All summer there have been uncommon signs that opposition to President Xi Jinping may be growing in China, even Beijing itself. He featured less prominently than usual in official headlines. Important members of the Chinese Communist Party criticized his straitjacketed response to the trade war with the United States. A national scandal over several hundred thousand faulty vaccines broke while Xi was on a tour in Africa to sell his pet project, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
It was such an extraordinary series of mishaps and policy errors and then complaints that one wondered whether they were a concerted, if veiled, attack on Xi.
But who would dare be the enemy of China’s most powerful leader since Mao? Xi has no known ideological opponents. Many of the country’s most powerful officials have been jailed, felled by his signature anti-corruption campaign or have died. Earlier this year, the constitution was amended to eliminate term limits, including for the president.
Just over five years into Xi’s reign, the cast of characters in China’s power struggles has come into focus. On the one hand are the so-called Red Aristocrats, with Xi as their flag bearer. On the other stand the Plebeians — my phrase — headed by leaders from previous administrations, most notably Jiang Zemin.
Red Aristocrats come from the families of the old-guard revolutionaries who held top posts upon the founding of the Chinese communist republic in 1949. Those revolutionaries mostly lived and worked together on the former imperial grounds of Zhongnanhai, coalescing into a tight social group, until the Cultural Revolution dispersed them. Officials with a direct lineage to those founders, who claim to be the republic’s rightful heirs, have experienced a resurgence under Xi.
The term “Plebeians” refers to officials without significant pre-1949 revolutionary pedigrees who rose to the top of the ruling hierarchy or were catapulted there after Mao and later Deng Xiaoping marginalized old-timers.
These two factions now dominate China’s New Class, to borrow the Yugoslav Milovan Djilas’ phrase for Soviet communist elites. Both are self-interested, corrupt and authoritarian, but they exhibit significant policy differences and have become dangerously antagonistic.
The Red Aristocrats want the CCP and the state sector to control markets and corporations, a carry-over from their Marxist founding fathers. The Plebeians are more pro-market, presumably because they consolidated power (and accumulated wealth and privileges) during Deng’s overhaul of the Maoist economy in the 1980s.
Under Xi, the Red Aristocrats have gutted the lie-low-bide-time approach favored by Deng and his successors for an expansionist and hypernationalist position reminiscent of Mao’s.
Lenin liquidated Russia’s czarist aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the affluent peasants known as “kulaks.” In the 1930s, Stalin killed off most of the first Bolsheviks. The New Class that subsequently emerged in the Soviet Union consisted mostly of technocrats with undistinguished political backgrounds.
Mao was different, and his legacy today is as well. He, too, liquidated landowners. And he sidelined, humiliated and exiled many of his comrades from before 1949. But he did not have them killed off. After he died in 1976, members of the old guard returned to power. They were ousted again later, by Deng after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, for sympathizing with the pro-democracy students or resisting Deng’s capitalistic reforms.
That year Jiang became general secretary of the CCP. He wielded formal power or great influence for nearly two decades, including long after he ceased being party chairman, and planted many loyalists in key positions. His people, mostly commoners, amassed personal wealth as China’s economy skyrocketed — to the dismay and envy of many Red Aristocrats.
The Plebeian faction expanded during the first decade of this century, under the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao: They tapped their power base in the Communist Youth League, a boot camp for commoners wishing to be credentialed for party membership.
But then came Xi, a high-carat Red Aristocrat whose father was a senior leader during the republic’s early years. Like a Hamlet kicking out usurpers — a popular comparison — Xi promptly went after each of the two Plebeian subgroups.
He first aimed his anti-corruption campaign exclusively at Plebeians — mostly, in the beginning, at Jiang’s people but then later also at stalwarts of the youth league. Then in 2016, he openly humiliated the league, cut its funding and placed it under the CCP’s — meaning, his own — control.
If Xi stays in power for more than two five-year terms, the ascendancy of the Red Aristocrats may become unstoppable. What then?
Some lament that China under Xi is returning ideologically to the Maoist era. But if the Red Aristocracy keeps rising, China’s politics may regress all the way back to medieval times.
Chinese society underwent radical structural changes between the Tang dynasty (618-907) and the Song dynasty (960-1279). Naito Konan, a prominent Japanese Sinologist, noted in the 1910s and 1920s that before the enlightened autocracy of the Song era, China had for many decades been ruled by an informally hereditary aristocracy whose emperors also filled top government posts and controlled the civil service examinations. The emperors created a closed, self-serving and rapacious elite — until the entire system suddenly collapsed.
Naito noted that for decades the dynasties remained stable even as emperors were often overthrown by other aristocrats. It was another historian, Nicolas Tackett, who recently explained why the aristocracy was finally done in, and why so quickly. After examining hundreds of epitaphs on graves from the ninth century, he concluded that the Tang empire was brought down by Huang Chao, a disgruntled salt-merchant-turned-rebel, who tapped popular discontent to wage a rebellion that swiftly turned into a blood bath — a class genocide that physically annihilated the entire medieval aristocratic class.
This is a precedent that should worry China’s leaders today.
Xi’s camp may seem powerful, but his base is quite small: The Red Aristocrats number only about 40,000 people, according to one of them. And within his camp lurk dangerous challengers. Xi came to power as a compromise candidate. A plot to snatch the CCP’s leadership by another, charismatic, Red Aristocrat — Bo Xilai — was foiled just months before Xi took the party’s helm in late 2012. (Bo was then sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption.) There have been rumors — and sometimes official claims — of attempted coups, including just last year.
As the elite behind Xi congeals into a political aristocracy, it is also overseeing the closing down of Chinese society, through restrictions on the internet, social profiling and extensive surveillance, or the extraordinary repression of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang province. Corruption remains rampant, and protests and other public expressions of popular discontent continue despite more severe crackdowns.
If in the years ahead Xi’s Red Aristocrats become even more entrenched and social mobility is further obstructed by vested interests, economic exploitation will intensify, fueling class differences. As the Plebeians head toward defeat, strife among powerful oligarchs within the Red Aristocracy will take center stage.
Whether a modern-day Huang Chao would then appear — and would know how to galvanize a disgruntled population into rising up — no one can tell, of course. But some people seem to worry about the possibility.
In 2012, Wang Qishan, a confidante of Xi’s and the head of his anti-corruption effort at the time, called on senior CCP members to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” about the popular uprising that toppled the monarchy in France in 1789. Mentioning Huang probably would have struck too close to home.
(Yi-Zheng Lian, a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University, in Kofu, Japan, and a contributing opinion writer.)