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Paramount and paranoid: China’s Xi and the Communist Party face a crisis of confidence

Chinese President Xi Jinping is contending with a slowing economy and a protracted trade war with the US.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is contending with a slowing economy and a protracted trade war with the US.NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images/file/AFP/Getty Images

SHANGHAI — Chinese scholars and Communist Party cadres have a succinct way of describing the tectonic shifts taking place here: Deng Xiaoping made us rich, now Xi Jinping is making us strong.

The phrase sums up China’s economic rise that began under Deng four decades ago, and the hopes for a similarly significant geopolitical realignment under the current president.

Xi has devoted his seven years in power to strengthening the ruling Communist Party, and by extension the country. He has relentlessly quashed dissent, sidelined rivals, and demanded absolute loyalty.

After pledging to make the party ‘‘north, south, east, and west,’’ he has ensured that it is paramount not just in policymaking but in the military, business, education, and the law.


Now, Xi is facing challenges on multiple fronts and the Communist Party, riven with paranoia at the best of times, is seeing threats at every turn.

He has to contend not just with a slowing economy but also a protracted trade war with the United States, one that has entered a new confrontational phase with President Trump’s decision to impose more tariffs next month.

He is facing escalating Western criticism of Chinese policies toward ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, where as many as 3 million people have been put into reeducation camps. He is dealing with an increasingly assertive Taiwan at the same time as a pro-democracy movement swells in Hong Kong.

All of these loom as dangers to Xi’s authority as the party’s general secretary and are heightening a sense of alarm within a party long fearful of external threats.

‘‘A strong party is the key to a successful China, in Xi’s eyes. It is also the only way to fend off enemies abroad, most notably the US,’’ said Richard McGregor, an expert on the party and the author of a new book about Xi’s leadership.


Xi is trying to harden the party’s internal resolve to fend off these threats — most acutely, a United States that many observers say seems intent on containing China.

‘‘Xi has a legion of internal critics, including over his handling of relations with Washington,’’ McGregor said. ‘‘One way to bring them to heel is by demanding fealty and loyalty to the party, and by extension, to himself.’’

Since taking power, Xi has rewritten the party’s rules — including ending term limits, setting himself up to be leader indefinitely — and launched huge study campaigns to instill his personal ideology across society, starting with toddlers, through schools and universities and through the Central Committee Party School in Beijing. The party has developed an app through which Chinese can study ‘‘Xi Jinping Thought.’’

The president this past week exhorted party members to ‘‘work hard to purify, perfect, reform and upgrade ourselves.’’

‘‘No exterior forces are able to take us down, as we are the world’s largest political party; the only one who can defeat us is ourselves,’’ Xi wrote in Qiushi, the influential publication of Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, last week.

‘‘We should stay alert to the ubiquitous factors that could weaken our Party’s pioneering nature and contaminate our Party’s purity,’’ he said. ‘‘If we don’t take strict precautions and correct them in time . . . small problems will grow into big ones, minor slips will escalate into an irreversible landslide, probably even leading to a broader and subversive catastrophe.’’


Making the situation even more delicate, the party is now entering a sensitive period.

This month, party leaders both current and retired will repair to the beach resort of Beidaihe, about 200 miles east of Beijing, for their annual policy conclave. It was a ritual first begun by Mao Zedong in the 1950s.

The meeting is highly secretive — the state media don’t announce that it has begun or that it has ended, let alone what is discussed — and last summer, Beijing was awash with speculation that party elders had taken Xi to task for mismanaging the trade war.

This year, Trump’s threat to impose tariffs of 10 percent on the remaining $300 billion of untaxed Chinese exports to the United States could provide Xi with more cover, said Bill Bishop, publisher of the widely-read Sinocism newsletter.

‘‘It should be an easy argument to make that no one can manage Trump and so those trying to blame Xi have other, ulterior motives, and that even if China agrees to humiliating concessions there is no guarantee the US side will keep its word,’’ Bishop wrote.

The other key event that is concerning party leaders is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which Xi plans to mark in October with a massive military parade.

With the anniversary drawing near, Chinese television regulators ordered all soap operas and costume dramas off the air for the 100 days leading up to National Day on Oct. 3, replacing them instead with patriotic shows that engender love for the motherland.