A new witchhunt is on in China. What

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A new witchhunt is on in China. What's Xi Jinping really afraid of?

People are disappearing in China. It's not like that's unusual - over the years, various voices of dissent like artists, bloggers, human rights defenders and recently, even booksellers, have been 'forcibly disappeared' by security forces.

This time around, the cause for the disappearances is an online letter that was widely circulated at the start of China's parliament earlier this month. Signed by "loyal Communist Party Members", it called for the immediate resignation of President Xi Jinping before going on to list a host of ways he had caused "unprecedented problems".

Also read - China's new national security law proves why it's no fun to be Chinese

Accusing him of building a "personality cult", the letter reads: "Due to your gathering of all power into your own hands and making decisions directly, we are now facing unprecedented problems and crises in all political, economic, ideological, and cultural spheres."

It was published online on 4 March by Canyu, or Participation, a Chinese-language website based in the US that specialises in news about human rights cases and commentary critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

The letter appeared next on Chinese news website Watching.cn and then went viral. The website has now been dissolved after only half a year in existence; hundreds of employees are de facto unemployed now.

When the website returned, the article had been deleted. This coincided with the opening day of 'Two Sessions' in Beijing, China's most important annual political event.

Apple Daily reports that the website was likely hacked because "however dumb watching.cn may be, they wouldn't be so dumb as to do this."

You can read a copy of it here on China Digital Times.

But so far, the most surprising aspect of the letter drama has been Beijing's response: a far-reaching inquisition to root out those behind the offensive letter.

'Nothing but blackmail'

As a result, more than 20 people have already been reported missing.

Of the 20, 16 are editors and technicians connected to the state-backed Wujje News website that published the letter.

What's more, a well-known columnist for Tencent Online, Jia Jia, went missing on 15 March just as he was scheduled to board a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong.

"We only know that on that day, Beijing public security bureau officials went to the airport to take Jia Jia away. Airport officials also assisted them. This is based on a notice from the airport officials," his lawyer Yan Xin told Reuters.

It's not just activists and lawyers who are vanishing, but also millionaires

Tencent Online had republished the damning letter, but reports claim that Jia allegedly warned Wujie editor-in-chief and personal friend Ouyang Hongliang against doing so.

Ouyang is among those missing. So are several of his colleagues.

Jia Jia has reportedly been released by authorities now, but his lawyer has said that it isn't "convenient" to give details on the reasons of the arrest.

Despite these arrests and disappearances, it seems that the wrath of the authorities regarding the letter has no end.

The crackdown intensifies

The latest snippet of frightening news emerged on 28 March when Amnesty International reported that New York-based activist Wen Yunchao's immediate family had been rounded up by Guangdong Province police on 22 March.

His mother, Qiu Qiaohua, 65, father, Wen Shaogan, 72, and younger brother Wen Yun'ao, 41, were all taken into custody and, by all appearances, remain locked up.

Wen added that his father and brother were forced to contact him and pressure him into admitting his link with the incident.

"But I cannot admit things that have nothing to do with me," he wrote on his Twitter account.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, in its plea to have Yunchao's family released, has said that "detaining family members of independent journalists living outside China is nothing but blackmail."

"The persecution of family members of dissidents is a draconian and unlawful tactic that makes a mockery of China's claims to respect the rule of law," writes William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

Another exiled writer, Chang Ping, a Chinese journalist now based in Germany, told CNN his sister and two younger brothers had been abducted by Chinese police.

He also said he hadn't been involved with the open letter - save for publishing an article about Jia's disappearance.

The letter that launched the manhunt

The government's severe response begs the question: why is this letter being taken so seriously?

In the New York Times, Xiao Qiang, a professor at University of California, Berkeleynwho monitors Chinese media said that the response could be attributed to the "unusual phrasing" of the letter.

According to website Shangaiist, "The letter appears to be part of the backlash to a series of high-profile visits that Xi made to state media outlets last month, where he declared that all media must be 'surnamed Party' so they can give 'correct guidance of public opinion' by 'singing the main theme, transmitting positive energy'.

Chinese officials were probably most upset by the letter's suggestion that the president and his family faced personal peril. The letter demands that Xi resign "out of concern for the party's endeavors, out of concern for the future of the country and its people, and also out of concern for the personal safety of you and your family."

The letter is a suicide letter in its own right. And it's ballsy as hell

The list of grievances focuses on the central issues confronting China, including the "economic, diplomatic, cultural and ideological spheres." All of these fronts have seen overall failure, according to the author, and have resulted in a weaker China under Jinping.

"Comrade Xi Jinping, your carrying out a high-pressure anti-corruption campaign to correct unhealthy tendencies in the Party has had a helpful effect, but, since there are no supporting measures or objectives, it has given rise to an abundance of 'slackness' at all levels of government, with officials too afraid to work, discontent openly voiced by the people, and the deterioration of our economy exacerbated. We also see the main goal of the anti-corruption campaign to be merely a power struggle. We are worried that this type of inner-Party power struggle may also bring risks to the personal safety of you and your family."

We ask you that for the sake of the party's prosperity, for the sake of the nation's long-term stability, and for the sake of you and your family's safety, to resign from all your duties for the party and the nation, and let the party and the Chinese people select another capable person who can lead us to actively advance to the future."

The disappearing millionaires club

Meanwhile, more quietly, another set of mysterious disappearances has also been making headlines in the country.

Some of China's richest and most powerful business titans have vanished in recent months.

Some have eventually resurfaced and returned to their posts; others have not. Their absences are seldom explained.

Most disappearances are being attributed to being part of the anti-corruption crackdown waged by Xi since he took office in 2013.

Some of the missing (and returned) from 2015 include:

Guo Guangchang, Chairman of Fosun Yim Fung, CEO of Guotai Junan International Mao Xiaofeng, President of China Minsheng Bank Zhang Yun, President of Agricultural Bank of China Poon Ho Man, CEO of China Aircraft

In January 2016, Zhou Chengjian, the billionaire founder of leading Chinese fashion brand Meters Bonwe, was also taken for questioning, while a number of state industry executives have been charged with corruption.

Xi is well-known for his harsh stand against internet activism and free speech

So it's clear that the massive 'anti-corruption' campaign - which has led to the arrest of some 100 officials of ministerial or provincial leadership rank, known as "tigers," and tens of thousands more known as "flies," at lower levels - has been successful in striking fear into the hearts of the citizenry. Clearly, neither money nor influence can save you.

But many believe that even if the drive is weeding out corruption, the constant revelations of widespread corruption within China's system might also lead some investors to have second thoughts about the wisdom of doing business in the country.

Even China's anti-graft watchdog has acknowledged that the crackdown has "caused damage to the party's image."

The untouchable Xi Jinping?

That China is a much freer country than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants it to be is obvious.

And Xi wants China to be less free than his predecessors did, as is necessary for him to assume a level of power similar to Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. His attack on corruption has been coupled with an attack on previously tolerated factions of the CCP itself, leading many to hate him both for selfish reasons and because they dissent with his policies.

Meanwhile, internet controls have been increased drastically to weed out all forms of dissent. The Great Firewall cut off access to Google services in June 2014. Other leading western sites, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have long been inaccessible in China. Many virtual private networks, used to access blocked sites, have also been disabled since the start of 2015.

Also read - China's virtual purge: 15,000 arrested for cybercrime

Well-known for his harsh stand against internet activism and free speech, Xi has emphasised time and again that the Communist Party would remain unchallenged, and the government would not tolerate public opposition.

Last year, for instance, Chinese authorities arrested more than 200 lawyers, several of whom are still detained. Many of these lawyers were involved in cases linked to human rights. The charges against these legal advocates often appear arbitrary and contrived.

Guo Feixiong, for example, was arrested in November and charged with "picking quarrels and inviting trouble."

This will hardly be news to the countless activists, critics and human rights defenders who have been thrown in jail over the years on baseless national security crimes such as 'separatism' (Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, life imprisonment), 'inciting subversion' (Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, 11 years), or 'leaking state secrets' (the veteran journalist Gao Yu, seven years).

Economic slowdown

Meanwhile, the Chinese economy has slowed down significantly, way more so than reflects in official statistics.

The country is draining its reserves to bolster its economy; it was already deeply in debt to fund the infrastructure boom that enabled it to grow during the global financial crises (total debt is about 250% of GDP), and its stock market is unstable.

All this points to the fact that Xi has a difficult problem on his hands. If he continues to have dissidents kidnapped in the middle of the night, his international reputation will continue to get tarnished.

Ballsy moves

That the president has a low intolerance for the opposition is indisputable three years into his reign.

But an open call for a president's resignation is highly unusual in anybody's book - in China, at least.

It's a suicide letter in its own right. And it's ballsy as hell.

But the fact that Xi regarded the letter as such a significant threat - enough to warrant detentions - seems to indicate that either Xi and his aides are almost unstoppably arrogant, or that those who are discontented under Xi's reign used this opportunity to play a political doublegame: covertly escalating the incidents to embarrass Xi and further tarnish his image.

The Chinese authorities will certainly be doing all they can to find out the truth behind the letter, and more detentions will follow.

The outside world may never really learn the truth though.

Whether the letter is genuine or not, what does seem indisputable is that even as Xi tightens control, the voices of opposition are finding a way to be heard.

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Aleesha Matharu

Aleesha Matharu @almatharu