In recent years, China’s communist government has been getting more repressive, with expanding surveillance and Internet censorship, and the rapid construction of concentration camps for ethnic and religious minorities. All this has coincided with the country’s economic slump, which is driving waves of unrest among China’s 1.4 billion people.
Though not front-page news, the appointment of two high-ranking Chinese officials to new posts indicates just how bad things are getting, as well as what the Chinese Communist Party might be preparing to do in order to preserve its power.
On Jan. 26, Liu Shiyu, former head of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, was moved to become the new director of the All-China Federation of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives (ACFSMC), a nationwide agricultural organization.
Weeks later, on Feb. 12, the CCP Central Committee’s website was updated, showing that Prof. Zou Xiaodong, the head of Zhejiang University in eastern China, had been made deputy director of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) in December 2018.
The ACFSMC, though obscure now, played an important role during the Great Chinese Famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Great Leap Forward campaign ordered by Chairman Mao Zedong devastated the country. The Federation helped the CCP maintain tight control over food supply, thus keeping order across China even as tens of millions of people starved to death.
According to an analysis article by political risk consultancy SinoInsider, many China-watchers assumed that Liu Shiyu’s new post meant that he had been effectively demoted. But “there is a strong possibility that Liu’s transfer has more to do with the Party making advanced preparations to address a future crisis,” SinoInsider reports.
The analysts believe that Liu is a close ally of Chinese president Xi Jinping, who performed well by “aiding Xi in curbing political rivals while he was the top securities regulator,” and can be counted on to back him in the future.
Planning for the worst
If negotiations between the United States and China fail, and the Communist Party does not implement wide-reaching structural reforms that would open up its economy, the leadership could instead take steps in a different direction by returning China back to the totalitarianism of Chairman Mao.
“Should the Party decide to close up China, it would turn to the All-China Federation of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives, an organ established in 1950 to control the masses that are dispersed in the villages, as well as resolve the circulation and distribution of food and other goods in the countryside,” the SinoInsider analysis from Jan. 27 reads.
Currently, hundreds of millions of rural Chinese have moved away from their towns and villages to seek work in the cities. But because of the worsening economy, many are compelled to move back, a phenomenon that the CCP describes as “returning to the countryside for entrepreneurship.” In fact, however, these returned rural dwellers face bleak business prospects.
Meanwhile, the appointment of Zou Xiaodong to head the United Front Work Department points at what the CCP could be planning for a different demographic: Chinese college graduates struggling to find work.
The UFWD is an organization whose task is to build relations between the Communist Party and non-CCP groups, both in and outside China, and expand the CCP’s control behind the scenes.
According to SinoInsider, Zou’s new position is the first time a CCP cadre in academia has been given a leadership role in the UFWD, and it seems to indicate that the Party is making students the focus of its ideological work. The CCP fears that should China experience a severe economic downturn, angry students unable to find jobs might stage mass demonstrations against the regime, as they did in 1989.
If Zou’s appointment is aimed at extending the Party’s reach in education, there are parallels to the leadership of Mao Zedong. In the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his closest officials launched the Red Guard movement, which mobilized millions of young students to destroy the “Four Olds” and struggle against supposed enemies of the revolution, both in Chinese society at large and in the Communist Party itself.
Should the Xi Jinping leadership be unable or unwilling to implement structural economic reforms that would give a much-needed boost to the Chinese economy — but also reduce the amount of control the Communist Party has over national industries and thus threaten its political power in the long term — then the country may be in for a renewed period of totalitarian isolation.