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Political Rivalry in China Part 1 – Plots to Overthrow Xi Jinping

Part 1: Plots to Overthrow Xi Jinping

As the Preface of this series pointed out, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) officialdom system lacks an established mechanism to enable a new leader to appoint his own people and remove those who are not. The new leader has to find ways to build up his team. [1]

When Xi Jinping took office, he used the anti-corruption campaign as the main method to replace numbers of officials with people who share his “China Dream.”

However, vacating seats was not the only reason for Xi to remove disloyal officials. There is a more critical reason: some officials such as Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou, and Ling Jihua devised political plots to overthrow Xi. Xi was thus, for his own survival, forced to purge them.

In this article, we will go through a few widespread political coup stories that appeared in Chinese media.

Though most Western media did not report these stories, they were widely covered in Chinese media outside of China. Epoch Times, an independent media based in the U.S. has the most extensive coverage [2]. Some media with strong ties to the CCP, such as Phoenix Weekly, a publication under Phoenix Television, reported some coup attempts [3]. In addition, a few state media in China used code words as a means to confirm the information.

The most well-known coup story was the plot by Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. A popular version was:

Bo became the Party Secretary of Chongqing in 2007. With the ambition to claim leadership in Beijing, Bo started a high-profile “singing the ‘red’ (songs) and fighting the ‘black’ (the mafia)” campaign to build up his popularity with the public. In actuality, his fighting the “black” campaign targeted wealthy businessmen so that he could “appropriate” huge sums of money from them.

Zhou Yongkang, then security Tsar of China, openly provided strong support to Bo. The CCP’s Propaganda Department also mobilized the media to praise Bo.

The CCP was to have a large power transition at the end of 2012 when Xi Jinping took the top leadership position from Hu Jintao. Bo and Zhou planned to install Bo into the new CCP Politburo Standing Committee at that time. Bo would take over Zhou’s position as the Party Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee (PLAC) and thus inherit Zhou’s enormous power.

Zhou, who was supposed to retire at that time, wanted to stay in power. According to Bo’s confession made in prison, Zhou eyed the position of President of China, an honor that Xi Jinping was supposed to take [4]. Traditionally the top leader holds three titles: General Secretary of the CCP, President of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

As the new PLAC head, Bo would extend his fighting the “black” campaign nationwide to coerce more officials into submitting to him (almost all officials in China have ties to businesses that conduct some illegal or “gray” practices). He would also expand the already-too large police force, especially the armed police, and keep buying overseas media to release negative information about Xi Jinping.

Finally, in 2014, Bo would carry out a political coup to force Xi to step down and surrender power to him.

Unfortunately for Zhou and Bo, Wang Lijun, former Chongqing police chief and Bo’s henchman, irritated Bo in early 2012. Bo then demoted him. Wang, knew only too well what Bo could do. On February 6, 2012, in fear of losing his life, he went to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu to seek political asylum. Wang revealed many secrets about Bo to the U.S., including this coup and Neil Heywood’s murder. Wang came out of the U.S. Consulate and left with State Security officers from Beijing the next day.

Wang’s secrets were conveyed to Hu Jintao, then the CCP head. Though the coup did not target Hu, it was against the CCP leadership’s decision on the future leader, a decision to which, as explained below, both Jiang and Hu had agreed as a compromise. Hu and his ally then Premier Wen Jiabao could not ignore Bo’s action.

In addition, the story spread widely among overseas Chinese media and Chinese netizens.

In mid-February, The CCP Politburo Standing Committee held a meeting to discuss Bo’s case. Xi Jinping, a Politburo Standing Committee member, was visiting the U.S. at that time. With Xi’s absence, the vote came out as four against four on whether to take Bo down. From the U.S. Xi provided the tie-breaking vote, a vote of yes.

Bo attended the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2012. He appeared calm; he smiled many times. When the NPC broke by regions into smaller group discussions, Zhou attended Bo’s group and showed his support for Bo.

A reporter also took a picture of Bo and Xu Caihou having a private chat while sitting in the conference listening to a report. This, as it was appeared to be a gesture at a critical time, led some people to suspect that Xu was also linked to Bo’s case.

On March 14 2012, Wen Jiabao used the opportunity of the Premier’s press conference to release information about Bo. The press conference was supposed to last for two hours. Wen kept the conference going for two and half hours, until eventually a news reporter asked a question about Chongqing (indirectly asking about Bo’s case). Wen answered the question by criticizing Chongqing (referring to Bo) for trying to bring the Cultural Revolution’s “left” stuff, the extreme ideology that even the CCP was officially against, back to China.

Next came the downfall of Bo Xilai. The next day, Bo was dismissed from the position of Chongqing Party Chief. He was suspended from the CCP Central Committee and its Politburo on April 10, 2012, expelled from the Party on September 28, 2012, and tried for corruption in August 2013.

Zhou Yongkang, however, did not drop the matter. He continued fighting.

Ling Jihua’s son, Ling Gu died in a disgraceful car accident on March 18, 2012. Ling was the head of the CCP General Office and Chief of Staff to Hu Jintao at that time. He was a hot candidate for the next Politburo Standing Committee. Ling tried to cover up the car accident.

Zhou found out about it immediately. Since the accident and the cover-up attempt could greatly hinder Ling’s political bid, Zhou offered to keep it quiet in exchange for Ling’s cooperation. They formed an alliance.

In their agreement, Ling would scale down the charge against Bo and try to prevent any implication of involvement from expanding to Zhou. Zhou would help Ling to get a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee. Then at a later time, Zhou would support Ling to carry out a coup to overthrow Xi to make Ling the new leader (because Zhou’s previous ally Bo was out). [5]

There were reports that, on March 19, 2012, Zhou himself even attempted a coup. Zhou ordered the armed forces to surround Zhongnanhai where the top leaders stayed. Hu Jintao found out about the plot and ordered the 38th Army, stationed at Baoding, Hebei Province, to come to Beijing. The army surrounded the PLAC’s headquarters where Zhou was located. Army soldiers disarmed the armed police there, but Zhou managed to escape through an underground tunnel.

As a result, Zhou was removed from power (but still kept his titles). In September 2012, Ling was demoted to be the head of the CCP United Front Work Department.

It is not clear how much Xu Caihou had been involved in Bo and Zhou’s coup plot.

There were reports that Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong were against Xi Jinping. Both of them were Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and effectively controlled the military at that time. Hong Kong’s Mingpao reported that Xu once said to Guo, “Let [Xi Jinping] get out [of the CMC Chairman position] after serving for five years!” [6] This would be interpreted as another coup plot because Xi, as the CCP’s top leader, would normally serve as the CMC Chairman for two five-year terms.

The CCP’s lack of transparency made it hard for outsiders to verify this information. To most Chinese, it makes sense.


There were several details to support this information.

One, the authorities have indirectly confirmed the political plot.

The New York Times reported that Xi Jinping himself issued information alluding to the coups. [7] According to the article, in a recently published book titled, Edited Excerpts From Discussions by Xi Jinping on Tightening Party Discipline and Rules, Xi made the following statements about Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou, Ling Jihua, and Su Rong, five top level officials taken down under corruption charge:

“The greater these people’s power, the more important their position, the less seriously they took party discipline and political rules, to the point of recklessness and audaciousness! Some had inflated political ambitions and for their personal gain or the gain of their clique carried out political plot activities behind the party’s back, carried out politically shady business to wreck and split the party!”

The New York Times said of the book that it contained “the first public official declaration by President Xi Jinping of ‘political plot activities’ by senior Communist Party officials ‘to wreck and split the party’ – code words for a coup attempt, several Chinese analysts said.”

The Communique of the Sixth Plenary Meeting of the 18th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) on January 14, 2016, also stated, “The Party Central’s investigation and that it addresses Zhou Yongkang and Ling Jihua’s case has eliminated a significant hidden political danger in the Party… [The Party Central Committee] has put political discipline and political rules in the first place and resolutely investigated and addressed the issues of [some official’s] connecting political and economic interests, forming cliques, trading interests, acting against the [Central Party] organization, and deceiving the [Central Party] organization.” [8]

Again, “acting against” the Party and “deceiving” the Party indicated a political plot against the Party’s top leader.

Two, the CCP has a rich history of brutal political in-fighting.

As the Preface to “Political Rivalry in China” pointed out, the CCP officialdom structure fosters political in-fighting. In the past half century, there have been seven major in-fights involving the top leader:

In 1966, Mao Zedong, the ruler of China, launched the Cultural Revolution to take down the Party’s “number two” person Liu Shaoqi. Liu later died in prison.

In 1971, Mao forced the new “number two” Marshall Lin Biao to escape China. Lin died when his plane crashed in Mongolia.

In 1976, Prime Minister Hua Guofeng and Minister of National Defense Marshall Ye Jianying arrested the “Gang of Four” (four top political leaders including Mao’s wife Jiang Qing). Each of the “Gang of Four” was later sentenced to over ten years in prison.

In 1980, Deng Xiaoping pushed Hua Guofeng out of power.

In 1986, Deng and Party elders expelled Hu Yaobang from the post of the Party’s General Secretary.

In 1989, Deng and the same Party elders expelled Zhao Ziyang from the Party’s General Secretary post.

In 1992, Deng publicly threatened to kick the then Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin out if Jiang did not follow his Reform and Opening up policy. Jiang yielded in order to keep his position.

Some of these fights involved violence and military force. For example, the arrest of the “Gang of Four” in 1976 was done through a military coup. In fact, the “Gang of Four” was also organizing a coup. Their opponent was just one step ahead of them in taking action.

In 1966, to take down Liu Shaoqi who managed the daily operations of the CCP and the government, Mao mobilized tens of millions of Red Guards, who were high school and middle school students, to “rebel.” The entire government system was paralyzed and China fell into total chaos. As a result, Liu and many government officials were taken down.

In 1992, PLA Daily, the voice of the military, published the headlines, “The PLA Will Safeguard the Reform and Opening up” and “Whoever Does not Reform Must Step Down” to force Jiang Zemin to come back to Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening up policy.

Three, a political group had strong motivation to overthrow Xi.

The publicly revealed information seemed to indicate that Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang worked on a political coup, while Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong worked on a different, maybe-not-so-concrete plan.

The commonality among these individuals was their ties to Jiang Zemin. They were all in Jiang’s fraction.

Chinascope has pointed out that Jiang left two legacies that still impact China’s political temperature: a corrupt system and the persecution of Falun Gong. [9] Jiang built his faction largely with officials who were complicit in and therefore shared guilt in these two areas. That shared guilt gave them a bond, a distrust of outsiders, and an interest in protecting each other.

Xi Jinping didn’t have many bad marks in either area.

This presented a great risk to Jiang and his faction: since Xi was free of culpability, he could, at any time, decide to go after their accountability for either legacy.

To avoid that, for Jiang and his faction, the safest way was to take Xi down and promote someone from their own group. That person would never want to reverse these legacies since he was complicit in the same acts.

Thus, it was not just a few individuals, but rather the entire Jiang faction that had the incentive to replace Xi.

Four, there were signs that Xi was fighting against a large group.

It took quite a while for Xi to take down the current few big “tigers.” Bo Xilai was taken down in March 2012, but his trial didn’t occur until July 2013. The Politburo Standing Committee’s approval to investigate Zhou Yongkang did not occur until December 2013. Xu Caihou was put under investigation in March 2014, Ling Jihua in December 2014, and Guo Boxiong in April 2015.

Had there not been resistance, Xi would have taken them down much faster.

Moreover, Xi has faced a lot of challenges in the past few years.

In August 2014, Xi was reported as having survived six assassination attempts. [10]

Several times in the past few years, Xi has been humiliated publicly: Overseas media reported that Xi’s family was corrupt; in 2014, the PLA army crossed the China-Indian border and camped on the Indian side, just as Xi went to meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to negotiate an investment of $20 billion; and in 2015, Chinese hackers conducted cyber espionage against the U.S. the day after Xi promised, in his visit to the U.S., to stop cyber intrusions.

In 2014, Xi stated that his anti-corruption campaign had reached a “stalemate.” He also expressed that he was willing to fight “even at the cost of his personal life or personal fame.” [11]

Some of these attacks on Xi happened when those “tigers” had already been caged. So someone else must have committed these acts. In other words, the resistance to Xi was far beyond those few caged “tigers.”

Five, even though Jiang Zemin endorsed Xi as the new leader in 2007, Jiang and his faction didn’t really trust Xi.

This may sound inconceivable, but it was a result of the CCP’s officialdom structure.

Starting from Jiang Zemin’s time, the successor to the current top leader was identified and put into a key position for many years while the incumbent leader remained in power.

At the same time, Deng Xiaoping picked Jiang Zemin as the top leader and Hu Jintao as his successor. Hu served as a Politburo Standing Committee member for the entire duration when Jiang served as the CCP head.

During Hu’s second five-year term (2007 to 2012), the Party leaders wanted to identify his successor.

There were several criteria for this heir. The first one was the age. Jiang set up a rule of “Seven Up and Eight Retire” (“七上八下”) – a person who is 67 or under can serve the Politburo Standing Committee; a person who is 68 or over must retire. This new leader needed to serve the Politburo Standing Committee for three terms – his first term as the heir and the next two terms as the new CCP head. Thus he should have been under 58 in 2007.

Also, this person must have already accumulated extensive leadership experience. Provincial level Party Secretaries were the best candidates.

Not many officials had both the age and experience qualifications.

Jiang and Hu were the two most influential figures and political rivals then. They both wanted to get their own choice into the leadership post. They had long been preparing their candidates.

Hu’s candidate was Li Keqiang, then 52, Liaoning Provincial Party Secretary. Li had been the head of the Communist Youth League from 1993 to 1998, and thus was considered to be Hu’s follower since Hu served as the Youth League head from 1984 to 1985.

Jiang had prepared Chen Liangyu (陈良宇), former Shanghai Party Secretary, as candidate.

However, Hu Jintao made a smart move in September 2006: he took Chen down on corruption charges. This thwarted Jiang’s plan.

Jiang’s second candidate was Bo Xilai, then Minister of Commerce. Bo would be just over 58 when Hu’s second term started. This age problem might be manageable, but one problem was big, and perhaps fatal: Bo received very little support from the top Party officials.

Jiang, without a good candidate to compete with Hu’s choice of Li Keqiang, decided to nominate Xi Jinping instead. Xi was 54. In March 2007, he had been promoted from the post of Zhejiang Provincial Party Secretary to be the Shanghai Party Chief after Chen Liangyu’s downfall. Jiang’s nomination was not made so that he could control the future, but rather to prevent Hu from controlling the future.

Xi Jinping, son of a former top CCP leader, had stronger credentials than Li Keqiang. Hu Jintao accepted Xi as a compromise, since Xi was not in Jiang’s camp. In late 2007, Xi became the future leader and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in late 2007.

The heir nomination game was a draw between Jiang and Hu. Neither one got their preferred candidate.

Though Jiang nominated Xi, Xi was never Jiang’s real choice, but rather the choice when Jiang had no real choice on his own.

Six, Xi took action against a number of people, most of whom were in Jiang’s group.

In the three years after Hu Jintao took down Bo Xilai in 2012, Xi took down Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou, Ling Jihua, Guo Boxiong, and many of their supporters.

Overall, in the three years from December 2012 to November 2015, the CCDI took down 139 officials at the deputy provincial level or above. Prior to that, it took the Party 30 years to take down 130 high ranking officials. Xi’s actions were ten times more intense than before. [12]

More importantly, most of the fallen “tigers” are in Jiang’s faction.

Xi also started the military reform and, in 2015, announced a cut of 300,000 military staff members. Many of those cuts were intended to be the mid to high level officers. This reform has been widely viewed as cleansing the military and building loyalty to Xi.

Seven, there were reasons for Xi not to mention the political plot earlier.

For much of the time, Xi had been quiet on the topic of the political plot. Initially, there were several reasons for him to remain silent.

First, the CCP traditionally conceals its activities; it does not reveal the Party’s secrets. For the sake of “maintaining the appearance of the Party’s unity,” the Party may not have chosen to reveal this in-fighting to the public.

Second, at the beginning, Xi, as the new top leader, didn’t have enough prestige to declare that anyone against him was “splitting the Party.” He needed time to build up his authority.

Third, when Xi took office, Jiang’s faction had a great deal of power. Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong controlled the military. Zhou Yongkang ruled over the country’s security forces, including the police, the justice system, intelligence, and the armed forces. Jiang’s faction also had the media, foreign policy, financial, and other key industries in its pocket. For the past three years, Xi has been trying to take that power back. In fact, the struggle is still going on. Some people observed that, even today, it is hard to tell whether it is Xi who caused negative events in China, or his rivals with the intent of setting him up and humiliating him publicly.

If, when he started his campaign, Xi labeled his fight as one to cleanse political rivalry, Jiang’s whole faction might have recognized the danger at once and joined together to secure Xi’s immediate defeat.

Xi chose to circumvent the battle and use the corruption front. By targeting individual offenders, one by one, and over an extended period of time, Xi was able to prevent his opponents from having extreme reactions collectively.

Furthermore, over the years, Xi has been able to build up his power base. Some of the members of Jiang’s faction realized that their boat was sinking and defected to Xi.

Now, as the balance of power has shifted to Xi’s side, he has been able to declare that “an overwhelming form of suppression (of corrupt officials) is taking shape.” Therefore, this year, he announced the enforcement of political discipline. [13]

Finally, Xi can openly purge disloyal officials.

One question: Was Jiang Zemin part of the political plot to overthrow Xi?

There has not been solid evidence that either Jiang or his right hand man Zeng Qinghong was personally involved in Bo and Zhou’s political coup.

There have been reports that Jiang tried to protect his people after they were taken down. After Hu Jintao took down Bo, Jiang got Hu to agree that the investigation of the coup would stop at Bo and not go to anyone higher up. This kept Zhou Yongkang from being touched for almost two more years. [14]

When Xi took down Xu Caihou, there was a report that Jiang went to Beijing to ask Xi to pardon Xu, but Xi avoided meeting him. [15]

Thus, regardless of whether Jiang was part of the original political plots, he was a protective shield for those offenders.

As Xi fights the battle with Jiang’s faction, a simple, effective way for him to win is to go after the faction’s leader. If Xi takes Jiang down as the “ultimate big tiger,” Jiang’s faction will see that there is no way for them to win and the group is likely to fall apart.

Besides, Jiang is the culprit behind the two legacies that he left in China. Xi may see the need to hold Jiang accountable when he addresses these legacies.


Though there is no official account, it is highly likely that Jiang’s faction plotted several coups to overthrow Xi Jinping. For his own political safety, Xi launched the anti-corruption campaign to purge disloyal officials. As Xi was about to win the overall battle, Xi started to hint at those offenders’ political schemes.


[1] Chinascope Online, “Political Rivalry in China.”
[2] Epoch Times Online, “Special Report: Complete Report on Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang’s Coup (Part 1),” January 21, 2015
[3] Boxun, “Analyzing Zhou Yongkang’s Six Crimes; CCP Declared War against Cliques”
[4] Epoch Times Online, “Bo Xilai Disclosed That Zhou Yongkang Wanted to Be the President of China,” October 10, 2015
[5] Epoch Times Online, “Ling Jihua and Zhou Yongkang Formed Alliance,” July 20, 2015.
[6] Mingpao Online, “Guo Boxiong Was Under Investigation and Will Face Corruption Charge,” March 14, 2015.京城密語﹕郭伯雄已受查%20將被控受賄/web_tc/article/20150315/s00013/1426355391594.
[7] New York Times Online, “In Book, Xi Jinping Taints Ousted Rivals with Talk of Plots,” January 27, 2016.
[8] CCDI Website, “The Communique of the Sixth Plenary Meeting of the 18th CCDI,” January 14, 2016.
[9] Chinascope Online, “Legacy of the June 4th Movement – The Legacy of Jiang Zemin.”
[10] Chinascope Online, “Hong Kong Magazine: Xi Jinping Has Survived Six Assassination Attempts.”
[11] Chinascope Online, “Xi Jinping: Willing to Give up Personal Life to Fight Corruption.”
[12] People’s Daily Online, “Analyzing the CCDI’s ‘Tiger Hunt Big Data’ in the Past Three Years,” November 27, 2015.
[13] Chinascope Online, “People’s Daily (Overseas Edition): Zhou and Ling Were the ‘Significant Potential Political Danger.’”
[14] Epoch Times Online, “Jiang Zemin’s Phone Call to Stop Hu Jintao to Arrest Zhou Yongkang,” July 21, 2015.
[15] Epoch Times Online, “Xi Jinping Showed Anger at Politburo Meeting, Jiang Zemin Rushed to Beijing,” July 20, 2014.