Although internal Chinese politics are largely defined by meticulously concocted mysteries, it is an open secret that the battle for who will ascend to the highest echelons of Zhongnanhai is decided at the Beidaihe resort. It is where factions within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) engage in horse-trading over leadership selection and delegate appointments long before the party’s national congress.
What unfolded at last month’s 20th National Congress was predetermined at the Beidaihe gathering in August. In this context, the CCP, and particularly Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平), used the event to project power and party unity. It went well, but not as well as Xi would have wished.
Xi is a master chef and was about to present a spectacular dish when smoke started billowing from the kitchen, making it not just the talk of the town, but of the whole world. A lone protester, Peng Lifa (彭立發), caught international attention when he started shouting slogans on a Beijing bridge draped with two long banners denouncing Xi’s repressive rule and “zero COVID” policy, while clouds of smoke rose behind him. He was demanding freedom and food just days before Xi was to put on his show.
For a regime obsessed with image and orchestration, and for a command and control freak like Xi, this is probably the last thing the president wanted to see, especially before the national congress, where he was to be the center of attention.
Peng’s creative piece of activism took away some of the limelight from Xi’s grand stage and steered the focal point of world media onto Xi’s dark spots — the unpopularity of his repressive rule — and the regressive direction in which he is dragging China.
Peng also had some valuable warnings for Xi that a “wise” leader would do well to listen to: Xi is in danger of morphing himself into the center of a Maoist cult of personality and the violent chaos of the Cultural Revolution that epitomized the era. Xi is unlikely to hear the warnings from the sea of sycophancy surrounding his court.
Unfortunately, Xi does not appear to be a leader capable of accepting honest criticism.
In addition to power, he seems to be addicted to adulation, the excess of which is nauseating. Xi not only indulges it, he encourages more of it. Party cadres who outshine others in flattering Xi have their positions secured and soar under his rule.
This phenomenon is best encapsulated by the rise of Li Xi (李希) to the exclusive Xi loyalist club that is the Politburo Standing Committee. Li called an uprising by Xi’s father a “sacred war,” and Liangjiahe, a village where Xi spent his youth, a “sacred place.” The standard set by Li is high and it is likely to fuel the frenzy for more flattery now that Xi has scored his political hat-trick.
Peng has been called “Bridge Man” in reference to the iconic “Tank Man” who stood his ground in front of the military in Tiananmen Square during the bloody suppression of the democracy movement in 1989. Peng seems to be more concerned about awakening his fellow Chinese rather than engendering a change of heart in CCP hardliners.
With the one-party state hell-bent on pursuing an aggressive strategy to eliminate any challenge to the absolute power of the Xi-led CCP, such protests, although peaceful, would likely embolden the president to crack down further.
This does not mean that people under authoritarian regimes will submit to them forever. One need not look far into history for examples of this: Protests in Iran today and, of course, Peng’s protest on the bridge are clear cases in point.
Peng’s solo demonstration might not have triggered a mass protest against the dictatorship of the CCP, but it has inspired many to question Xi’s power and politics. It is an individual effort to awaken the collective conscience of a nation from the opium of indoctrination to the dangers of falling back into a Maoist ditch.
Symbolically speaking, it was as if Bridge Man emerged from the shadow of Tank Man to declare that the Chinese hope for democracy still breathes in the corners of jails, streets and university campuses, and online in discussion groups, social media and satirical posts.
By aptly calling Peng Bridge Man, Chinese have made the ember of their democracy inextinguishable, forging a chain of continuity in their fight for democracy and dignity.
Peng’s demonstration has injected a fresh boost of courage and creativity among Chinese youth and its positive impact has, almost, been immediate and explicit in China and beyond. Public toilets in China have become the new walls of democracy, while Apple’s AirDrop has opened a way of sending political messages and images anonymously in subways and streets. Chinese, especially students living abroad, have turned their university campuses into a front to rebel against Xi’s regime.
Xi’s avarice for power, as well as his rule characterized by ideological intolerance and repression, seems to trouble China’s post-Tiananmen Square Massacre generation who saw more material prosperity and the rise of their country as a superpower. Known as “Little Pinks,” they tend to be submissive at home and aggressive abroad. It appears that Xi’s power grab and his unpopular policies including his “zero COVID” strategy have compelled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) to raise his middle finger.
It is imperative to understand that Xi’s rise and politics are more of a symptom rather than the illness within the Chinese political system, which suffers from the excess of coercive power with too few corrective principles, such as an independent judiciary, a free press and a credible opposition. The one-party system is conducive to the rise of autocrats such as Xi. Seeing only Xi as the main problem is like trying to put out a match while the house is ablaze.
Returning to Xi as the master chef, despite the unwanted smoke in his kitchen, he did finish his dish. However, the unceremonious ejection of former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) from the room raised more questions about what Xi had prepared.
It is like Salt Bae sprinkling his signature steak with sugar instead of Maldon sea salt. It is hard to say why Xi appeared to be insecure having a frail Hu sit next to him, but it seems the latter was about to declare that what Xi had served would taste terrible to China’s 1.4 billion palates. That would be too much with smoke still billowing from the kitchen.
Palden Sonam is a Fellow at the Asia Freedom Institute. This opinion piece was also published in Taipei Times on November 29, 2022. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and not of the Asia Freedom Institute.