Xi’s Costly Obsession With Security
How a Quest for Control Threatens China’s Economic Growth
Earlier this year, Guo Wengui, an expatriate Chinese billionaire, began to make explosive allegations on YouTube and Twitter about China’s leaders. President Xi Jinping, Guo claimed, had sought incriminating information about Wang Qishan, Xi’s right-hand man and the chief of his anticorruption campaign. The figure tasked with rooting out China’s official graft, Guo suggested, was himself corrupt—if not directly, then through his family’s alleged financial holdings.
Guo’s claims seemed designed to sever China’s most important political relationship before this fall’s 19th Party Congress, where officials will determine Xi’s longevity as president and select members for China’s top decision-making bodies. Xi’s power rests in part on Wang’s anticorruption campaign, and any deterioration in the relationship between the two men–real or perceived–could embolden Xi’s rivals or rattle his supporters, who may defect to his opponents.
Guo has neither named a source nor provided conclusive evidence for his claims, and their validity is unclear. Nevertheless, the allegations have signaled the emergence of a new tool in Chinese politics: weaponized leaks. As the infighting within the Chinese Communist Party has intensified, Guo has shown, elites can undermine their rivals by implicating them in the widespread collusion between China’s political and economic leaders.
Xi himself has sought to oust his challengers by ensnaring them in corruption scandals. But Guo’s actions show that by placing allegations in the media outside of China, those without direct access to the levers of power can now do the same, betting that their claims abroad will leap over the so-called Great Firewall, reenter China, and reshape the country’s domestic politics.
All of this raises questions about China’s political stability. What will stop other insiders from making similarly explosive disclosures about party politics? At stake is not only the outcome of the coming Party Congress, but the future of China’s opaque political system.
THE LOGIC OF LEAKS AND LIES
Leaking information to the foreign press in order to destroy political opponents has a simple logic. Because so many high-level Chinese officials have at least some ill-gotten wealth, all are vulnerable to disclosures that undermine their moral authority. Such allegations do not have to be true to be dangerous. Even false claims are costly to dispel, since doing so can require making embarrassing admissions and can draw further attention to the controversy.
It may seem odd that Chinese elites would use leaks at all, given the Communist Party’s opacity and Beijing’s tight control of the press. But it is precisely because China’s media is not free that leakers seeking to damage their opponents may turn to foreign outlets. In doing so, they take advantage of the fact that the Great Firewall is permeable and that the information they share can spread—if not among the wider public, then at least among high-level officials.
Guo’s allegations may not be the first time that leaks have shaped China’s factional politics. In the run-up to the 18th Party Congress in 2012, Ling Jihua, then the chief of staff to Chinese President Hu Jintao, became embroiled in a scandal after information linking him to a cover-up of his son’s fatal car accident was leaked to the South China Morning Post. The same year, Bloomberg and The New York Times published unprecedented details about the family wealth of Xi and then-Premier Wen Jiabao, embarrassing both figures and threatening Xi’s ascent to the presidency. Although both publications claimed to rely on public sources, such as open-source corporate and regulatory records, Taiwanese and Hong Kong observers suggested that Party insiders may have either provided those documents or helped journalists identify which records were worth investigating.
Regardless of whether Guo’s allegations are true, they could weaken Xi’s position before the Party Congress.
The connections between Party members and the reports on Xi’s and Wen’s family wealth remain speculative. More certain is that the threat of leaks has already become a fact of Chinese politics. When Ling feared arrest, for example, he reportedly passed on a number of secret documents to his brother, who took them abroad and threatened to release them to the media or the U.S. government as security against Ling’s punishment.
In authoritarian capitalist states, collusion between politicians and business leaders usually offers mutual benefits: the former gain wealth and the latter receive protection and rents. But when businesspeople appear to know their patrons’ secrets, those benefits can become mutual liabilities.
DIVISION AND DISARRAY
Guo is a savvy, politically connected businessman who made his fortune in real estate. A former protégé of Vice Minister of State Security Ma Jian–who himself was a mentee of security chief Zhou Yongkang—Guo fled China in 2015, soon after the arrests of Ma and Zhou for corruption. At the time, Guo had been embroiled in a dispute with Li You, a former partner and politically connected businessman, which had drawn official attention to Guo and his allies. Chinese-language media, meanwhile, had reported on Guo’s own corrupt dealings, suggesting that Guo himself was at risk of arrest. For much of the two years since Guo left China, he has lived in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, keeping a relatively low profile.
That changed in February. In YouTube videos, interviews with the Voice of America and Mingjing (an influential Chinese-language news website based in the United States), and posts on Twitter, Guo began to speak out. First, he accused Wang’s family of graft, claiming that relatives of the anticorruption chief were major, undisclosed stakeholders in the parent company of Hainan Airlines, China’s fourth-largest carrier, and that they owned property in the United States worth at least $10 million. Then, Guo claimed that Xi had instructed Fu Zhenghua, China’s deputy police chief, to look into investments made by Wang’s family, adding further that Fu personally told Guo that Xi did not trust Wang and was using Wang for his own purposes. These allegations, which remain unsubstantiated, implied that Xi hoped to blackmail or expose Wang and that their alliance was less stable than it seemed.
Guo’s claims were shocking because they cast doubt on the relationship that has made Xi the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. As Xi has marginalized the bureaucracy, creating policy through so-called leading small groups and breaking longstanding norms of consensual rule, Wang’s anticorruption body has taken down Xi’s adversaries and other senior figures once thought to be untouchable. The president’s consolidation of power appears to have drawn opposition from powerful factions tied to the former Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Xi has had less time to build his own base of elite support than either of those predecessors; that is why Wang’s trust and loyalty is so important to him.
Although Guo’s allegations have appeared in media outlets that are blocked in China, they have nonetheless found their way back into the country. Guo’s role in elite politics, the salacious nature of his claims, and public interest in the 19th Party Congress have ensured that his statements have received attention–so much so that Chinese state media, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Hainan Airlines have all felt compelled to refute them publicly. Chinese officials even trotted out Ma Jian, Guo’s imprisoned mentor, for a video in which he claimed that Guo had given him millions of dollars in gifts in return for political favors. These efforts have only generated more interest in the controversy.
Some observers have speculated that Jiang’s allies spurred on Guo’s allegations. Jiang’s faction, this theory runs, may have promised to help Guo recover billions of dollars in assets he left behind in China and protect his relatives and employees in the country; in return, Guo would serve as the faction’s mouthpiece, helping to drive a wedge between Xi and Wang. To be sure, no proof exists that Guo has such an arrangement with Jiang. But it is highly unlikely that Guo’s sudden outspokenness after years of relative silence is unrelated to elite competition before the Party Congress.
INNUENDO AND ITS IMPLICATIONS
Even if neither Xi nor Wang actually seeks to betray the other, their arrangement engenders insecurities, which in turn breed distrust. This helps explain why Guo’s allegations are so potent.
If the Chinese public comes to see Wang as corrupt, Wang may fear that Xi will purge him and make him a scapegoat for the anticorruption campaign’s excesses, so that Xi can repair his relationship with alienated officials. For his part, Xi may fear that Wang will seek to replace him or strike a deal with Xi’s rivals to ensure Wang’s own political survival. These are precisely the kinds of insecurities that drove Mao Zedong to turn against his right-hand man, Lin Biao, who accumulated enormous power (and drew much scorn) as a supporter of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Regardless of whether Guo’s allegations are true, they could weaken Xi’s position before the Party Congress. First, they could sow distrust between Xi and Wang: Wang may still fear that Guo’s claims are accurate, and Xi may still fear that Wang, motivated by Guo’s disclosures, will cut deals with Xi’s rivals. Second, and perhaps more likely, Chinese elites may find Guo’s claims plausible, undercutting Xi’s and Wang’s anticorruption credentials and damaging perceptions of the stability of their relationship. That could hold true even if Xi and Wang’s relationship remains intact.
If the Xi-Wang alliance appears to have weakened or if Xi’s rivals are able to encourage Wang’s defection, then Xi’s opponents may be better positioned to influence the outcome of the upcoming Party Congress. If Xi is seen as weak, for example, the president may find it harder to recruit allies to back his efforts to stack the Central Committee, which determines the membership of the Politburo and its ruling Standing Committee. And even if Xi’s allies are installed, once they are in place, they may turn against him in favor of factions they believe have better prospects, such as Jiang’s and Hu’s. Finally, if Xi loses the ability to shape the agenda of the Congress, whatever ambitions he has to rewrite party rules and serve as its general secretary for a third term could take a hit.
With stakes this high, more leaks from Xi’s allies and opponents are probably forthcoming. But the significance of Guo’s disclosures and likely future leaks extends far beyond this year’s major political events. The recent controversy suggests that the CCP is vulnerable to those insiders who would reveal its secrets for short-term gain over their rivals. Other officials or businessmen could corrode the party’s legitimacy by replicating Guo’s strategy in the future. By practicing the politics of personal destruction, China’s competing elites may end up destroying the party they hope to lead.