China’s leader Xi Jinping was all smiles as he landed in San Francisco, California, where he has since held talks with U.S. President Joe Biden and is attending the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Summit.
Back home, though, China finds itself a nation shaken by a series of high-profile events spread out over a tumultuous year, the most recent being the sudden death of former premier Li Keqiang less than three weeks ago.
Under Xi’s leadership, and particularly over the past year, China has struggled with a range of challenges: from a slowing economy, soaring youth unemployment, and public frustration with his policies to the high-profile ousting of key government officials he appointed. Analysts say those challenges and the public reaction have triggered growing distrust and waning approval for Xi.
Late last month, news of the sudden death of former Premier Li Keqiang was the latest event to seize the public’s attention and concern.
“Li Keqiang’s death shook people more than previous incidents that involved the disappearance of Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Defense Minister Li Shangfu,” said Xia Ming, a political science professor at City University of New York.
“Li is viewed by ordinary Chinese as someone who was one of them, sympathetic to them, his sudden death and rushed cremation invoked a strong sense of injustice,” he said.
Despite efforts by authorities to keep reaction to Li’s passing under control, there has been an outpouring of response from the public both online and offline. Thousands lined up to place flowers outside the hospital where he died in Shanghai and in his hometown in central Anhui Province.
Some put signs up with some of Li Keqiang’s best-known remarks on the back of their cars. Authorities moved quickly to stamp out any discussion about Li Keqiang, including speculation that Xi had a hand in Li’s death. Some who spoke out in public, shouting “we all know how Li Keqiang died,” were immediately arrested.
As news of Li’s death spread online, so did messages “too bad it’s not you,” seen by many as a public condemnation of Xi.
Under Xi, Party members are expected to swear “absolute loyalty,” and anyone who’s not “absolutely loyal” is deemed absolutely disloyal, Xia said.
Xia added that a highly irregular incident in which former party leader Hu Jintao was abruptly escorted off stage during party meetings in March was also something that rang alarm bells in China.
Within months of the incident with Hu, China’s foreign minister and defense minister disappeared from public view and were both later stripped of their titles, without any explanation. Sudden changes involving other top military commanders also signaled instability at top levels of government.
Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has launched a massive anti-corruption campaign that analysts say has been used to target not only misuse of government funds but Xi’s political rivals as well.
The scale of intra-party strife and potential challenges to Xi can be seen in the staggering number of officials being “investigated and dealt with” in the so-called anti-corruption campaign since Xi took office, analysts say.
And while the government has listed the total number of those investigated at more than 4 million by 2021, “each one of these people have family members and friends, so the true number of those impacted is staggering,” Xia pointed out.
Rhetoric and reality
Orville Schell is vice president of the Asia Society and heads the society’s U.S.-China Relations Center. He notices a slight change of tone from Beijing.
“Lately there are some signs that suggest [Xi]’s a little bit worried about overreach and being a little too aggressive,” Schell told VOA in an interview Tuesday. “He’s realizing this with the economy in trouble, it’s important to pull back a little and try to act a little less hostile towards global market players that have bought goods from China and supported China’s economic prosperity.”
“We have to realize it’s largely rhetoric,” he added, that is, a reaction to the realization, as he put it, that “China is in a rather delicate position economically.”
The longtime China watcher who first went to China in the 1970s when Mao Zedong was still alive, warns that rhetoric aside, the intrinsic character and characteristics of an autocratic regime that China currently is, remain unchanged and dangerous.
While China is still shaken by the sudden death of Li Keqiang and the world appeared taken aback by what had befallen Hu Jintao, Qin Gang, Li Shangfu, and others, Schell reminds that “this is nothing new.”
“We saw this under Stalin, we’ve seen it under every autocrat. This is the way it works. This is the system. Autocrats cannot tolerate competition,” he said.
“I think when you disappear cabinet secretaries, it shows that you’re insecure, and you feel that the only way to survive is greater control,” Schell told VOA. “I am surprised by the nakedness of [Xi]’s autocracy, that he can just make people vanish.”
Economic long COVID
The economic downturn China is going through also dampens Xi’s popularity. And the condition China finds itself in has everything to do with its politics, analysts say.
“China’s brutal domestic handling of the pandemic saw the country endure unpredictable lockdowns and arbitrary enforcement of different rules and standards,” noted one essay published in October by the European Council on Foreign Relations research group.
“This seems to have led many Chinese households to anticipate more hard times ahead rather than spend the savings they set aside during the pandemic, in contrast to their counterparts in the West,” the author, Alicja Bachulska, wrote. The result, she added, “is ‘economic long covid,’ on a scale unlike anything seen elsewhere.”
In addition, “With China’s ‘responsible power’ claims long gone, many foreign investors are unwilling to look twice,” Bachulska wrote.
Many analysts have said that one key reason Xi is turning on the charm in San Francisco is because he is trying to lure foreign investors back to China.
During Commerce Secretary Gina Raimando’s visit to Beijing in August, she said U.S. companies have complained to her that China is “uninvestable because it’s become too risky.”
In September, foreign exchange outflows from China rose to $75 billion, according to data from Goldman Sachs. The biggest outflow since 2016.
To make matters worse, a November 15 report put out by Sinolytics, a German thinktank focused on China, says for the first time since 1998, China saw a negative growth of foreign direct investment; that is, for the first time in 25 years, foreign investors pulled more money out of China than the amount they poured in.
Brain drain, emigration
And it is not just the economy that is souring. Since Xi came to power, the annual number of its citizens emigrating has risen dramatically. The United Nations predicts that China will lose 310,000 people through emigration this year, after losing more than 311,000 in 2022. That is more than double the 120,000 who left in 2012.
Since 2012, more than 730,000 Chinese citizens have sought asylum overseas, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
According to The Associated Press, Panamanian authorities say that in the first nine months of the year, 15,567 Chinese citizens crossed the Darien Gap as they tried to try reach the United States.