Analysis: Xi’s moment of dominance can’t hide his weakness


Think of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, underway in Beijing, as the Marxist-Leninist version of a papal conclave. Dispense with the cardinals’ robes and Vatican ceremony and you still have a world shrouded in opacity and mystery, shaped by the maneuverings of expressionless apparatchiks and the imperatives of an anointed regime always wary of losing its grip over the faithful.

Analysts watching the CCP event, typically staged every half decade, look for its own smoke signals: Which cadres get cycled out of prominent positions? Who ascends to the ranks of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee? Whose trusted technocrats are coming to the fore? The public spectacle is highly choreographed, the deliberations stiff and mirthless. But they offer a rare glimpse into an institution that, despite its unquestioned clout and reach, still has to find ways to resolve internal frictions and factionalisms.

This year, though, there’s a new wrinkle. Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to emerge from the meetings with a third five-year term as the party’s general secretary and chairman of its Central Military Commission, two posts that underlie the presidency. Though long in the works, Xi’s extended mandate is in defiance of established convention as his predecessors kept to two-term rules.

Xi has spent the past decade cracking down on potential rivals through the pretext of mass anti-corruption purges, while further restricting the already tiny space afforded to Chinese civil society. His iron hand crushed political freedoms in the semiautonomous coastal city of Hong Kong and placed a dystopian dragnet over the far-western region of Xinjiang, where more than a million people largely from Muslim ethnic minorities were sent to detention camps and countless more became the guinea pigs of an invasive, tech-driven surveillance state.

That China’s regime looks and feels more like a one-man dictatorship under Xi is no coincidence. Across the machinery of the Communist Party, Xi has installed loyal lieutenants in positions of influence. According to the Wall Street Journal, “all but seven of the 281 members of the Communist Party’s provincial-level Standing Committees” are Xi appointees. “It’s not about age any more,” Yang Zhang, a sociologist at American University’s School of International Service, told my colleague Christian Shepherd, referring to the unofficial retirement ages that circumscribed the careers of ambitious party officials. “It’s about whether you are on Xi’s side.”

The meetings this week will cement Xi’s political triumph. But the depth of his control and power can do little to address the uncertainty that faces the Communist leadership at home and abroad. China’s economy is in the midst of a generational slowdown, impacted in part by Xi’s draconian pandemic-era restrictions as well as policies aimed at reining in the private sector. Its global image, meanwhile, has been tarnished by Xi’s assertive nationalism and Beijing’s perceived bullying on the world stage.

At the center of concern over Xi’s next term is the question of Taiwan, the island democracy that the Chinese Communists see as an integral part of their territory and a historical aberration that will inevitably be corrected. Analysts believe Xi, who has previously yoked his legitimacy to unification with Taiwan, is bent on realizing this vision. “He doesn’t regard it as just a slogan. It’s an action plan that must be implemented,” said Chang Wu-ueh, an adviser to Taiwan’s government, to my colleagues. “Before, leaders talked about unification as something to be achieved in the long run. Now, it’s number one on the agenda.”

Delivering an opening address on Sunday from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xi warned that China reserved “the option of taking all measures necessary” when it came to denying Taiwanese independence and pushing through unification. He also spoke of making China a “great modern socialist country” that represents a “new choice” in global politics – a gesture to the geopolitical rupture between China and the West that has started to define Xi’s time in power.

The war in Ukraine has only sharpened tensions around Taiwan. Xi has shown support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his neighbor, while also ratcheting up pressure on Taiwan with saber-rattling rhetoric and greater military encroachments. While projecting greater confidence and might makes sense for a nationalist regime that has invested hugely in its military, Xi’s rule has led to the hardening of anti-Chinese coalitions that have taken shape in the region, including the “Quad” alliance between India, Australia, Japan and the United States. It has also undermined earlier Chinese efforts to build bridges with nations in the West.

“For the world, the positive thing is that Xi reveals the true face of the CCP regime, which is the combination of political repression, economic predation, and ‘adventurist’ ambition in dominating the entire world,” Wu Guoguang, a China scholar at Stanford University, told the Hindustan Times, an Indian newspaper. “If Xi’s two terms have not been sufficient to ‘educate the world,’ here comes his third one.”

For Xi, the biggest challenges will remain at home. On one level, he presides over an undeniable success story. Since Xi came to power in 2012, the Chinese economy more than doubled in size. Its gross domestic product now surpasses the United States when measured based on purchasing power parity. Close to 100 million more people have been lifted out of poverty, according to Chinese state media, leading Xi to declare China’s “complete victory” over poverty last year.

Yet this is not Xi’s story. “China’s growth during Xi’s decade in power is attributable mainly to the general economic approach adopted by his predecessors, which focused on rapid expansion through investment, manufacturing, and trade,” said Neil Thomas, a senior analyst for China and Northeast Asia at Eurasia Group, to CNN. “But this model had reached a point of significantly diminishing returns and was increasing economic inequality, financial debt, and environmental damage.”

Xi’s attempts to pivot China toward a more self-sufficient economy less dependent on foreign purchasers have yet to bear fruit and have left seismic disruption in their wake, including the wipeout of more than $1 trillion in market value of some of China’s biggest tech companies.

China’s “zero covid” policy was once hailed by Xi as a measure of Beijing’s superiority over its Western counterparts, which were laid low by the coronavirus in the pandemic’s early stages. But now the sweeping lockdowns still in place over hundreds of millions of people hang like an albatross around Xi’s neck. No matter the evidence, public disquiet and real harm to critical sectors of the Chinese economy, Xi has maintained an uncompromising line, letting what was once a public health response turn into a kind of ideology of autocratic power.

Chinese leadership may also fear the sudden spread of the virus should restrictions be lifted, given the questionable efficacy of China’s own vaccines and the limited immunity accrued by the general population. The consequences appear stark. “While experts had long projected China’s economy would slow as it matured, Xi’s unwillingness to bend this year has expedited that shift in ways that many economists believe could leave permanent scars,” wrote Jonathan Cheng of the Wall Street Journal.

“Xi’s approach has dented consumer confidence and spending – key to China’s goal of transitioning to a more consumer-led economy – while compounding such issues as rising youth unemployment and a deteriorating property market,” wrote my colleague Lily Kuo. “The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday lowered its 2022 growth forecast for China to 3.2 percent from a projection of 8.1 percent last year.”

Xi may appear supreme in his authority this week, but the ground could be slowly shifting beneath his feet as party cadres grapple with the mounting woes facing the country.

“Although the prospect of a leadership challenge or coup remains remote owing to the sheer scale of logistical hurdles and political dangers, Xi’s positioning as a potential ruler for life simply aggravates the incentives for opponents to scuttle his agenda or plot his exit,” wrote Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Authoritarian systems and authoritarian leaders always appear solid on the outside – until suddenly, they don’t.”

Ishaan Tharoor. Photo: Twitter


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