Anonymous Call for Xi to Quit Rattles Party Leaders in China – The New York Times

A far-reaching investigation into the origin of the letter, which first appeared on the Internet, has drawn more attention than the document itself.

Police officers removed posters of President Xi Jinping from a rundown building in Shanghai. His image is rigorously protected.

BEIJING — An anonymous letter calling on President Xi Jinping to resign for the good of China and his own safety seemed to be digital rumor-mongering when it appeared on the Internet this month. It spread by email and lingered on a small domestic Chinese news site before it was removed.

But the response from Beijing has been anything but dismissive.

Surprising even some hardened critics, Mr. Xi’s security forces have overseen a far-reaching inquisition to root out the culprits behind the letter, resorting to measures that have drawn more attention than the letter itself. They have detained at least 11 people, including relatives in China of two exiled writers accused of spreading or promoting the letter.

Mr. Xi’s handlers have sought to give him an aura of unshakable dominance. But the unusually severe response to what might be nothing more than an outlandish Internet ruse suggests some anxiety about his hold on power, including among security officials keen to show their loyalty and avoid any hint of exposing him to danger, experts said.

“The response has shown how jittery they are,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese politics at King’s College, London. “The fear seems to be that these views might be taken as representative of real elite figures.”

Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who monitors Chinese media for the website China Digital Times, attributed the response in part to the letter’s unusual phrasing. “Bluff or true, this tone sounds more like coup plotters talking to the leader they want to depose, rather than an open letter with dissenting political views,” he said.

There is no evidence that any coup plot could be in the works. Mr. Xi appears firmly in control; this week he has been visiting the Czech Republic, and he is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Thursday for a nuclear security meeting.

But the government’s alarmed reaction has highlighted the alternating pulls of swaggering confidence projected outward and internal anxiety about political control driving Mr. Xi to stamp down harder on critics, said several people embroiled in or closely watching the inquiry. 

Xi Jinping wants full control, and for the letter to appear on a domestic website marked a loss of control,” said Zhang Ping, a Chinese journalist and rights advocate living in Germany, whose siblings have been detained in southwest China as part of the investigation.

Mr. Zhang, who writes under the pen name Chang Ping, said two younger brothers were held by the police in Sichuan Province after his immediate family and even distant relatives were told to tell him to remove from the Internet an essay he wrote condemning the detention of a Chinese journalist, Jia Jia, possibly over the letter. Mr. Zhang said his younger sister was also missing, almost certainly detained.

Mr. Zhang said it would be impossible to take down the essay, which was published on a Chinese-language website of Deutsche Welle, the German news service. Mr. Jia has since been released.

The police initially said Mr. Zhang’s brothers were suspected of illegally starting a fire by burning joss sticks and paper at ancestral graves.

On Tuesday, the Sichuan police also issued a letter, purporting to be from one of Mr. Zhang’s detained brothers, Zhang Wei, in which Zhang Wei said that the family had urged him to stop criticizing the party and that they were “very angry” for saying his siblings had been detained for political reasons.

“If my brother were free, we would not have said that,” Mr. Zhang said in response to the statement. “The police are using my brothers as hostages to first blackmail me and then attack me.”

Wen Yunchao, a Chinese writer and rights activist living in New York, has said that his parents and younger brother in southern China were alsodetained by the police after being pressed to tell him to admit to spreading the letter online. He has refused, adamantly denying disseminating the letter.

The letter appeared online on March 4, just before China’s national legislature started its annual session. It lays out accusations against Mr. Xi from “loyal Communist Party members,” using a mix of old-school party jargon and liberal criticisms that makes its true authorship difficult to discern.

Mr. Xi has amassed too much power, betraying the party’s recent traditions of collective decision-making, it says. He has abandoned the calibrated foreign policy of Deng Xiaoping for dangerous adventurism, it continues, and has turned the news media into servile tools for promoting his own image.

“Comrade Xi Jinping, you do not possess the abilities to lead the party and the country into the future,” it says.

This is not the first time that an anonymous online message has rattled party leaders.

In 2011, the government of Hu Jintao, Mr. Xi’s predecessor, ordered a sweeping crackdown and tightened Internet censorship after anonymous messages spread online calling on citizens to join a peaceful “Jasmine Revolution” inspired by uprisings across the Middle East.

But the hunt for the letter’s authors suggests Mr. Xi is taking security controls to greater lengths.

“They’re extending their hands abroad,” Su Yutong, a Chinese journalist and rights advocate based in Bonn, Germany, said by telephone. “We were receiving attention before, but now even more.”

The security authorities appear to be using the investigation into the letter to target young exiled activists adept at using the Internet to spread news and stay in touch with people and events in China, she said.

“For a town police station in an isolated part of China to demand that German media, Deutsche Welle, remove an article of mine, that’s absurd,” said Mr. Zhang, the writer in Germany. “It wouldn’t have happened before.”

Chinese officials were probably most upset by the letter’s suggestion that Mr. Xi and his family faced personal peril, said Mr. Xiao, the Chinese media expert. The letter demands that Mr. Xi resign “out of concern for the party’s endeavors, out of concern for the future of the country and its people, and also out of concern for the personal safety of you and your family.”

It was first published online by Canyu, or Participation, a Chinese-language website based in the United States that specializes in news about human rights cases and commentary critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

Cai Chu, the chief editor at Canyu, said he and colleagues received the anonymous letter by email on March 3. Mr. Cai declined to describe the email address it came from, citing the need to protect the safety of those who submitted the letter.

“To judge from the contents of the open letter, it may be the work of an elderly gentleman,” Mr. Cai said in emailed answers to questions. “Whether it was possibly written by old party members can only be guessed at, not determined.”

The letter appeared next on the website of Wujie, a domestic Chinese news website. Wujie quickly removed it. But editors and technicians there havevanished, possibly detained, and precedent suggests the site will be shut down.

“The investigators are probably trying to figure out what technological loophole allowed the letter to appear on Wujie, and they want to figure out if the loophole was deliberate,” said Zhao Hui, a writer in southern China who uses the pen name Mo Zhixu. “I guess they suspect a conspiracy here.”

Mr. Cai said he received a new letter on Monday claiming to be a petition of 171 “loyal party members” urging Mr. Xi to quit. He said he chose not to publish that one. He said: “As it was also anonymous, it lacks credibility.”

Source: Anonymous Call for Xi to Quit Rattles Party Leaders in China – The New York Times

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