Xi Jinping’s precarious hold on China

November 11, 2022

From the November-December 2022 issue of News & Letters

by Bob McGuire

Uyghurs at “re-education” camp in Lop County, Xinjiang, China, being harangued with a “deradicalization” lecture

The coup that Xi Jinping had long planned to cement his control of the Communist Party of China went according to script: Xi was re-elected to a third five-year term as leader at the Party Congress that ended on Oct. 23. This was only possible by his having eliminated term limits in 2018. He assured himself undisputed personal control by sweeping out all but one member of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee and replacing them with cronies who had served under his thumb.

Xi branded strengthening the regime’s military and economic control as an attack on inequality. The only glitch in a precisely choreographed display of his authority was when former Chairman Hu Jintao was hustled out of the meeting, leaving one seat glaringly empty.


But what really punctured Xi’s claims to power came on the eve of the Congress. One man was able to unfurl two large anti-regime banners from the Hitong Bridge at the center of Beijing. Before police could stop “the Bridge Man” (later identified by opponents of the regime as Peng Lifa), he was able to shout to crowds below: “Go on strike at school and work, remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping.”

In the days since, spreading those slogans has been the task taken on by a resistance movement across China and even around the world, trying to stay one step ahead of the smothering reaction. Activists have done the modern equivalent of secretly passing out leaflets by using Air Drop to pass the slogans into the phones of fellow subway passengers.

Wherever the ever-present surveillance cameras are absent, primarily toilets, the slogans have been copied onto walls. Online, cyber cops have successively censored key words, and then blocked even the substitutes for key words: “I’ve seen it”—meaning Peng’s anti-regime slogans—is by now a forbidden phrase online.


“The Bridge Man” references the courage of another single individual, the Tank Man who, unarmed on June 4, 1989, briefly blocked the progress of a whole line of tanks entering Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to carry out the massacre of students and workers in occupation.

But the banners and slogans connect to the tradition of the “big character banner” erected in 1974 under the name Li Yizhe that rattled the cage of China’s rulers. “On Socialist Democracy and the Legal System” represented the generation of youth who had been pushed into the Red Guards as part of the preventive counter-revolution that Mao Zedong had called the Cultural Revolution, but who themselves had rebelled against the regime.

The banner cited Karl Marx to expose as fraudulent the “Marxist” underpinnings of the regime. It is clear that Xi Jinping, despite his consolidation of Party power, now feels equally uneasy about the opposition that this generation of rebels is displaying.

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