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Historian Says Xi Jinping’s Biggest Enemy Is Himself

File - Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Sept. 16, 2022. (Uzbekistan Presidential Press Service via AP)
File - Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Sept. 16, 2022. (Uzbekistan Presidential Press Service via AP)

As a scholar of Chinese Communist Party history, 69-year-old Gao Wenqian has spent more than four decades writing about the party’s highest leaders including Chairman Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, who served as premier from 1949 until his death in 1976.

Gao’s 2003 book, “Zhou Enlai in His Late Years,” made Gao one of the most widely read Chinese authors and a thorn in the side the Communist Party. Gao emigrated to the United States in 1993 after he was demoted and criticized for supporting China’s human rights movement in 1989.

VOA Mandarin talked to Gao about his views on Xi Jinping, who is expected to be elected to a third term as party chairman at the 20th Communist Party Congress beginning Sunday with more than 2,000 delegates from across China.

Gao believes Xi is facing an unprecedented challenge in spite of his seemingly solid control of the party and said, “Xi Jinping’s biggest enemy is himself.”

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

VOA: The biggest focus of the congress is whether Xi Jinping will break the tradition and take his third term. Most observers believe undoubtedly Xi will continue his third term and the congress is just a formality. Why do you think there’s still suspense?

Gao: Of course we know it’s most likely Xi will take his third term. But why is there still suspense? There are details that deserve our attention. The party congress, of course, is a rubber stamp meeting, but there’s still this process of stamping, and nobody can guarantee nothing goes wrong in this process. Xi obviously will do everything to make it happen smoothly, but it’s difficult for him to control these previous Politburo members.

We know the party has ordered the retired officials to “abide by political disciplines and not to criticize the party,” but how do you enforce it? What if they don’t obey? Can he arrest all of them? That’d be disastrous.

Look at those old officials. Jiang Zemin is the one who promoted Xi. Hu Jintao did great favors to him. Former officials like Zhu Rongji and Li Ruihuan, they’re all people of strong opinions. Can Xi be powerful enough to quench them? And Zeng Qinghong, the former politburo member, he’s like the big brother of the princelings. Xi is like a child in front of him.

So we can imagine, when the Presidium Standing Committee gathers, if one old guy disagrees with Xi and others follow suit, the situation could be out of control. That’s why we never know what will happen until the very last moment.

This is suspense especially at a moment when Xi Jinping has made so many enemies during his 10 years of rule. Now he wants to break the tradition and stay in power, which makes the political atmosphere exceptionally tense. Within the Politburo, there’s already different opinions, on the alliance with Russia, on zero-COVID policy, on declining economy and the Taiwan crisis.

If one of the old fellows opposes Xi and more people follow suit, something could happen. This has happened in the past, when former leader Chen Yun expressed different opinions at the party’s 13th congress, which changed the agenda of the meeting in 1978.

VOA: When Xi Jinping came back from his first overseas trip to central Asia since the COVID breakout, he “disappeared” for 10 days. Some observers say he might have spent time talking to these retired officials to lobby them on his side. Do you think that’s the case?

Gao: We know the Communist Party always operates behind the door so we never know the details. But one thing I know for sure is Xi’s biggest challenge is to lobby those retired officials. How does he know that’s a guaranteed thing? Those retired guys could totally oppose him at the meetings even if they don’t express it beforehand. The least risky solution would be not to invite these old officials to the meetings. But that’d be another huge action of breaking the traditions.

But I don’t think Xi can avoid the risks by not inviting them to the meetings. This is a very old tradition. These retired old officials are always invited to the meetings as long as they’re alive and haven’t made any political mistakes.

VOA: Some analysts don’t believe the fierce “life or death” style power struggle in Mao’s era is still the case. They think Xi has concentrated power and changed the game rules. He has eliminated his opponents by his anti-corruption campaign. What’s your observation on that?

Gao: It’s a shallow argument that Xi doesn’t have political opponents. Yes, it’s true Xi has concentrated his power to an unprecedented level. But his fatal flaw is he doesn’t have friends. It looks like he doesn’t have any opponents, but his opponents are everywhere, except they’re all hidden. Xi doesn’t trust anyone and he lives in fear and loneliness. This happens to every dictator.

Xi’s biggest enemy is himself. He has no talents to use and he has nobody to trust. Xi is living in ubiquitous glorification but he doesn’t trust those who are singing odes to him. He actually hates those double-faced people. All those who benefitted from Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening hate Xi for steering the path backwards. They’re all his opponents.

It’s also wrong to think the internal struggle within the party is not a “life and death” style one. It was so in Mao’s era, but not the case during the times of post-Mao party secretaries like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. There was a tacit rule that no Politburo members could be persecuted, but Xi broke that rule.

Xi made the internal party struggle a very fierce one again. He used his anti-corruption campaign to bring down Zhou Yongkang, the former top guy of the judicial system, and quite a few high-ranking officials died mysteriously. Xi Jinping is the biggest rule-breaker of the Communist Party’s political conventions. By pursuing unlimited terms, something Deng Xiaoping had forbidden, he leaves enormous disastrous consequences for the party and the country.

Bo Gu contributed to this report.