Incendiary Essay Ignites Guessing Over Xi’s Plans for China

After Mr. Xi took power, many of them embraced him as their great hope, and his recent emphasis on “common prosperity” — a phrase dating to the Mao era that suggests reducing inequality — has raised their expectations.

“They believe that they’re holding the moral high ground of socialist ideology,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor for a party newspaper, The Study Times, who now lives in the United States. “If they publish something with too much negative impact, they may be stopped from spreading it, but the authorities won’t outright ban them.”

Mr. Li’s overnight prominence has kindled theories that a leader in the party gave a greenlight to promote his searing attack. But that idea jars with how officials around Mr. Xi have recently gone out of their way to try to reassure private entrepreneurs that the government values them.

It was much more likely that a relatively junior propaganda official promoted the essay as an eye-catching assault on censured celebrities and companies without anticipating the dramatic reaction, said Mr. Deng, the former editor. He cited echoes of 2018, when a Chinese blogger argued that the private sector should be phased out, adding to jitters about the government’s intentions. Chinese officials, including Mr. Xi, stepped in to reassure entrepreneurs.

“Li Guangman is not that well known among us. I don’t think he has any special background,” Zhang Hongliang, who runs an ardently Maoist website in Beijing, said by telephone. “He caught onto a hot topic at the right time.”

In response to the essay, Zhang Weiying, a professor of economics at Peking University, issued an impassioned defense of markets and the private sector as the best guarantors of prosperity and social fairness. Gu Wanming, a retired journalist who worked for Xinhua, China’s main news agency, warned that Mr. Li’s used the kind of storming rhetoric “that could only be heard 60 years ago in the Cultural Revolution.”

Even Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of The Global Times, best known for his pugnacious attacks on the party’s critics, suggested in an online commentary that Mr. Li went too far. “It uses exaggerated language and deviates from major guiding policies,” wrote Mr. Hu.

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