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China clamps down on dissident writer who criticized cult of personality around Xi

Despite asking for public input ahead of a key party congress later this year, Chinese authorities appear to be stepping up its clampdown on public dissent amid a growing cult of personality around ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping.

Retired writer and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Association Tian Qizhuang is apparently incommunicado after he submitted an “opinion” opposing the Xi personality cult, saying it was in breach of the CCP charter.

In an open letter to CCP disciplinary chief Zhao Leji, Tian accused Guangxi regional party secretary Liu Ning of “serious violations” of the party charter in a speech he made in a recent communique.

“We must work hard to forge our party spirit and loyalty to core [leader Xi Jinping] with a high degree of political awareness,” the communique read, after the regional party CCP conference elected Xi as a delegate after he was nominated by the CCP Central Committee, in an exercise aimed at requiring and demonstrating loyalty to Xi.

“[We must] always support our leader, defend our leader and follow our leader,” the communique said.

In his letter, Tian argued that the communique was in breach of a clause added to the CCP charter at the 12th Party Congress in 1982, forbidding personality cults around Chinese leaders.

“The key point about cults of personality is that they privilege personal power over the constitution and the law, violating the republican principle that everyone is equal before the law,” Tian wrote.

“The Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region party committee has blatantly issued this communique in violation of the CCP charter,” he said.

“This denial of the basic policy of sticking to the rule of law also shows that the cult of personality [around Xi] has already reached a dangerous level,” Tian wrote, calling on the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) to “investigate and deal with the matter promptly, and make the results and punishment known to the whole party … to prevent such corrupt thoughts and culture from making a comeback.”

The CCP, instructed by Xi, has said it is soliciting online opinions and suggestions ahead of the party congress from April 15 through May 16, in a bid to “brainstorm and promote democracy.”

But several days after the letter was published, Tian received a visit from local state security police, who swept his home for “evidence,” confiscating his cell phone and computer.

Paeans to Xi

The Guangxi communique came after outgoing Shenzhen party secretary Wang Weizhong lauded Xi to the skies in his valedictory speech, listing five of the leader’s attributes for which he would remain “eternally grateful.”

Current affair commentator Wei Xin said paeans to Xi are likely to become even more frequent in the run-up to the 20th CCP National Congress later this year.

“On the one hand, we have a wave of populism, accompanied on the other by structural changes in the highest echelons of the CCP Central Committee, which is inclining itself more and more towards individual totalitarianism,” Wei told RFA.

“The party constitution isn’t enough to rein in the cult of personality or the centralization of power in one individual in the face of those changes,” he said.

“[These tendencies within] the CCP will get stronger and stronger in the next six months as we approach the 20th party congress, and will likely peak in the fall.”

Wei’s warning harks back to a 2010 essay by Chengdu party school professor Liu Yifei titled “Never forget to oppose personality cults.”

In it, Liu warns that a lack of clear understanding in party ranks of the dangers led to disaster in the absence of strong institutional constraints, resulting in “a leader who couldn’t be curbed” by his own party: late supreme leader Mao Zedong.

Feng Chongyi, a professor of Chinese Studies at the Sydney University of Technology in Australia, said the emerging personality cult around Xi is linked to the CCP leader’s successful removal of presidential term limits via China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), in 2018.

“After the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976] ended, the party line was against individual autocracy, and the abolition of lifelong leadership was part of that,” Feng said. “No leader from Hu Yaobang, to Zhao Ziyang, to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, served more than two terms in office, but he is now breaking that rule and bringing back lifelong tenure.”

“To achieve that, he needs a deification campaign and a personality cult; it’s all part of the same operation,” he said.

Distractions from bad news

Feng said there is plenty of bad news from which Xi needs to distract people through populism.

“There is trouble at home and abroad, with a constantly weakening economy, and worsening confrontation with developed countries,” he said. “This has created a lot of dissatisfaction within party ranks, but China doesn’t have … democratic elections or any political process.”

“So, as long as they can suppress people like this writer, he will get his re-election,” Feng said.

Tian’s silence came as online platforms including Weibo, Douyin and WeChat began requiring users to supply their IP address, making it easier to locate people when they comment or post.

WeChat said it will begin displaying the location of users when they publish content, using their IP address, with domestic accounts showing the user’s province, autonomous region or directly governed municipality, and overseas accounts showing their country.

Hebei-based political scientist Wei Qing said the move feeds into the growing use of “grid management,” which divides localities up into grids, giving officials responsibility for the actions of anyone living in their square.

“The goal is grid management, which is central government policy, and the Cyberspace Administration is implementing that central policy,” Wei said. “Controlling the movement of people is the biggest characteristic of an autocratic society.”

“Now that China is heading back to the Cultural Revolution, the movements of people both in physical space and in cyberspace, will be one of the most important goals.”

He said local officials’ knowledge of who is posting from where will likely be far more finely tuned than simply knowing a person’s province or city, however.

“It’s not just about displaying your IP, but also about being including in grid management,” Wei said. “Whatever you say online will be deemed the the responsibility of your local police station.”

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.