Interview: China's Xi Faces no 'Power to Constrain Him' - Dissident Party Scholar (Part I)

Cai Xia.jpg A file photo of Cai Xia, a former professor at the Chinese Communist Party's influential Central Party School, who was expelled from the CCP on Aug. 17, 2020 after issuing public criticism of top leaders.
Cai Xia

Cai Xia, a retired professor of the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party, was expelled from the party and had her pension stripped on August 17 for “serious violations of political discipline of the Party” following her criticism of the increasingly authoritarian policies of Xi Jinping, party chief and state president. The dissident in-house scholar called the CCP a political zombie and likened Xi to a “gang boss”. Widely known as one of the “Hereditary [Second Generation] Red,” descendants of founding members or important figures of the CCP, the 68-year-old spoke to Vienna Tang of RFA’s Mandarin Service recently about her hopes for a peaceful political transformation in China.

RFA: Some said that the “Hereditary Red” Cai Xia has brought us a new catch phrase, “Remove the person but not the system.” How would you respond to this comment?

Cai: I don’t agree with this statement. People may have heard about the recording of my conversation in May. In that recording, I did begin with “the most urgent matter now is to get a new person (in power).” Because you know, if you want to change the system, you must first break the deadlock. If Xi remains in office, there is no way to resolve the impasse. So, you have no choice but to remove Xi, then you may be able to remove the deadlock. Therefore, replacing Xi with someone else is only the first step. Unbeknownst to many, there was a second part of that conversation. The first part was the 20-minute recording, in which I talked about having someone new in office. The second clip was about nine minutes long, and I talked about how we must abandon the system.

RFA: Speaking of a new system, you were once a professor at the CCP Party School.  What is your observation of the various political clans within the Chinese Communist Party?

Cai: From the start of the reform and opening-up period until now, there have been approximately three different political views within the Party. One is the reformists. Earlier reformists included Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang, who stood with the people. Rather than saving the Party, they pushed for reform so China could progress towards modern civilization. Meanwhile, Deng Xiaoping felt the party would not be able to stay in power if CCP did not change. There were two examples in which Deng demonstrated his historical limitations, however. One was in the 4,000 Officials Meeting in 1980, when the party was to review on Mao Zedong’s historical status and on the Maoist ideology. Deng prevented the party from further reflecting on Mao’s responsibility (in the Cultural Revolution). Therefore, following this precedent, when Deng Xiaoping ordered the crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, we said that he had made great contribution to the reform but was guilty of the violent use of force.

RFA: You mentioned that there are three different views. Other than the reformists, what are the other two?

Cai: One is the “Helpless“ faction, which is the majority of the party members. Everyone knows about the reformists, who’ve existed throughout the generations, including Ren Zhiqiang. However, not many people paid attention to the “Helpless.” We could also call them the “Silent Majority” within the Party. I categorize “the Helpless” into two groups: the local bureaucrats including governors, provincial party secretaries, mayors, city party secretaries, minister, and deputy ministers. Meanwhile, the other branch of the “Helpless” is made up of staffers. They are the many workers in the central and local, provincial and municipal agencies. The government workers who do the real work.  The Helpless ones are held hostage (in power struggles), and they lean towards whichever side that is in power.

RFA: What about the “Political Jockeys” that you have mentioned?

Cai: I also categorize the Political Jockeys into two groups. One is “Xi‘s Clan,” or what we call the “Zhejiang New Army,” referring those holding provincial and local posts while Xi was the Communist Party Secretary of Zhejiang province.

RFA: Right, he was the governor of Zhejiang.

Cai: Some of those moved with him to Zejiang from Fujian, where Xi’s political career began. Some of Xi’s closest allies came from Fujian, some others from Zhejiang, and yet others from Shanghai. The political jockeys are in Xi’s inner circle; they are those who he has brought with him. Additionally there are Xi’s “classmates” from Tsinghua University. These are one group of the jockeys.  Members of the other group of political jockeys have never worked with him on the local level, but they want to join Xi’s Clan. These include (The Tianjin Municipal Party Secretary) Li Hongzhong and (XUAR Party Secretary) Chen Quanguo. Hard-core political jockeys make up approximately 10 percent of the party at most.

RFA:  You mentioned that the reformists have existed throughout the generations in the party. You also mentioned your friend, Ren Zhiqiang. However, some observers maintain that there have been no more reformists after Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. What would you say about this?

Cai: I do not necessarily agree with this comment. In fact, after Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, there were many reform endeavors pushing the party forward. Let me put it this way. Locally, there are officials who strive to explore opportunities to reform on the local level. Take Zhejiang for example. The small goods market in Yiwu, Zhejiang was the result of the then County Party Secretary of Yiwu. Or, look at Shenzhen. I believe in the 1990s, Shenzhen kept moving forward.

RFA: The examples of reform are at local levels. What about the top party officials? If there was healthy opposition within the party, then how did Xi manage to emerge from the power struggle and achieve ultimate authoritarian rule? Why was there no one to stop him?

Cai: This is not a matter of a person. It’s a matter of the CCP political system. No one could control Mao Zedong, because there was no system set up in the party. Therefore, Deng Xiaoping later stressed the establishment of the system in the party. However, the structure of power is the fundamental element in the system. When power is highly centralized, any effort to reform technical, local, or applications of the system is just moot. If you do not divide the powers and establish checks and balances, then you can never solve this problem. Therefore, when Xi took office, he could easily grasp power, both from the country and the party, and centralize it in his own hands. And there is no other power to constrain him.

RFA: Earlier you said that it is a consensus in the party that Xi be replaced. Should he really be removed, who do you think is the best fit to take over?

Cai:  This is a lot more complicated. Why? I think removing Xi from office is a popular consensus, especially among mid- to top-level officials. I feel that, other than the Xi’s clan, we all know we cannot keep going like this. However, there may not have been a consensus within the party about who would be a good fit. That is, if we openly name someone as a suitable candidate, that person will certainly be eliminated by Xi.

RFA: You have also mentioned that there is no power to constrain Xi. Do you think the current political system is able to remove Xi from office? If not, then what is the solution?

Cai: I think they are incapable of removing Xi through the normal procedures. In my earlier discussion, I talked about whether the former Standing Committee members and the former Politburo members, current Standing Committee members, and current Politburo members could all sit down to have a meeting, in which the minority respects the decision made by the majority, and ask Xi to step down. I’d say, in fact, it is impossible to follow those rules. However, today’s China is complex and dynamic, both domestically and internationally. Maybe an emergency of some sort or an unexpected accident could trigger explosive changes. Maybe he would step down unexpectedly. Who knows?

RFA: In your talk, you mentioned that the elites inside and outside of the system may form a new political party. However, you also talked about how the CCP shell should be discarded during the transformation. What do you mean by the political shell?

Cai: The idea of the party has become a sacred symbol that cannot be challenged. The Chinese Communist Party is great, glorified, and correct; no one shall challenge the party. Therefore, we said that a hard shell like this has prohibited people from reflecting and discussing political issues in China. Therefore, I believe we need to crush this shell and break apart its privileged political correctness.  I believe only when we take it down can we truly discuss China’s current situation, what issues we need to address, and how we can solve these problems.

RFA: You also mentioned that no one can question the party. Under such circumstances, how do you realistically form a new party?

Cai: The forming of a new party should happen when a major political transformation in society occurs.  Once the sacred shell of the CCP is broken, those “Helpless” ones within the party who are keen to reform and those who wish to see China do well and evolve into to modernized civilization will break free, too. Then we can move beyond conceptual talks and let those in the party who want to push the country forward to put their abilities to good use.

RFA: I understand that you have been reflecting on how to realize peaceful political transformation in China. You have said that the word “reform” should be replaced with “change.” Can you elaborate on the “change?”

My discussion about “change” and “reform” was based on my reflection on the system. A political transformation in China is in fact a fundamental change of the system. Why would we have called it a reform in the past? Because we could see that in Mao’s era, the Chinese Communist Party rule that he had established after 1949, whose system lead national development under planned economy, could no longer support him in the Cultural Revolution. Therefore, once they swept Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, and Yao Wenyuan away, they had to propose a new set of ideas different from that of Mao Zedong’s so as to keep the party in power. From 1978 to 1989, China gradually evolved from a totalitarian regime towards authoritarian rule.

Yet like we’ve said earlier, Deng Xiaoping had his limitations, in that he wanted to save both the party and the regime. So, when you advocated for a democratic political system and elections in 1989, Deng wouldn’t have it. In the 1990s, what did Jiang Zemin do in the first three years after he took office? He was all about anti-peaceful evolution. He was aligning himself with the far-left, fighting hard against the waves of democratic movements prevailing domestically and internationally.

However, Deng Xiaoping had a better vision than Jiang did. Deng was aware that if China continued down this path, the regime would not be able to sustain itself. So, he went on the Southern Tour and asserted the development of market economy. Had the party gone along with Jiang’s “Anti-Peaceful Evolution,” it would have had offset what Deng Xiaoping had achieved in that 10 years of opening up.

How come Deng Xiaoping could still have his legacy etched in history then? When we talked about the 1990s, you could call it an era of Totalitarianism 2.0. In this version 2.0, elements of totalitarianism and authoritarianism were intertwined. You could still talk about reforms. Especially when Jiang talked about the Three Represents, he intended to push China towards “democratic socialism.”

But why would I want to discuss “change” now? It’s because ever since Xi took office in 2012, the party had wobbled unsteadily under his leadership. Whatever hopes for reforms we had were reversed. It has regressed back to totalitarianism. And in this new totalitarianism under Xi’s rule, there is one distinction that clearly differs from that of the 1990s and that of the Mao era. That is, the use of advanced technology. Strict surveillance enabled by big data.  He can precisely monitor everyone. He can put you under 24/7 close surveillance.

Translated by Min Eu.


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