Political purges have continually defined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since its formation in 1921. They have also characterized modern China’s governance since Mao Zedong’s founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
This once meant torture, execution and erasures of public figures such as Zhao Ziyang, the former Chinese premier who opposed Den Xiaoping’s “guns and tanks” approach to the protest movement that ultimately would culminate in Tiananmen Square. Those means have changed somewhat over time, but the aim of consolidating power has remained a constant.
Xi Jinping, who secured his third term as president of China in March, has followed the lead of his predecessors. His purge weapon of choice is to lodge corruption accusations against would-be domestic foes and disloyal party members.
Key to staying in power in Beijing is to create a cult of personality. Beginning in the 1960s, Mao crafted his own during the Cultural Revolution by publishing a collection of his teachings, speeches and aphorisms that became globally known as the “Little Red Book.”
The book was designed to shield Mao from criticism over the failures of his Great Leap Forward, which had resulted in the deaths of up to 45 million Chinese from famine, execution and slave labor camps in the 1950s. It is estimated that up to 2 million more died during the Cultural Revolution as Mao’s young “Red Guards” sought to purge China of its corrupt “bourgeois.”
Xi, in pursuit of his personality cult, authored his own Mao-like “Little Red Book” in 2014, titled “The Governance of China.” If Mao’s effort was an introductory course, Xi’s approach has been a masterclass in how to confront and purge political opponents. Whereas Mao’s was largely an exercise in self-preservation, Xi’s “Little Red Book” is an ever-updating blueprint for domestic and global domination.
To carry a copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book” during the Cultural Revolution, and to be able to quote it from memory, could often determine who lived or died and who was imprisoned or left alone. Now, in Xi’s China, even writing out his speeches by hand — as party members are “instructed” to do — is no longer enough to avoid his wrath.
Last October, during the 20th National Congress of China’s ruling Communist Party, we witnessed one of Xi’s purges in action in real time. Hu Jintao, the elderly former Chinese president, was sitting at Xi’s left hand when two security guards abruptly had him stand and shuffled him out of the meeting. Hu briefly resurfaced in December while attending the CCP’s memorial service for his immediate predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
Hu’s public ouster was intended as a capstone to Xi’s decade-long purge to remake the CCP and effectively install himself as its supreme leader. As Bloomberg News reported last Fall, “roughly three dozen members of the Central Committee were removed during his first decade in office, freeing up seats for a coterie of officials whose careers crossed paths with his own in places including Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai.”
The CCP is now a “one-man party.” Xi accomplished this goal by eliminating term limits, ousting competing blocs and installing “loyalists to establish sweeping control” of the CCP. Since Xi came to power in 2012, he has completely reshaped China’s governance.
First, he overhauled the seven-member “Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful group in China,” installing loyalists Ding Xueiang, Cai Qi and Li Qiang. Then he reshaped “the party’s 24-member Politburo — the second tier of power.” Ominously in terms of U.S. national security, Xi has also added nuclear, aerospace and military experts to this mix to “help realize his vision of China as a technologically advanced superpower.”
Xi’s path to absolute power began with a series of campaigns targeting corruption inside of Beijing and out. In late 2022, the CCP claimed it had “investigated almost 5 million members for possible corruption over the last decade, with formal criminal cases against 553.” Xiao Pei, the CCP’s deputy director of the Committee for Discipline and Inspection, reported that over the course of 10 years, “207,000 party officials in total had been handed some form of punishment.”
Xi is also solidifying his control over all the China’s economy, chiefly by targeting China’s business oligarchs and entrepreneurs, including Alibaba founder Jack Ma. Xi even christened a slogan worthy of his own version of Mao’s “Little Red Book,” calling his campaign the “sweep away black and eliminate evil.”
Ma’s mistake was saying “Success isn’t up to me,” while criticizing China’s “regulators and state-owned banks.” Xi had originally said that, and he clearly took offense. Soon thereafter, China’s most famous businessman largely vanished from the public scene in China until he resurfaced earlier this year as an English teacher.
As Ma quickly learned, even quoting Xi’s “Little Red Book” from memory can get you banished — or worse. The need to toe Xi’s line is having a chilling effect on Beijing and the rest of China.
After Mao’s death, the CCP endeavored to ensure that no one Chinese leader would ever again accumulate so much power. But after 11 years at the helm, Xi has unraveled all of the safeguards they had put in place. The result has been the purging and/or silencing of foes who are forced to “operate in ‘silos of fear,’ with everyone scared of Xi and also isolated from each other.”
Distrust and paranoia have set in across Beijing. Even Xi’s inner circle is no longer safe. Whereas Xi’s initial corruption campaigns had focused on eliminating legacy rivals such as Hu and Ma, the Chinese president is now embarking on what appears to be an accelerating purge of his own hand-picked insiders.
Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, was the first major Xi insider to go. The reported reason was an extramarital affair he had while serving as Beijing’s ambassador to Washington. Qin’s abrupt dismissal is suggestive that Xi now sees Washington as a threat to his vision of a multipolar global order, and as a looming military threat to his designs in Taiwan and throughout the Pacific.
U.S. officials say that Xi also sacked his Defense Minister, Li Shangfu. Procurement corruption is likely behind it, but in light of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failures in his war against Ukraine, Xi is likely focused on whether China’s military is ready to take on an increasingly recalcitrant Taiwan.
Washington needs to stop projecting and making the same mistake it made with Putin. Xi’s purge of his military is not the equivalent of hitting the brakes vis-à-vis Taiwan and the Pacific. Rather, it is an acceleration.
Xi’s “Little Red Book” tells us all we need to know about his far-reaching ambitions: Dominate Beijing today, Brussels tomorrow and Washington the day after that.
Mark Toth is an economist, entrepreneur, and former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis. Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army Colonel and 30-year military intelligence officer, led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014.