Xi faces resistance to political agenda

Reports of growing internal unease amid widening graft crackdown, slowing growth

HONG KONG • On the morning of July 24, Hebei party chief Zhou Benshun attended a meeting to promote one of Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature projects, a plan to boost growth by building a "supercity" that would integrate Beijing with the region around it. But by the evening, Zhou's career was over, and he faced years in jail after the party announced it was investigating him on corruption charges.

Zhou's sudden downfall - he is the first sitting provincial party chief to be purged by Mr Xi - underscores the uncertainty that permeates the communist elite as they contend with two unnerving developments: an economic slowdown that appears to be worse than anticipated, possibly marking the end of China's era of fast growth, and a campaign against official corruption that has reached higher than most had expected.

Driving decisions on both issues is Mr Xi, who took office nearly three years ago and has pursued an agenda fraught with political risk. Those risks appear to be growing, and there are signs that he and his strong-willed leadership style face increasing resistance in the party.

Mr Xi has positioned himself as the chief architect of economic policy - usually the prime minister's job - exposing himself to blame if growth continues to sputter. At the same time, he is making enemies with an anti-corruption drive that has taken down some of the most powerful men in the country.

Senior party officials are said to be alarmed by the state of the economy, which grew at the slowest pace in a quarter-century during the first half of the year and seems to be decelerating further.

HIGH STAKES

If the economy falters, the political power of the Chinese Communist Party will be confronted with more real challenges, social stability in China will be endangered tremendously, and Mr Xi Jinping's administration will suffer even more criticism.

MR CHEN JIEREN, a well-known Beijing-based commentator on politics

This month, the leadership implemented the biggest devaluation of the yuan in more than two decades, sending global markets plunging.

Early this year, several party elders had quietly urged Mr Xi to focus more on reinvigorating the economy, according to an adviser to senior party and government leaders and an editor at a party media outlet, both of whom requested anonymity.

The advice not only was a sign of their dissatisfaction with Mr Xi's management of the economy, but also implicit criticism of his pursuit of high-profile corruption cases, the adviser and the editor said.

In the past two weeks, two leading official news outlets have published unusual editorials hinting at internal turmoil. The first, which appeared in the party's flagship People's Daily on Aug 10, warned that retired leaders should stay out of politics and "cool off" like a cup of tea after a guest has left. It accused "some leading cadres" of posing a "quandary for new leaders" and "undermining party cohesion".

Another commentary, published last Wednesday on the website of state broadcaster China Central Television, described fierce resistance to Mr Xi's agenda and called on his supporters to step up their efforts to carry out his policies.

The article was notable not only because it openly acknowledged the opposition to Mr Xi but also because of its strident language.

While Mr Xi had pledged sweeping market-oriented reforms to overhaul the Chinese economy, there has been little progress towards goals such as the reform of the state-owned enterprises.

As growth stalls, the government has adopted measures that run counter to Mr Xi's call to allow market forces to play the "decisive role" in the economy, including aggressive intervention to prop up the stock market last month.

Behind the scramble is a deep- rooted anxiety within the leadership about possible social instability if the age of supercharged growth in China ends.

"Everyone understands that the economy is the biggest pillar of the Chinese government's legitimacy to govern and win over popular sentiment," said Mr Chen Jieren, a well-known Beijing-based commentator on politics.

"If the economy falters, the political power of the Chinese Communist Party will be confronted with more real challenges, social stability in China will be endangered tremendously, and Mr Xi's administration will suffer even more criticism."

While Mr Xi's campaign against corruption enjoys broad support in a nation where the widening gap between rich and poor is often blamed on the corruption of a small minority, the risks for him will multiply as the economy falters, said a retired party think-tank official.

"The main thing is the economy. As long as the economy continues to decline, people will have more and more objections, and there will be more and more pressure on the leadership," said the official.

"And right now, the fact is that the economy is in decline."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2015, with the headline 'Xi faces resistance to political agenda'. Print Edition | Subscribe