The growing backlash against an iron grip
GUANGZHOU/HONG KONG After four years of ruthlessly cementing his authority, Xi Jinping has established himself as one of the most powerful men in modern Chinese politics. The irony is that the president's pursuit of power has created a backlash that could threaten to undermine his entire regime.
Particularly worrying for Xi, this backlash is coming not only from activists in Hong Kong, but even from the mainland, where disgruntled bureaucrats are staging a silent rebellion against their supreme leader.
CREATING A STIR In many ways, Yau Wai-ching is a typical young Hong Konger, spending much of her spare time on her smartphone. But the 25-year-old is also a committed activist who does not mince words when it comes to relations with the mainland. "I have never thought of myself as Chinese," she says.
On Sept. 4, Yau was elected to Hong Kong's 70-seat Legislative Council for the first time. During an oath-taking ceremony on Oct. 12, held at the LegCo chamber, she caused an uproar by unfurling a blue banner reading "Hong Kong is not China." Outraged by her action, pro-China council members have demanded she be stripped of her membership. On Nov. 7, China's top legislature effectively barred Yau and fellow activist Sixtus "Baggio" Leung Chung-hang from taking their seats.
They are part of a growing movement of localists, a diverse group whose members advocate varying degrees of autonomy for Hong Kong. The defiant attitude of many stems in part from their vivid memories of a dramatic incident that unfolded last year.
In late 2015, five people connected with Causeway Bay Books, known for publishing and selling works critical of the Chinese Communist Party, suddenly went missing. These included Lam Wing-kee, the bookstore's manager. They were later found to have been detained by Chinese authorities.
A twist in the saga came when the booksellers appeared on Chinese television and confessed to various crimes.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" formula, which guarantees the territory a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs, for 50 years. The Communist Party also agreed to grant Hong Kong freedom of speech.
But since Xi assumed power -- first as Communist Party general secretary in 2012, then as president in 2013 -- China's commitment to the "one country, two systems" principle has wavered. The mainland's increasingly bold attempts to assert authority over Hong Kong has raised fears among locals that they may lose their cherished freedoms.
This fear and frustration acted as a tailwind for localist candidates in the Sept. 4 election, helping them secure about 20% of the votes.
Discontent on the mainland is less open but seems almost as pervasive.
As things stand, there is no political organization that could replace the Communist Party. What Xi fears is not that the party will be ousted but that it will lose its iron-clad control over the state.
For that reason, his regime has been clamping down on just about all aspects of society. In July 2015, it launched a crackdown on hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists, and its grip on the media shows no sign for loosening.
Even Yanhuang Chunqiu, a prestigious reformist magazine once praised by Xi's own father, fell victim to the clampdown, with its entire management team being forced to resign in July.
Though media outlets are expected to act as the "mouth" of the Communist Party, some journalists have managed to criticize this state of affairs through photographs or poems. But now even this limited freedom of expression seems to be rapidly disappearing.
SILENT SABOTAGE While it may be too early to write the Communist Party's eulogy, the backlash against Xi's heavy-handed style is undoubtedly eroding his regime.
Since taking power, Xi has implemented a sweeping anti-corruption campaign as a way to take down political foes and consolidate his power.
Many central and local government bureaucrats, to avoid being targeted in the campaign, have started putting in less effort at work.
"I have nothing to do today again," said Liu Ping (not his real name), a 49-year-old local government worker in the northeastern province of Liaoning.
For the past two years, Liu has arrived at work at 8:30 a.m., passed the time by reading a newspaper, had a free lunch at the cafeteria and then taken a nap before leaving for the day at 3:00 p.m.
Liu works for a division tasked with attracting companies to boost the local economy, but the types of activities this sort of work usually involves has come under scrutiny in Xi's anti-corruption drive.
"It's better for me to do nothing than to do my job and fall under suspicion," he said, adding that his colleagues are all slacking off to varying degrees.
Officials across the country are doing likewise, even some of those at major state-owned oil company China National Petroleum Corp.
Members of CNPC's overseas business team have repeatedly been told by their superiors not to find any more projects. They have been put on notice that they will be dismissed immediately if they are suspected of wrongdoing.
Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body, fell victim to Xi's anti-corruption campaign.
Before his fall from power, Zhou was widely seen as the head of China's "oil faction." CNPC was also targeted in Xi's corruption crackdown, with many of its executives being detained.
Because of the great risk involved in publicly defying Xi, many bureaucrats and officials feel their only option is to keep their heads down and avoid rocking the boat until the political storm passes. Their intentional slacking off, however, constitutes a kind of sabotage, which just goes to show that the more tightly Xi squeezes, the shakier his grip on power becomes.