Editor’s Note: Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and an expert on Chinese government politics and diplomacy. His new book, “Xi Jinping: The Backlash,” was published by Penguin Australia on July 16.

CNN  — 

The backlash abroad against President Xi Jinping’s China, at least in developed nations, has spread rapidly in the last year.

Some countries, like Australia and Canada, feel patronized and bullied. Neighbors worry they are being marginalized. Advanced industrial nations, especially Germany and South Korea, see China coming at them like an unstoppable, oncoming train.

Richard McGregor

The US, for decades the world’s lone superpower, is confronted by a once-in-a-lifetime challenge from Beijing. All of these phenomena, previously bubbling under the surface, have burst into clear view during Xi’s time in office.

Beijing’s opaque internal political system means it is hard to make judgments about domestic Chinese politics, but there can be little doubt that a backlash is underway at home, too.

Good and bad enemies

As a leader, Xi is unique in post-revolutionary party politics in not having any identifiable domestic rival or successor, largely because he has ensured that none have been allowed to emerge. But Xi has earned himself an array of what we might called “bad enemies” and “good enemies” since taking office in late 2012.

They range from the once-rich and powerful families he destroyed in his anti-corruption campaign, all the way to the small-r reformers angered by his illiberal rollback of the incremental institutional advances of the reform period.

Forced to lay low initially because of the dangers of challenging him outright, Xi’s critics at home have begun to find their voice. They have been outspoken mainly on economic policy, but the deeper undercurrents of their criticisms are unmistakeable.

The sons of former top leaders, revered scholars who guided China’s economic miracle, frustrated private entrepreneurs and academics furious about Xi’s unrelenting hardline – all have complained in multiple public forums, in speeches, in online postings and in widely circulated essays at home and offshore, about Xi’s policies and style.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the G20 leaders summit on June 28 in Osaka, Japan.

“Something strange is happening in Xi Jinping’s China,” wrote Ian Johnson in the New York Review of Books. In what was supposed to be the “perfect dictatorship”, the country was witnessing “the most serious critique of the system in more than a decade, led by people inside China who are choosing to speak out now, during the most sensitive season of the most sensitive year in decades.”

The exact number of “tigers” toppled by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign – in other words, officials who were once part of the designated elite whose jobs had to be cleared through the Party’s central personnel system – is not easy to calculate. The best estimates put it around 300 to 400, including scores of generals. The officials who have been prosecuted and jailed include members of the Politburo, ministers, vice-ministers, the heads of state-owned enterprises, provincial party leaders and governors, and mayors.

An anti-China protester raises a placard with a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest in front of the Chinese consular office in the financial district of Manila on April 9.

In each of those cases, the investigations don’t just hit the individual official who has been targeted and detained.

Literally, hundreds of thousands of people who are tied into and rely on that single person for their income are effectively swept up with them. Their livelihoods, and all that they have invested in clawing their way through the system, can evaporate with the stroke of a pen. Some members of the patronage networks are often arrested themselves.

Xi has made enemies of them all. “Xi has destroyed millions of people in the elite who now all hold a personal grudge against him,” said a China-based businessman, who asked not to be named, earlier in 2019. “These people are not a bunch of uneducated peasants from the sticks in Henan. They had skin in the game.”

People chant slogans and wave flags during a protest march on June 29 in Osaka, Japan.

Threshold for an uprising ‘is high’

Despite all this, Victor Shih, a US-China specialist, was doubtless right when he said that the threshold for some kind of “intra-party uprising” against Xi remains very high. “He would need to commit a catastrophic mistake that jeopardizes the continual rule of the Party for his potential enemies within the Party to rise up against him,” Shih said in the New Yorker.

But the idea that Xi is literally “president for life,” as he is often referred to in the wake of the 2018 abolition of term limits, will in all likelihood be proved wrong.