Since July, the Chinese leadership has faced a series of nasty surprises. It has been hit by a wave of criticism at home and abroad about its handling of an escalating trade war with the United States, the economy, and a vaccine crisis as well as over-the-top propaganda. This has led to some rampant but unsubstantiated speculation about the purported pushbacks against President Xi Jinping’s autocratic style of leadership.

But any lingering doubt about Xi’s iron-fisted control should have been put to rest over the past two weeks after he re-entered the public limelight and chaired a number of high-profile meetings. At the beginning of this month, he vanished from the public eye for nearly two weeks, when he is understood to have presided over the secretive annual summer retreat of Chinese leaders in the seaside town of Beidaihe in Hebei Province.

According to official media, starting from August 19, Xi led a three-day meeting of the top generals on the Central Military Commission to strengthen “the party’s absolute leadership” of the armed forces and demand their “absolute loyalty”.

That was followed by a two-day national conference on propaganda and ideology in which he called for greater efforts to “unify thoughts”, and the first meeting of the newly established Central Commission for Law-based Governance, which is in charge of the country’s massive law enforcement apparatus.

For the Chinese leadership, the guns (military), the pens (propaganda and ideology), and the swords (law enforcement) are the three most potent weapons to exercise tight control and maintain political stability. That Xi managed to convene three national meetings of the three branches within less than two weeks demonstrates his undiminished power.

However, that does not mean things have returned to normal. There have been subtle but interesting changes in tone on certain policies following what has been dubbed a summer of discontent among the country’s elites including bureaucrats, intellectuals, private businessmen, and the middle class.

One example is the country’s massive but ineffectual propaganda machine, which has come in for much criticism from the country’s elites.

China’s patriotism drive risks ostracising its intellectuals

But one did not detect any dismay in Xi’s speech to the country’s top propaganda officials. The official media quoted Xi as saying that propaganda officials should uphold the ideals of Marxism and socialism with Chinese characteristics, unite the people, cultivate new talent and make culture flourish.

In particular, Xi said the party’s propaganda policies since 2012 – when he came to power – had been proved correct and the propaganda officials had proved themselves worthy of trust.

The attempt to reassure them followed a swell of criticism about the country’s excessive and fulsome propaganda drive that extolled the achievements under Xi’s leadership and built a personality cult around him.

A few brave intellectuals, including the Tsinghua law professor Xu Zhangrun, have openly expressed worries about China going backwards and many ordinary people have blamed the propaganda officials for stoking the fears of the United States and its Western allies, raising their concerns about China’s intentions and encouraging their efforts to contain China, through a trade war and other means.

Back in July and early August, there were intense rumours that China’s top propaganda officials had faced criticism from within the party. The subsequent leadership reshuffles at the country’s external propaganda arm, the State Council Information Office, and the internet censor, the Cyberspace Administration of China, first reported by the South China Morning Post, seem to suggest that the Chinese leadership was worried that the excessively positive propaganda about China’s rise to become a world power had backfired and hurt its image abroad.

Some criticism seemed to focus upon the propaganda officials’ failure to fully appreciate the full scope of the complex domestic and international challenges in their drive.

For instance, the officials still appear to relish their traditional two-pronged approach of pushing out separate propaganda for domestic and international audiences.

Is Xi Jinping losing his grip – or just taking a more flexible approach?

At home, a sweeping campaign was launched to portray the rise of China to match Xi’s vision of a globally resurgent nation, with documentaries including Amazing China and the promotion of its “Made in China 2025” plan which envisioned the country’s global domination of a number of hi-tech sectors.

But in this age of internet and social media – not to mention Google Translate – the over-the-top propaganda intended for domestic consumption immediately went international, prompting worry and anxiety in the rest of the world.

Moreover, some overexcited officials got so carried away that they sent propaganda teams to foreign countries following the Communist Party’s 19th congress in October last year, when Xi secured a second term.

As if that were not enough, the party’s Liaison Department, which is in charge of relations with foreign political parties, even sponsored a four-day gathering late last year dubbed “CPC in dialogue with world political parties high-level meeting” and convinced Xi to give a keynote speech to the representatives of more than 200 parties from 120 countries.

At the meeting, Xi said his party was aimed at pursuing happiness for the Chinese people and struggling for human progress. He also promised China would not import foreign models and would not export the China model.

But such a high-level meeting was a mistake as it raised concerns overseas about the Communist Party’s intentions, given its chequered history in the era of Mao Zedong. As widely reported, following pushbacks from foreign countries and rising criticism at home, the propaganda officials have started to tone things down over the past few months. They have shelved their promotions of the “Made in China 2025” plan and the Amazing China documentary, among other things.

This is sensible. For instance, the “Made in China 2025” plan was originally led and driven mostly by scientists who envisioned why and how China should lead crucial hi-tech sectors covering robotics, electric cars and artificial intelligence.

Xi Jinping’s take on communism offers alternative to decline of the West

It is more of an academic exercise rather than a government one, as it was not fully discussed and scored for its budgetary or economic implications.

Partly because of the Chinese hype over the plan, the hawks in the administration of Donald Trump have seized on it to attack China in the escalating trade war.

Ever since Xi came to power in late 2012, he has repeatedly called for confidence in China’s own path, theory, system, and culture – particularly after he declared China had entered a new era. Now Chinese leaders argue that the past 40 years of reform and opening up – a period of time that saw China become the world’s second largest economy – prove that the Chinese model of combining authoritarian control and economic reform is a viable alternative to capitalism. But the Chinese economy has begun to feel strong headwinds because of profound changes at home and abroad, hence the leadership’s calls for confidence.

As the saying goes, there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper