Beijing has been beset with rumors in recent weeks that China's authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, is in trouble.
The leader’s communist regime is facing a range of challenges — an ongoing trade war with the U.S., a slowing domestic economy and a public health scandal involving thousands of defective vaccines being given to children.
The Guardian reports that Xi’s name disappeared briefly from the cover of the People’s Daily, replaced with stories about his deputy, Li Keqiang, and portraits of him were said to have been taken down after someone threw ink at his image.
A cryptic slogan also emerged online, according to the U.K. news site: “No. 1 will rest while Ocean takes over the military,” a reference to a rival politician taking power.
Still, Xi remains in power and mentions of him in the country’s state-run media are commonplace.
“Such rumors may well lack credibility, but they do offer some indication that the disharmony within China’s party elite is increasing,” the Hong Kong political analyst Lee Yee wrote in the online journal China Heritage.
An essay published this week by a law professor at Tsinghua University that’s made the rounds on social media offered the type of direct criticism of China’s government that is rarely seen.
“After 40 years of reform, overnight we’re back to the ancient régime,” wrote Xu Zhangrun, calling for the return of term limits, abolished by Xi earlier this year, and the rehabilitation of those punished for the June pro-democracy protests crushed by the government.
“The party is going to great lengths to create a new idol, and in the process it is offering up to the world an image of China as modern totalitarianism,” he wrote.
As trade negotiations falter and China faces questions after the disappearance of a professor known for his critiques of the government, analysts say that Xi’s absolute hold on power could be showing signs of having limits.
“His position is safe,” Willy Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Guardian. “It’s just his authority has been dented to some extent. His authority has suffered.”