Chinese Begin to Vent Discontent With President Xi and His Policies

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Public rancor over trade tensions with the U.S., a sluggish economy and public-health and financial scandals prompt unease among academics and ordinary Chinese

By Chun Han Wong

BEIJING—Signs of unease with President Xi Jinping’s leadership have emerged amid public rancor over China’s trade tensions with the U.S., a sluggish economy and public-health and financial scandals.

In online essays, social-media posts and rare public protests, academics and ordinary Chinese have vented misgivings about Mr. Xi and the Communist Party-run bureaucracy, despite tightening curbs on public speech. Some criticism has been directed at the president and his policies, others at perceived government failings.

Hundreds of alumni from the prestigious Tsinghua University petitioned for the removal of a professor they accused of “misleading” officials and citizens with triumphalist claims of China’s superiority over the U.S.—a complaint that implies Beijing mishandled ties with Washington.

Chinese academics warned that Mr. Xi’s ambitious programs for developing Chinese industry and building global trade infrastructure could alienate other countries. Another Tsinghua professor penned a lengthy essay denouncing Mr. Xi’s leadership, particularly his moves to quash dissent and scrap term limits on his presidency.

Allegations that a Chinese drug company supplied hundreds of thousands of substandard vaccines given to children sparked public outrage, and prompted some parents to demonstrate outside a state health commission’s offices in Beijing. Angry investors who lost money in failed peer-to-peer lenders converged on the capital to seek redress before police blocked their attempted protests.

“Discontent with the leadership has been fomenting within the political bureaucracy and beyond,” said Zhang Lifan, an independent historian in Beijing. Political events, especially trade tensions, “provided channels for those grievances to emerge into the open.”

Amid the unease, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper published a front-page editorial this month urging the country to endure and overcome all difficulties. “Today’s China is experiencing the winds and rains of growing up,” the People’s Daily said. “No wind or rain can obstruct the footsteps of the Chinese people racing toward a beautiful life.”

Months before, Mr. Xi appeared to wield unassailable clout as he swept away presidential term limits installed as a safeguard against Mao-style dictatorship. Recent events, however, appear to have undercut his promises to make China more prosperous and respected on the global stage.

Some foreign officials criticized Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, saying Beijing-backed projects are saddling their countries with onerous debt. Trade tensions with the U.S. flared, putting China’s sluggish economy under greater strain. Officials from China’s central bank and finance ministry traded barbs over fiscal policy.

The trade dispute delivered “a strong dose of sobriety, allowing us to realize that a huge technological gap exists between us and the U.S.,” Jilin University economics professor Li Xiao said in a recent speech. “Do we continue to calmly recognize our huge gap with the U.S. and humbly learn from them, or insist on walking a populist path of anti-Americanism?”

Then came reports about defective vaccines, another in a string of public-health scandals, despite repeated government pledges to improve oversight. A wave of collapses in the peer-to-peer lending industry fueled concerns over risks in China’s financial system.

“This problem was caused by the state,” said Wang Wen, a peer-to-peer investor who tried to join a protest in Beijing this month. “Government regulators failed in their supervision.”

For Mr. Xi’s critics, these setbacks cast doubt on his forward-leaning diplomacy and the effectiveness of his crackdowns on government corruption and incompetence. They also call into question the president’s moves to centralize decision-making powers in his own hands and discard the party’s collective leadership that had prevailed over recent decades.

Xu Zhangrun, a Tsinghua law professor who wrote the essay criticizing Mr. Xi, faulted the president for tilting toward one-man rule and demanded a reinstatement of presidential term limits.

“People throughout the country, including the entire bureaucratic class, are again feeling deep uncertainty and mounting anxiety about the direction the country is taking, as well as their personal security,” Mr. Xu wrote in the essay.

Other critics targeted Tsinghua economics professor Hu Angang, a supporter of Mr. Xi’s nationalist agenda who has advocated triumphalist views about Chinese superiority over the U.S.

A group of Tsinghua alumni wrote a petition this month calling for Prof. Hu to be removed from his academic posts. His arguments “misled state policy, confused the common people, raised the suspicions of countless other countries,” the petition said.

Neither Tsinghua nor Prof. Hu, dean of the university’s Institute for Contemporary China Studies, responded to requests for comment.

Party leaders likely see the criticism against Prof. Hu as an attack on their authority, as it implies the government had erred in policy-making, said Mr. Zhang, the historian. Critics are “beating the dog to bully the owner.”

Such outbursts don’t pose an immediate threat to Mr. Xi, who continues to receive state-media acclaim. Even so, the party appears to have taken steps to counter dissent.

In July, as politically minded Chinese traded rumors about intraparty dissent against Mr. Xi, some party members were told to ignore hearsay. “Don’t listen to rumors, don’t believe in rumors, don’t spread rumors,” said a notice issued to a group of retired party members in a major city. “Firmly support the leadership of the party center.”

Beijing has also signaled policy adjustments. At a Politburo meeting headed by Mr. Xi in late July, the 25-member committee warned of new problems for China’s economy as “clear changes have occurred in the external environment” and repeatedly emphasized the need to ensure economic and social stability.

—Kersten Zhang contributed to this article.

Write to Chun Han Wong at chunhan.wong@wsj.com