the PLA Rocket Force and due to which a number of PLA Generals and senior officers were placed under investigation on the charges of corruption. This will have caused disaffection among a number of PLA personnel and their families. The scandal occurred in spite of the Central Military Commission’s Discipline Inspection Commission conducting successive year-long anti-corruption campaigns in the PLA and reinforcing this by sending audit teams to each unit to examine accounts. Considering that most of the senior officers involved were promoted by Xi, it is certain that another far-reaching campaign to unearth corruption and with an emphasis on political reliability will be initiated. Xi will try and address the system of feedback and political control in the PLA.

The negative reports about Xi surfacing at regular intervals over the past couple of years point to growing popular dissatisfaction. To an extent, this would be because of China’s economic slowdown despite official claims that the economy is reviving and China's growth rate would reach 5 per cent this year. Chinese economists dispute these claims and say that actual growth has been zero or even negative. China’s GDP, which till a couple of years ago was 77 per cent that of the US, had dropped to below 50 per cent of that country’s by 2021. Additionally, China’s exports to the US dropped by 20 per cent last year. Rising prices and high unemployment have contributed to the deterioration in people’s living standards. The reduction of 20-30 per cent in salaries of provincial government employees and the withdrawal of bonuses underscore the difficult economic conditions. This is accentuated by slowdown in China’s real estate sector where the three largest companies — Evergrande, Country Garden and Vanke — face bankruptcy.

Private business entrepreneurs have also lost confidence in the government. This is reflected in the flight of capital from China. China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange disclosed that there had been an outflow of nearly $53.9 billion in September 2023. This is the largest such amount since January 2016, when China logged an outflow of $55.8 billion.

Meanwhile, Xi has encroached upon the traditional turf of the Premier and taken charge of the economy. With the economy showing little sign of reviving, popular ire will be directed at him.


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