If Xi Jinping's Zero-COVID Olympic Coronation Fails, His Enemies In Beijing Are Ready

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It's fair to say that Xi Jinping got his job via the Olympics—and that he could lose it the same way. The Chinese strongman was the senior leader with responsibility for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. His role in the country's well-received Olympic debut apparently encouraged him to act boldly in grabbing power. Now he's once again personally supervising an Olympics. And if he wants to stay in power—to achieve his goal of being Dictator for Life—he needs to win the 2022 Winter Games.

As the Opening Ceremonies get underway in Beijing, most observers say the Chinese state is far stronger than it was 14 years ago: able to bend companies, institutions and governments to its will. In fact, the regime is more fragile than it was in 2008, and Xi is facing internal resistance to his rule. Despite what China-watchers almost universally believe, he might not receive an unprecedented third term as the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary later this year.

A failed Games would almost certainly quash his chances. That means Xi needs no scandals, no terrorism, no visible protests about Uyghurs or other issues. And most of all, given China's role in unleashing the global pandemic, it means Xi's "zero COVID" strategy must work.

With the pressure on, Xi is sweating the details. "Preparations for these games reflect Mr. Xi's style of governance," The New York Times reported. "He has been at the center of each decision—from the layout of the Olympic village in Chongli, to the brands of skis and ski suits." China's leader has made numerous inspection trips to the facilities in the hills of the Beijing municipality, issuing orders like a construction manager.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping offers encouragement to children attending skiing camps as he inspects prep work for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Zhangjiakou City. Lan Hongguang/Getty

Xi knows he will be held responsible for anything that goes wrong, and that is true for more than just the Olympics. He inherited a regime run by a committee when he became general secretary of the Communist Party in November 2012. Then, no top leader received too much credit or too much blame because every decision of consequence was made by consensus. Power was shared across the Politburo Standing Committee, the small group at the apex of the Communist Party. Party power brokers maintained a delicate balance among competing and shifting factions, groups, alliances and coalitions inside the ruling organization, all in the name of avoiding the continual chaos of the first decades of communism in China.

Among other things, Xi tried to abolish factional loyalty. Factions remain, but he did end cozy governance and he fundamentally altered the system by grabbing power from other senior figures. As he did so, Xi accumulated accountability. At the same time, he raised the cost of losing political struggles by jailing opponents under the guise of relentless "anti-corruption" campaigns. His "you die, I live" mentality terrified many and convinced them that when the time was right, he had to go.

Xi's demand for absolute obedience worked while things were going well for the regime: He could claim credit for what everyone acknowledged as "China's rise." Yet Xi is now vulnerable because the country's intractable problems can no longer be ignored.

There is, most importantly, a debt crisis Beijing cannot get past. Evergrande Group, the failing developer, and more than a dozen other property companies have missed bond and other payment obligations since September. Beijing, especially since 2008, has accumulated too much debt, and now these businesses—and the country—face a reckoning. Beijing can drag out the process of unwinding loans and payment obligations for a while, but with China having accumulated indebtedness approaching, by some estimates, a staggering 350 percent of gross domestic product, the regime cannot avoid a crisis.

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Fireworks cap the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games in 2008. Pressefoto Ulmer/Getty

In addition, China has a stagnating economy, worsening food shortages, a depleted environment and accelerating COVID-19 outbreaks. To make matters worse, the country is on the edge of a demographic collapse, the steepest in history in the absence of war or disease. Chinese demographers at Xi'an Jiaotong University last fall announced China could lose half its population in 45 years. By the end of this century, estimates suggest, China could be a third its present size.

Given Xi Jinping's strongman style of governance, it is no surprise there are unmistakable signs of discord in senior leadership circles, including the publication of an article titled "The Party Has Become Stronger Through Revolutionary Training" in the December 2021 issue of China Discipline and Supervision Journal. "There are self-righteous cadres," states the article, "who openly express views contrary to the dangzhongyang," a term literally meaning "Party central authorities" and generally reserved for Xi Jinping himself. "Some cadres refuse to obey orders." "They brush off and distort the decisions and policies of the dangzhongyang," we are warned. "Others even harbor inordinate ambitions and act contrary to the dangzhongyang either openly or surreptitiously."

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Recent reports suggest there is discord among China’s senior leadership, seen here at a Beijing reception last year. Xie Huanchi/Getty

Whether or not there is an "internal rebellion" as Asia Sentinel reported, the infighting must be intense for an internal propaganda outlet to reveal open defiance of the country's leader. In recent weeks a few officials have publicly expressed views not in accord with Xi's. For instance, Jia Qingguo, a member of the standing committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, warned of China's drive for absolute national security, a clear criticism of Xi. People's Daily, the most authoritative publication in China, in December published a major piece about economic reform without mentioning Xi's name. As a Nikkei Asia headline put it, "When China's Leading Paper Ignores Xi, All Bets Are Off."

Xi's response to this discord has been to intensify efforts to obtain support of the Chinese military. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Xi was not closely identified with any of the Party's factions before becoming general secretary. He was not anyone's first choice in the Communist Youth League of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, or the Shanghai Gang of Jiang Zemin, Hu's predecessor.

Xi became the Communist Party's general secretary because, without a faction of his own, he was acceptable to all factions of the Party. He was the least unacceptable choice. Once he attained the top spot, however, Xi decided that to amass power and rule effectively he needed a base, so he has looked to certain generals and admirals to be the core of his political support. Now, Xi Jinping's faction is the military. It's widely believed that after his purges of "corrupt" flag officers and his top-to-bottom reorganization of the People's Liberation Army, Xi controls the military.

It's possible, though, that the military controls him. As the most cohesive faction in the Community Party, the military may be telling Xi Jinping what to do—or Xi knows he has to let the military do what it wants. In any event, there is a dangerous dynamic taking place. Because of its rapidly expanding power, the People's Liberation Army is getting a larger proportion of the country's resources. And hardliners, many in uniform, seem to be setting the tone in Beijing, making their "military diplomacy" the diplomacy of the country.

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Xi has been intensifying efforts to gain support of the Chinese military. VCG/Getty

Some of the generals and admirals are spoiling for a fight, and China's civilians have only loose control. There are, consequently, disturbing parallels with the rise of the ultra-nationalist Japanese military in the 1930s, when angry and arrogant officers grabbed political power from civilians. Today, Xi is empowering the most belligerent elements in China's political system.

So what happens when the Olympic athletes leave Beijing? Party figures will undoubtedly resume what Australian sinologist Roger Uren once called Communist China's "endless, contentless politics."

This time, however, Party bickering and internecine warfare will almost certainly have meaningful consequences, at least for China's supremo. Xi Jinping seeks a precedent-breaking third term as general secretary instead of following recent custom and retiring. By staying on, he will effectively be deinstitutionalizing the Party, which had since the 1980s worked to establish rules, customs and guidelines to limit leaders, the result of elite horror at the near-absolute power of Mao Zedong, the regime's founder. Xi wants to return to that era's strongman system.

Xi's fate will be decided at the Communist Party's 20th National Congress, expected to be held this fall. A successful Games is what he needs to become dictator for life.

Success includes, among other things, no postponements. The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics were postponed a year due to COVID-19, and Xi is determined to start his event on schedule. To begin on time would, in Beijing's way of thinking, prove the superiority of Chinese Communist governance. It would also be proof that China, unlike Japan and other nations, had conquered the disease.

To this end, Beijing has stuck with its "zero-COVID" policy of massive testing, obsessive contact-tracing and draconian lockdowns. But it appears that China's ambitious policy, the strictest anywhere, has not contained the spread of either the Delta or Omicron variants. Omicron, for instance, has reached the Chinese capital and ripped through much of China. And if the Chinese measures do not work and the Olympics ends up as a superspreader event, Xi will be blamed.

The cost of zero-COVID has been untold societal damage and a slowing economy. Moreover, the uncompromising disease-control measures have already highlighted China's totalitarianism. To Xi, who reveres tyrant Mao Zedong, totalitarianism is a good thing. But it doesn't look good at international sporting events.

"Chinese Communist Party strongman Xi Jinping had hoped that investing huge sums to create a grandiose Olympic spectacle would gain his regime legitimating prestige domestically and internationally," Charles Burton of the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute told Newsweek. "But instead this Olympics has put the focus on the dark side of China's pervasive surveillance state, its brutality and crimes against humanity and its irresponsible role in the COVID-19 pandemic."

As Burton, formerly a Canadian diplomat in Beijing, notes, China's hosting of the Winter Games has focused global attention on not only China's misdeeds but also the nature of its system. At least for the moment, it is, for instance, impossible not to talk about genocide and the mass detentions, killings, torture, rape, slavery, organ harvesting and other atrocities committed against the Ughyrs, Kazakhs and Tibetans, racial and religious minorities.

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Tennis star Peng Shuai faced retaliation after accusing a former Party official of rape. Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty

It is not only dangerous and grotesque deeds but also the inherent immorality of Chinese communism that Xi will have great difficulty keeping from public view. The silencing of three-time Olympian Peng Shuai—in early November she accused a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee and his wife of rape—drew international attention precisely because of the upcoming Olympics. Groups with all sorts of grievances against the Communist Party have a bigger platform to attack the regime.

Xi does not respond to criticism and he has always been adept at creating his own reality. But now others can reach audiences to question him and his system—and some of the critics will be his enemies at the top of the Communist Party in Beijing. "The athletes have become unwitting pawns in Xi Jinping's political repression as he intensifies his purge of hostile factions in the Party and military," says Burton. He's right, but now those hostile factions may get reasons to purge Xi.

Once the "Olympic truce" ends, the time for worrying begins. Qin Gang, China's new ambassador to Washington, already dropped Chinese-style vagueness in an NPR interview in late January and directly threatened "military conflict" with the U.S.

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Qin Gang, China’s Ambassador to the U.S., recently warned of possible “military conflict” over Taiwan. Liu Jie/Getty

The dire language comes at a point when Xi, if he has an unsuccessful Olympics, has an incentive to move against Taiwan or one of China's other neighbors to silence critics, adversaries and enemies at home. A successful Games could be no less dangerous for the world, however, by persuading him to ride momentum to strike out.

Xi obviously wants to strike out. He has been pushing the notion that he has the right and obligation to rule the world; he has said China cannot indefinitely delay taking territory; and he has reportedly staked his legitimacy on absorbing Taiwan. In a landmark speech on July 1, he promised to "crack skulls and spill blood" of those standing in China's way—and in even more chilling language proclaimed that "the Chinese people are not only good at taking down the old world but also good at building a new one."

The Games are just beginning.

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Xi, at a Chinese Communist Party ceremony last year. Xie Huanchi/Getty

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

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