China’s "Gorbachev" Is Tearing the Communist Party Apart

Xi, like Gorbachev, is a figure wanting to accomplish great deeds in reforming an ailing system. And like the last Soviet leader, Xi has started something he cannot control.

“In my struggle against corruption, I don’t care about life or death, or ruining my reputation,” said Xi Jinping at a closed-door session of the Communist Party’s Politburo on June 26. China’s ambitious leader also referred to two armies in the country, one of “corruption” and the other of “anticorruption.” These forces, according to him, “are at a stalemate.”

The quotations, reported by a Central Committee member, look accurate and are consistent with reports that Xi gave a “shockingly harsh” speech on his so-called corruption campaign then. The South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong newspaper, noted that a source familiar with Xi’s speech confirmed the report. Evidently, there is severe infighting in senior Beijing circles.

Until recently, the overwhelming opinion was that Xi had quickly consolidated his political position after becoming Party general secretary in November 2012. For instance, last year, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, on the eve of the “shirtsleeves” summit between Xi and President Obama in early June, reported that White House officials had determined that he had asserted control over the Party apparatus and military much faster than anticipated.

Since then, the wide prosecution of both high- and low-level officials—“tigers” and “flies” in Communist lingo—has been viewed as proof that Mr. Xi dominates the political system. “So far at least, there’s little sign of resistance,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Browne early this month.

Browne’s timing was especially unfortunate. Just as his article was posted, reports of Xi’s Politburo speech began circulating in China. Despite the melodramatic tone—Xi’s words evoke Zhu Rongji’s famous comment in 1998 about leaving a casket for him as he had no fear of dying in his fight to win “the public’s trust in our government”—the current leader’s words indicate substantial resistance and dissension at the top.

There is so much resistance and dissension that this time is, as Renmin University’s Zhang Ming notes, a make-or-break moment for Comrade Jinping. For one thing, it is a sensitive time of leadership transition, when authoritarian systems are generally at their most vulnerable, and China is at a particularly fragile point. The transfer of power from Fourth Generation supremo Hu Jintao to the Fifth Generation Xi is the first in the history of the People’s Republic not engineered by strongman Deng Xiaoping. Deng, after disposing of transitional figure Hua Guofeng, chose himself, and then he selected both Jiang Zemin to succeed him and Hu to follow Jiang. Deng was in no position, however, to make a selection for the top spot in the post-Hu team.

China experts, even those not friendly to the regime, have pronounced that this transition is governed by the Party’s internal rules and procedures and has thus proceeded in a “smooth” fashion. Yet there were, despite the expert opinions, bound to be severe problems. In a one-party state, even one as bureaucratized as China, regulations change with the whims of leaders, and in this Hu-Xi transition, there have been a number of surprises.

There has been, for instance, the unexpected reduction in the size of the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China, from nine members to seven. This is proof by itself that Chinese transitions are exercises in raw power and not law-based selections. Moreover, the two-week disappearance of Xi in September 2012— attributable, according to a report in the Washington Post, to injuries he sustained when a colleague hit him in the back with a chair during a meeting—is an indication of severe disagreements. And there was the series of coup rumors before the transfer of power, of gunfire in the center of Beijing, among other reports. “If China runs into trouble, it will come from inside the Communist Party,” Deng once said.

Perhaps the most important reason why this is a do-or-die moment for Xi is his outsized ambitions. Every leader of the People’s Republic has been weaker than his predecessor—except for the current one. Mr. Xi obviously has nurtured hopes and dreams Mao-like in their scope and grandeur, and that has led him, more than his three immediate predecessors, to eliminate political opponents. Under the guise of a campaign against corruption, he has promoted what John Minnich of Stratfor has called, “the broadest and deepest effort to purge, reorganize and rectify the Communist Party leadership since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the rise of Deng Xiaoping two years later.”