A Matter of Perspective: Parsing Insider Accounts of Xi Jinping Ahead of the 20th Party Congress

This autumn sees the return of every China watcher’s favorite ‘parlor game’. The Communist Party of China (CPC) will convene its 20th Party Congress, a quinquennial gathering of around 3000 Party representatives in Beijing for a week of meetings that will approve a report by General Secretary Xi Jinping 习近平, amend the Party’s constitution, and select a new Central Committee. Xi is angling to secure a precedent-defying third five-year term as General Secretary or stay on as leader in another capacity. The game is to guess which cadres win promotion to the twenty-five-member Politburo and its seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). A bonus question this year is whether Xi revives the title of Party Chairman once held by Mao Zedong 毛泽东.

The results rarely flatter the professional China analyst. Experts speculated before the 19th Party Congress in 2017 that Xi would make Premier Li Keqiang 李克强 retire early, and would exempt his old friend Wang Qishan 王岐山 from retirement norms, neither of which happened. Many wrongly forecast that both Xi’s ally Chen Min’er 陈敏尔 and Li’s ally Hu Chunhua 胡春华 would reach the PBSC, but both had to settle for less-exclusive roles as ordinary Politburo members. Erroneous political forecasting is hardly unique to China, but the high levels of secrecy there make predicting outcomes like this even more troublesome.

Five years ago, right before the last congress, Jessica Batke and Oliver Melton asked in a commentary on ChinaFile, ‘Why do we keep writing about Chinese politics as if we know more than we do?’ They argued that Western media and China pundits project an ‘air of certainty’ about Chinese politics that is unwarranted given the scarcity of facts:

China’s Party-state is extremely successful at controlling information. Even the most basic insights into policy deliberations and processes, leaders’ intentions and views, and elite power dynamics are filtered through a sophisticated propaganda and censorship regime…in most cases, [we] depend heavily upon assumptions that paper over information gaps, or are structured in ways that exclude policy considerations and important variables…we all too often use what little we do know to make assumptions that form the bedrock of larger, more sweeping judgments.

What we do know is mostly hard facts devoid of human context. The formal structure of political institutions. The people who hold positions in these institutions. The policies that these people in these institutions produce. Propaganda trumpets these outcomes as products of the scientific process of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Internal rules forbid members from questioning Party decisions or publicizing internal operations. We therefore know the what, but we usually can only speculate about the how or the why.

A major gap in our understanding is insight from people working within the system. Typically, there are no media interviews with senior leaders, no leaks to the press about private meetings, no journalistic exposés from within or outside China about how decisions get made, and no tell-all memoirs by retired politicians. Secrecy is fundamental for a Party devoted historically to revolutionary warfare and presently to authoritarian control. Party members and public servants are expected to speak with one voice, that of the Party.

Seldom does a Chinese political insider turn against the regime and manage to tell their tale. First-hand stories of inner-Party politics, especially those published in English, generate an extraordinary buzz simply because they are so uncommon. That two such accounts emerged in the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress is remarkable. They provide a window into a hidden world, but their reception also shows how the China-watching community has yet to fully heed Batke and Melton’s warning.

Insiders Out

Red Roulette, by Desmond Shum 沈栋, was the most explosive book on Chinese politics for years when it hit the shelves last September. Shum, mostly through the ambition and networking of his ex-wife Whitney Duan 段伟红 (whose looks he feels the need to disparage), made a fortune as an entrepreneur in Beijing during the height of China’s ‘gilded age’ under General Secretary Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 in the 2000s and early 2010s. His lucrative ventures—which included helping the family of then premier Wen Jiabao 温家宝 profit from the float of Ping An Insurance, demolishing villages to build the Beijing Airport Cargo Terminal and developing the Bulgari Hotel in Beijing—both required and enabled him to schmooze with senior Party officials. The book details the extraordinary wealth accumulated by top leaders and their families and the grubby reality of doing business in China, with official permits requiring the endless wining, dining, and vulgar bribing of Party cadres.

Shum also offers glimpses of the personality politics that rumble beneath the Party’s well-oiled exterior. We learn, through Wen’s wife Zhang Peili 张培莉, that it was Xi who convinced the PBSC in February 2012 to purge Bo Xilai 薄熙来, a Politburo member and Xi’s political rival, after Bo’s wife murdered British businessman Neil Heywood. Wen and then Hu concurred with Xi, perhaps eyeing their own security after the leadership transition coming that November. The only objection came from security czar Zhou Yongkang 周永康. Zhou became the highest-profile casualty of a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that Xi launched shortly after taking office. But Xi still made the Wens and other ‘Red Families’ ‘donate’ their ill-gotten wealth to the state, according to Zhang. Shum, disturbed by Xi’s hardline politics, saw the writing on the wall for the freewheeling China he had thrived in, and moved to the United Kingdom.

Still, the rewards of working with the Party could be staggering. Shum intimates that he exited China, and his marriage, in 2015 with a significant chunk of the hundreds of millions of dollars that he and Duan made from what he calls ‘influence peddling’ with the Party elite. Duan was less fortunate. She was close to Sun Zhengcai 孙政才, a rising star on the Politburo and a potential successor to Xi. Sun had given land to the couple in Beijing’s Shunyi district in exchange for political favors. Duan’s starring role in the Wen family’s moneymaking had already put her at risk, and after Xi purged Sun in July 2017, she disappeared, almost certainly detained by Party agents. While Duan’s extra-legal detention is reprehensible, Shum’s tales of rampant graft and dysfunction serve as a convincing, if unintentional, argument for why the Party needed an anti-corruption campaign, albeit one less politically selective than Xi’s version.

For all his access, Shum was never a Party cadre, although he held a seat on the Beijing branch of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, part of the Party’s United Front system to co-opt non-Party groups and individuals.  A view from inside the system itself comes from Cai Xia 蔡霞, a liberal-leaning professor at the Central Party School (CPS) from 1998 until her retirement in 2012. Cai has lived in exile in the United States since her scathing critiques of Xi’s ‘mafia boss’ mentality got her expelled from the Party in 2020. She has become an outspoken Xi critic, authoring, among other articles, two essays in the influential foreign policy magazine Foreign Affairs, one each in 2021 and 2022.

Cai was a self-confessed ‘true believer’ in Marxism and in the Party’s ability to embrace economic and political reform to improve the lives of Chinese people. Her confidence faded when Hu Jintao began reining in civil society, and vanished completely in Xi’s New Era. In the essays, titled ‘The Party That Failed’ and ‘The Weakness of Xi Jinping’, as well as other reports and interviews, Cai argues that Xi’s ‘one-man show’ of political crackdowns, personality cult, and centralised power are leading the Party and the country toward disaster. She offers a rare window onto such experiences as the hollow tedium of drafting Party documents (in the early 2000s) and shares anecdotes about how Xi’s well-connected mother helped advance his career by writing to his former bosses.

Lessons for the 20th Congress

Shum and Cai suggest somewhat different takes on Xi’s standing ahead of the 20th Party Congress. Red Roulette’s tales of bigwigs and businesspeople felled by the new regime emphasise how Xi has ‘grabbed so much power’ that he could become ‘emperor for life’. [1] The Party’s capabilities are growing not only to ‘maximize its control inside China’ but also ‘export China’s repressive system overseas.’ [2] Cai is more pessimistic about Xi’s prospects. Her most recent Foreign Affairs essay, published in September this year, claims that Xi’s authority ‘is being questioned as never before’ as ‘resentment among CPC elites is rising’ due to political restrictions and policy mistakes that potentially threaten China’s social stability, economic growth, and international relations.

Cai argued last year that ‘60-70 percent of the CPC’s high-level officials’ favor constitutional democracy, human rights, and positive US-China relations, and that Washington should ‘support liberal elements within the party’ to advance political reform. Her September article claims that there is a ‘row’ among top leaders that ‘is breaking out into public view’ because Premier Li Keqiang opposes Xi’s zero-Covid policy, echoing a prominent claim made earlier this year in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Li ‘may soon reach a breaking point’ and ‘stealth infighting’ will intensify before the congress, Cai argues, because Xi ‘may not have locked up a third term’.

Both authors show how the informal politics of patronage, rivalry and control pervade Zhongnanhai, exposing Party propaganda as the shiny skin of a rotten fruit. But the outcomes of such intrigue do manifest in the formal structures of political authority, and the Party does tell us who gets promoted, who gets purged, and which ideas become policy. And the last few months have seen a continuation of the trends of the last decade, with Xi promoting more allies, sidelining more associates of Li, and further embedding his personal leadership and policy agenda into official ideology. Li’s stimulus measures do not represent a rebellion against Xi (as some observers have claimed) but rather an implementation of his instructions to ‘balance epidemic prevention and control with economic and social development.’ Li is at best a dissembling Zhou Enlai 周恩来 to Xi’s domineering Mao.

The facts we have suggest that Shum’s emphasis on Xi’s power is more convincing than Cai’s stress on his vulnerability. Her views that Xi wants ‘a China-centric world order’ and ‘the planned economy of the Maoist era’, and that a ‘vicious cycle’ of intensifying factional competition could push Xi to attack Taiwan, are debatable although her observations that Xi has made moves to ‘tighten his grip’ domestically and ‘raise his ambitions internationally’ are well-supported by authoritative policy documents. Even Cai, for all her doubts, concedes that Xi will probably win a third term.

No Proclivity for Change

An illuminating concordance between Shum and Cai is that neither had foreseen Xi returning China to strongman rule. Cai was ‘full of hope for China’ in 2012. Like the American columnist Nicholas Kristof, who infamously predicted that Xi would ‘spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well,’ Cai thought the new leader ‘had hinted at his proclivity for change’. Shum also ‘had initially been optimistic about Xi’s rule’, partly because he and Duan were close to Xi allies Wang Qishan and Chen Xi 陈希, a Politburo member and head of the Party’s Organisation Department since 2017, and ‘the general consensus in our social circle was that Xi would follow the established rules in China.’ [3] Even Chen Xi reportedly believed that Xi would wind down the anti-corruption campaign during his first term, while Wang foresaw ‘large-scale privatization’. [4]

As we contemplate a second decade of Xi’s leadership, such uncertainty about his thinking — even among his cronies — reflects a more fundamental truth about Chinese politics: even those near the top may not know what is going on. The system can be opaque to insiders too, and has been this way since the beginning. Robert Loh, a ‘patriotic national capitalist’ who fled Shanghai in 1957 and produced the remarkable memoir Escape From Red China, describes officials whose lives depended on Mao’s favor but could still not read his intentions. Prisoner of the State, the posthumously published reminisces of Zhao Ziyang 赵紫阳, the Party general secretary purged for opposing military action to crush the Tiananmen protests in 1989, is permeated by uncertainty. In high office, Zhao is still constantly guessing what paramount leader Deng Xiaoping is thinking. Under house arrest, he never knows when he can next receive visitors or take excursions. In the present, the more Xi controls the system, the less we will know about Chinese policymaking, and the harder it becomes to anticipate its direction.

Too often, facing this information vacuum, we in the West listen more to Chinese voices that say what we want to hear about China, including advocates for a more open economy, a shift to liberal democracy or greater protections of human rights. Zhao’s favorable comments about democracy were seen to ‘offer hope’ for political reform in China, while Loh presciently identified the Party’s obsession with control. Red Roulette arrived during a crackdown on big tech, reinforcing narratives about Xi’s power over the private sector, while Cai’s writing now feeds into horserace journalism about leadership splits ahead of the congress. And we want to hear that everything Xi does is disastrous and nobody likes it, because that resonates with the objections that many of us have to his policies, but it is hard even for those inside the system to know if that’s true. Yet we can agree strongly with the moral criticisms leveled at the Party by voices of conscience, and accept the factual accuracy of their personal testimony, while still engaging critically with their analytic conclusions about Chinese politics.

The Western media also at times struggles to understand the position of its interlocutors in the Chinese system. For example, The Guardian said Cai’s words are ‘potentially dangerous for the Chinese leadership,’ CNN claimed her criticisms dealt the Party an ‘embarrassing blow,’ and the Hoover Institution hailed her as ‘an important figure from within the Chinese Communist Party system’. Cai may have had ‘a front-row seat to the CCP’s court intrigue,’ as she puts it in her September article, but she was not a player on the elite political stage. Her position as one of over 150 full professors at the Central Party School did not rank within the top few thousand or even top tens of thousands of positions in the Party hierarchy.

There is no question that first-hand accounts capture the brutal mechanics of Party rule better than the sterile pages of the People’s Daily. But insider accounts deserve the same analytic scrutiny that we ought to afford all work on Chinese politics. Otherwise, we risk making sweeping claims based on a few anecdotal sources, which may overstate the importance of snippets of exposure to the very small number of people who actually call the shots in Beijing. We should at least compare these arguments with the evidence provided by the formal political system: promotions, purges, and propaganda, for example. Opacity may make it unavoidable to, in Batke and Melton’s words, ‘use what little we do know’ to make grand assumptions and ‘sweeping judgments’. But we must be vigilant about using as much of ‘what little we do know’ to inform our thinking.

Speaking out against the Party carries costs. Neither Shum nor Cai can ever return to China. Shum’s son with Duan may never see his mother again. Cai lost her pension and she fears for her daughter and grandson who still live in China. Dissenters to Xi’s rule who did not leave, such as legal scholar Xu Zhangrun 许章润 and property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang 任志强, have respectively suffered professional ruin and imprisonment. We owe them and others an enormous debt of gratitude for courageously sharing their stories with the world. We can only hope the future breaks down the walls around the Party’s ‘hall of the monologue’ 一言堂.


[1] Desmond Shum, Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption, and Vengeance in Today’s China, New York: Scribner, 2021, pp.265-266.

[2] Ibid, p.282.

[3] Ibid, p.251.

[4] Ibid.