In the mid-1990s, Cai Xia, a devout believer in Chinese communist doctrine, experienced her first moment of doubt.
She was a teacher at the central party school for training cadres when a friend called with some questions. Cai, an expert in Marxism and Chinese communist party theory, enthusiastically answered.
She remembers how the friend, after listening to her responses, then asked: “Do you think communism can really be implemented?”
Cai, who at that point had spent decades serving the party, was shocked. “No one had ever asked me this. I always felt everything I did was normal and natural, and I never thought about whether it was right or wrong,” she said.
The friend followed up with another pointed question: “Do you know what you are like, what you are?” To Cai’s confusion, the friend said: “You are a preacher of the communist party,” – a proselytiser verging on religious fanaticism.
“I knew being called a preacher for the Chinese communist party was a derogatory term,” she said, noting the negative connotation of religion within the party. “These two questions lodged in my mind,” she said. “I still think about them.”
Over the past week, Cai, 68, has become a celebrated dissident to some and a reviled traitor to others. On Monday, she was expelled from the party after comments of hers calling the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, a “mafia boss” were leaked online in June.
Following her expulsion, Cai gave the Guardian permission to release a previously unpublished interview with her in which she went even further, blaming Xi for “killing a party and a country” and turning China into “an enemy” of the world – extremely rare criticisms of the top leader from within the party establishment.
In the days since, state media have called Cai “a traitor” and an “extreme dissident” aligned with anti-Chinese forces in the US. “She has betrayed not only the oath of the party but also the interests of China and the Chinese people,” the nationalist outlet Global Times wrote.
The central party school held a special meeting this week to strengthen discipline to prevent “major political incidents” as well as increase the political and ideological training of retired staff.
“Party organisations at all levels and the entire school’s faculty and staff should take profound lessons from Cai Xia’s serious disciplinary violations,” the school said in a notice.
Yet Cai, who has been overseas since last year, said she had lost neither sleep nor appetite, nor suffered anxiety from these attacks.
“Whatever other people say, I will not be moved. I only care about whether my understanding is right or wrong. If it is wrong, I will fix it. If it is right, no matter what pressure I come under I will persevere. This is just my personality,” she said. “I know what I need to do.”
Her outspokenness and willingness to criticise Xi are even more remarkable given her background. As the daughter of early party cadres, those who fought for the communist revolution that established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Cai belongs to an elite class known as the hongerdai, or “second red generation”, whose deep party roots often provide key connections.
She was raised within the military in Jiangsu province in eastern China where parents taught her the importance of equality and stripped away any semblance of privilege. When Cai was eight, they dismissed the family nanny and Cai was ordered to do house chores such as cooking and cleaning.
She grew up to be such a fervent believer that as an adult studying at the central party school in the 1980s, her classmates called her malaotai, “old lady Marx”, behind her back. She joined the party in 1982 after years of serving in the military. She also worked at a factory and as a schoolteacher before turning to academia.
For Cai, the change in heart was gradual. In the early 2000s, when helping to draft a doctrine under the former leader Jiang Zemin known as the “three represents”, Cai was dismayed to see how Marxist theory was being used as a tool of propaganda. “This was the first time I realised that, in fact, some of the theories are deceptive and absurd,” she said.
She remained hopeful, subscribing to the belief that the party could pursue progress and more openness, just slowly and with difficulty. “Because of what our parents have taught us – I believed that even though the party had corruption and many problems, it could reform and move forward,” she said.
Yet, after Xi came to power in 2012, Cai began to believe that would not be possible. Xi strengthened social controls previously implemented such as “grid management”, a block-by-block system of social control and surveillance, and put in place more controls over the internet.
In 2016, Cai wrote an article defending the property tycoon and party member Ren Zhiqiang, who had been put on probation after criticising Xi for demanding “absolute loyalty” from Chinese media. The article and Cai’s other essays were soon wiped from the internet. Later that year, Cai’s faith was further shaken by the death of the 29-year-old environmentalist Lei Yang after police choked him and stamped on his face.
“I felt China’s return to the Cultural Revolution was already a reality,” she said, referring to the violent and fanatical years under Mao Zedong in the 1960s and 1970s. Seeing the dismissal of charges against the police involved in Lei Yang’s case and censorship of online outrage, Cai felt the party already showed it “had no sense of right and wrong”.
Two years later, Xi oversaw the altering of China’s constitution to eliminate term limits, allowing him to stay on indefinitely – a process she described as being shoved down people’s throats “like dog shit”.
“China’s communist party does not have the strength or the ability to take the country forward,” she concluded at the time.
While Cai had become one of few outspoken intellectuals pushing for reform and defending other outspoken critics such as Ren, she was not severely punished until she spoke out against Xi this past year, a red line in today’s China which has seen a sharp crackdown on dissent under his leadership.
Yet Cai’s punishment – she has been stripped of her benefits in retirement – as well as the attacks from state media are evidence of the threat she poses. Since her expulsion, friends and family have been calling at all hours to check on her, taking on risk to themselves, Cai said.
Internet users have been posting Cai’s previous writings online in WeChat groups, while others have found ways around the Great Firewall to circulate her interviews with foreign media, including sites that are blocked in China such as the Guardian.
“I didn’t expect that under this harsh environment people are still trying to express their support, concern and love for me. I am very moved,” Cai said. “People are still struggling to resist, to resist against his totalitarian regime. Chinese people have not given in. They are fighting in their own way,” she said.
Her decision to speak out has not been without costs. Cai plans to appeal the decision to halt her benefits. She knows that she cannot return to China, and she worries about her family still in the country.
While she aims to return to a quiet life of studying the Chinese communist party, her lifelong focus, she also feels compelled to continue pushing for change in her home country. It is for this reason that she takes issue with criticism that she is not patriotic.
“If I did not care what happened to this country, if it weren’t for the people on this land, especially our children and grandchildren … I would not have tried my hardest to push for political change in China,” she said.
“Conflict with the current system is inevitable, unless you become a slave and just follow him,” she said, referring to Xi. “You don’t have to think about your children or grandchildren and how they will live. But I can’t do this.”
Cai thinks of her parents, who believed wholeheartedly in the revolution and in the people becoming the masters of their country. She believes there are many others like her, also hongerdai from within the party, who feel the same.
“Our parents struggled and their efforts have not been realised. As their children we should continue their work,” she said. “Only by doing this can we be worthy of them.”