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China’s Xi goes full Stalin with purge

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Something is rotten in the imperial court of Chairman Xi Jinping. 

While the world is distracted by war in the Middle East and Ukraine, a Stalin-like purge is sweeping through China’s ultra-secretive political system, with profound implications for the global economy and even the prospects for peace in the region.

The signals emanating from Beijing are unmistakable, even as China’s security services have ramped up repression to totalitarian levels, making it almost impossible to know what is really happening inside the country.The unexplained disappearance and removal of China’s foreign and defense ministers — both Xi loyalists who were handpicked and elevated mere months before they went missing earlier this year — are just two examples.

Other high-profile victims include the generals in charge of China’s nuclear weapons program and some of the most senior officials overseeing the Chinese financial sector. Several of these former Xi acolytes have apparently died in custody.

Another ominous sign is the untimely death of Li Keqiang, China’s recently retired prime minister — No. 2 in the Communist hierarchy — who supposedly died of a heart attack in a swimming pool in Shanghai in late October, despite enjoying some of the world’s best medical care. Following his death, Xi ordered public mourning for his former rival be heavily curtailed. 

In the minds of many in China, “heart attack in a swimming pool” has the same connotation that “falling out of a window” does for Russian apparatchiks who anger or offend Vladimir Putin.

Since his reign began in 2012, Xi Jinping’s endless purges have removed millions of officials — from top-ranked Communist Party “tigers” down to lowly bureaucratic “flies,” to use Xi’s evocative terminology.

What’s different today is that the officials being neutralized are not members of hostile political factions but loyalists from the inner ring of Xi’s own clique, leading to serious questions over the regime’s stability.

With such a febrile atmosphere in the celestial capital of Beijing, there are fears that an isolated and paranoid Chairman Xi could miscalculate, provoke armed conflict with one of its weaker neighbors or even launch a full-scale invasion of democratic Taiwan in order to distract from his domestic troubles.

Enemies everywhere

The political earthquakes rippling out from the old imperial leadership compound of Zhongnanhai are exacerbating the already dire state of the Chinese economy.

“We see a China domestically that is challenged; an aging society, demography, a severe housing crisis, slowing down growth, unexpected unemployment because the young generation leaving university does not find adequate jobs in the private sector anymore,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who heads to Beijing this week with her European Council counterpart Charles Michel for the first face-to-face EU-China meeting in nearly five years, told POLITICO last week. “So quite some challenges domestically.”

Chinese financiers and businesspeople (quietly) complain they are required to spend countless hours studying “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” — a painfully turgid governing mantra that boils down to ideology-free totalitarian rule and the return of a personality cult to China. 

In recent weeks, the country’s leading investment bank banned negative macroeconomic or market commentary, as well as any behavior that could suggest its bankers lead “hedonistic lifestyles.”

Not long after he ascended to chairmanship of the Communist Party in 2012, Xi began purging his real and perceived enemies in an “anti-corruption” campaign that never really ended.

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