During her career teaching at the Communist Party’s top academy, Cai Xia cheered on signs that China’s leaders might ease their political grip, making her an uncommonly prominent voice for democratic change near the heart of the party.
Now Ms. Cai has turned her back on such hopes, and the party has turned against her. She has become the latest intellectual punished for challenging the hard-line policies of the current leader, Xi Jinping.
The Central Party School in Beijing, where Ms. Cai taught for 15 years until 2012, announced on Monday that she had been expelled from the Communist Party after she scathingly denounced both the party and Mr. Xi in recent speeches and essays.
“This party has become a political zombie,” she had said in a talk that circulated online last month, apparently spurring the party school to take action. “This system, fundamentally speaking, has to be jettisoned.”
In an interview from the United States, where she has lived since last year, Ms. Cai quoted from a copy of the party school’s internal decision that said she had “maliciously smeared the image of the party and the country, and rabidly insulted the party and state leader.”
“Cai Xia’s attitude has been vile,” the party school said, “and she showed not the slightest contrition for her erroneous statements.”
Ms. Cai returned fire, accusing Mr. Xi of undermining China’s prospects for peaceful democratization and recklessly alienating the United States and other powers.
Mr. Xi “bears a great deal of culpability,” Ms. Cai said during the long, sometimes tearful interview on Tuesday about her evolution from party insider to apostate. “But for one person to do ill over a long time, and for the whole party to not utter a word, that clearly shows that the party’s system and bodies have big problems.”
Ms. Cai, 67, is among a cluster of Chinese dissenters who have recently decried Mr. Xi’s policies, including his handling of the coronavirus outbreak and imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong.
Two of those critics, Xu Zhangrun and Ren Zhiqiang, already faced retribution last month. Mr. Xu, a law professor, was detained for a few days and dismissed from his post at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Mr. Ren, a once well-connected property developer, was expelled from the party, accused of corruption and put under criminal investigation after he derided Mr. Xi’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Incensed by the treatment of Mr. Xu and Mr. Ren, Ms. Cai has spoken out in their defense.
“They have persecuted Xu Zhangrun by ruining his reputation, humiliating his dignity, stripping him of his right to work and cutting off his livelihood,” she wrote in an essay published by Radio Free Asia last month. “This is openly intimidating all in the Chinese scholarly community, inside and outside the system.”
Such vocal critics are few in China, where censorship and political pressure have intensified under Mr. Xi. But bigger numbers of disgruntled liberals are quietly waiting for a crisis that could shake Mr. Xi’s power, said Deng Yuwen, a former editor at Study Times, a newspaper issued by the Central Party School. The academy trains rising officials in political doctrine, party history and other subjects.
“Based on my observations, a considerable number of reformists inside the party are despairing, like Cai Xia,” Mr. Deng said in a telephone interview from the United States, where he now lives. “But for the most part they put the blame on Xi Jinping and are waiting for some kind of error by Xi to reinvigorate reformist forces within the party.”
It could be a long wait. Not even the coronavirus, which spread after local officials held back information about early cases, appears to have badly hurt Mr. Xi’s standing.
Many Chinese people say they are pleased that their country is emerging from the pandemic relatively well compared with other countries that have struggled. Many also support the government’s imposition of the sweeping national security law on Hong Kong.
“No matter how Cai Xia defines freedom of speech, I think that as a retired party school professor, she should defend the leadership of the country by the party,” Hu Xijin, an editor in Beijing who often echoes party views, said in an online comment on Tuesday. “Now when the United States is aiming an offensive against the Chinese Communist Party, as a party member, she should not, objectively speaking, stand on the side of the attacker.”
In the interview, Ms. Cai argued that in the longer term, Mr. Xi’s policies would push China toward a political crisis by isolating the country and extinguishing domestic hopes for orderly economic and political relaxation.
She said that she supported the tough line that the Trump administration has taken against the Chinese government on trade and other issues, even if she had qualms about some of its tactics. And she maintained that China’s harsh measures to suppress the spread of the coronavirus had become a drive to spread surveillance into every corner of society.
After Mr. Xi abolished a term limit on the Chinese presidency in 2018, in effect opening the way for an extended stay in power, Ms. Cai told a party school official that such a move would hurt China’s international image, she said.
“I said, ‘You are forcing Western countries into a showdown with us,’” she recalled.
Ms. Cai was raised in a family steeped in Communist values in eastern China. For a decade, she was one of the most well-known scholars at the Central Party School.
Under Jiang Zemin, the leader who brought China into the World Trade Organization in 2001, Ms. Cai promoted Mr. Jiang’s opening of the party to more businesspeople and professionals. Then and later, she often appeared in the Chinese news media, arguing that the party could be a vehicle for steady political and economic liberalization.
In private, Ms. Cai said, she became increasingly frustrated with party leaders’ unwillingness to match economic changes with political ones. She was disheartened by the dour authoritarian ways of Mr. Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, then even more alarmed by the draconian turn of Mr. Xi, who took power in 2012, after Mr. Hu.
Ms. Cai said that the incident that broke her waning faith in the party was not a great crisis, but the government’s handling of the death of Lei Yang, a Chinese environmentalist who died in police custody in 2016. The police accused him of hiring prostitutes, a claim that Ms. Cai and other supporters said was slander aimed at diluting public anger over his death.
“That incident left me totally disillusioned,” she said, pausing to choke back tears. “Their methods were despicable to an extreme that surpassed anything we could imagine.”
Ms. Cai faces daunting uncertainties in her new home in the United States. The party school cut off her pension and other retirement benefits, and she said she would probably be detained if she returned to China. But she said she felt relieved that now she could fully speak her mind.
“In my own mind, I’ve long wanted to resign from the party,” she said. “Now that they’ve expelled me, I’m really happy, because at last I’ve regained my freedom.”