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Signs of growing discontent for Xi Jinping in China

March 31, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
Pressure has been mounting between the U.S. and China on issues ranging from Chinese military activity to reining in North Korea's nuclear efforts. But tensions are also rising within that country, due to economic instability and a crackdown on dissent. Christopher Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Andrew Nathan of Columbia University join Hari Sreenivasan for more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, as tensions mount between the United States and China over a number of issues, tensions within China are also rising.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the Chinese leader, it’s a moment on the world stage, on issues ranging from the growing tensions over China’s military activity in the South China Sea, to Beijing’s ability to rein in North Korea’s nuclear efforts.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING, China (through interpreter): Especially, we want to enhance communication and coordination on the Korea nuclear issue and other regional and global issues, and to consolidate and expand our shared interests.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Xi’s biggest challenge may be back home, where there are signs of growing discontent. Partly, it’s economic, a stock crash, sliding currency values and the weakest economic growth in a quarter-century.

Outwardly, at least, Xi’s government has remained upbeat.

LI KEQIANG, Premier, China (through interpreter): We are fully confident of China’s long-term economic growth. The economy will not suffer a hard landing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Xi has also raised hackles with his crackdown on dissent. Last month, he visited state media organizations, warning that absolute loyalty to the party is their highest priority. That drew criticism from real estate magnate Ren Zhiqiang, among others, and his social media accounts were suspended.

This month, a government-run Web site posted a letter calling for Xi’s resignation. It was signed “Loyal Communist Party Members.”

Soon after, a number of people, including well-known columnist Jia Jia, went missing, apparently as part of an investigation into the letter’s origin. Protesters in Hong Kong demanded to know his whereabouts.

LEUNG KWOK-HUNG, Hong Kong Lawmaker: I think Xi Jinping stressed that China should be and will be ruled by law. But what happened in China after he is in power, he threatened, he arrests, and kidnapped all kinds of activists from different part of civic society. Journalists, lawyer, social worker are all in — on his target.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Columnist Jia has since been released.

We explore the internal divisions within China with Christopher Johnson. He had a two-decade career at the CIA, where he focused on China. He’s now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And Andrew Nathan is a professor at Columbia University. He’s the author and editor of many books, including “The Tiananmen Papers.”

Andrew, I want to start with you.

How significant are these public letters, these internal dissents?

ANDREW NATHAN, Columbia University: I think they are very meaningful, because I think the key is that Xi is losing the support of the high levels of the Chinese Communist Party. They’re not willing to rally around him the way that they did in the Mao period.

It’s a more critical time. They’re more independent. He’s demanding absolute loyalty, and people are no longer willing to offer that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Christopher Johnson, do you see this as a significant threat to the leadership of President Xi?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, Center for Strategic and International Studies: I don’t. And I would actually strongly disagree with Dr. Nathan’s characterization of sort of elite support for Xi Jinping.

I think what is really important to focus on with these letters is, number one, their provenance. We have done some work here on CSIS, some forensic work, trying to figure out where these came from. And our sense is that they originated from outside of China.

So the notion that there is a core group of elite members of the Communist Party who are pushing back on Xi Jinping and asking him to step down just doesn’t seem to be the case.

I think the other thing to emphasize is that, historically, when we have looked at these issues, when there is elite fighting, the faction or the group, if you will, that leaks to the outside first, especially the Western media, is usually the one that is losing the fight and ends up losing the fight.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Andrew Nathan, does it matter if the letter was written — it was a homegrown letter vs. one that was sent from outside activists?

ANDREW NATHAN: Well, there are a number of different documents, but certainly it does matter.

If they’re just outside activists hacking these things onto Web sites inside China, then it’s a very clever operation, but it doesn’t signal a split in the leadership. What’s very dangerous, though, for the leadership is if there is a split and it comes out into the open. That then sends a signal to lots of people in China who are dissatisfied.

There are many people unhappy because the economy is slowing down and because people are losing jobs. Xi Jinping is attacking the state-owned enterprises to try to force them to be more efficient. He wants to reorganize the military. He has this big anti-corruption campaign.

So, we know there are a lot of people who are dissatisfied, but they’re afraid to do anything. But if they see a split in the leadership, which is what people saw back in 1989, when they view that split in the leadership, there is a real risk of social disorder in China.

So, it does matter a great deal whether these documents reflect a real split in the top leadership. I’m not talking about just ordinary party members.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Christopher Johnson, what about the idea that the centralizing of power that the president has been engaged in over the past several months is something of concern to people who have had that power taken away from them?

Is there increased pressure on him to give some of that power back?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Absolutely.

I mean, what we see with President Xi is a rapid centralization of power. He claims — or, you know, the body language is that he’s doing so because there are very difficult changes, and what happened during his predecessor’s tenure is that the government, the senior leadership, was overly consensus-oriented, and what that meant was that they couldn’t get anything done.

And these problems of the state-owned enterprises, of debt, of environmental degradation just piled up and piled up. Xi Jinping’s solution has been to centralize this power. But the real question is, is the centralization of the power a means to an end, an end we may all be able to live with in terms of some of these economic reforms they’re talking about, or an end in and of itself, and that he is indeed a power-mad megalomaniac like Mao Zedong, which I strongly doubt.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Andrew Nathan, what about that idea, that even if this power is being centralized, this is perhaps the person that the United States or everyone else can deal with?

Do you see these kind of internal struggles actually facing — or creating a threat for him to lose power?

ANDREW NATHAN: Potentially, it does.

I think that — I agree with Chris that Xi was brought into power by the previous leadership because they needed a strong leader to confront all these of issues that I mentioned before, and he has been a strong leader.

But the trouble is, he’s responsible for the results. And a lot of the results have displeased people, including the slowdown of the economy. I think Chinese — other Chinese top leaders do not accept the idea that the economy slowdown is natural, necessary. Xi has said: Our economy is going to do great.

You had a clip from the premier saying this. And it’s not really doing that well. So, he gets the blame for that. As well, there is a lot of pushback against his foreign policy in Southeast Asia. And so he’s responsible for the results. And I think it’s — he has a hard job and it’s not easy to produce results that satisfy other people.

So, that’s where I think the criticism is coming from, especially from his demand that nobody can criticize him. That’s what this dust-up is about, his saying that others in the party, they have to shut up and take what I give them.

That’s where I think people are no longer willing to put up with it the way they did with Mao.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Christopher Johnson, is this par for the course?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: You know, my own sense is that what we have to watch here is, there is going to be a major transition in the Politburo next fall. And Xi Jinping clearly has a very clear agenda as to what he wants to do that.

The key indicators of how powerful he is going to be are, will he follow the so-called rules that have been followed in the past with regard to age, and will he signal a succession, things like this? This will tell us a lot about how significant this pushback is, as Dr. Nathan suggested?

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Christopher Johnson, Andrew Nathan, thanks so much for joining us.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Thank you.

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