As he prepares to be rewarded with a third term as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China this week, President Xi Jinping is now casting an ever-longer shadow over his people, US-China relations and the world. than the party that gave him his debut. in politics, experts say.
“He has the power to change the direction of the country as he sees fit,” Adrian Geiges, co-author of “Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man Alive,” told Yahoo News.
The 20th CPC National Congress, which begins on Sunday, will break with the recent informal precedent that prevented the CPC general secretary from serving more than two five-year terms. This further tightening of Xi’s grip on the nation came as a surprise to some. Before taking office in 2012, Xi was a relatively unremarkable figure in Chinese politics, respected for his commitment to the party but hardly seen as vocal or outspoken. “He was underestimated by everyone,” Geiges noted. “No one thought he would be extraordinary.”
Xi was seen as a safe choice for leadership, a sure pair of hands to steady a ship that continued to experience the turbulent strains of modernization. “He was brought in to do a job,” said the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ian Johnson, referring to Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns that epitomized his early years as a top China official.
Instead, Xi indelibly changed the party and the country, including heightening tensions with democratic countries and building a Mao-like cult of personality that had been carefully discouraged by his predecessors. As Johnson said, “It’s like bringing in someone to fix a problem, and before you know it, he’s running the whole show and kicking you out.”
“I don’t know if they negotiated all of this. He came in and, under the guise of fighting corruption, he arrested all his enemies, he dismantled the factions and he broke the system that had been put in place before him,” Johnson added.
Many people will look to personal characteristics to help explain Xi’s success and his ability to accumulate power. But as Kerry Brown warned in the New York Times this week, “The remarkable muscularity of Mr. Xi’s style is not just about him or his personal goals, ambitions or ego.”
Instead, Xi’s motives can often be best understood by his enduring relationship with the Communist Party.
Xi’s father was a senior party official under Mao Zedong, founder and leader of the CCP for nearly three decades. But this privileged position did not mean Xi’s family was spared Mao’s wrath. During the Cultural Revolution, Xi’s father, like many other party officials, was swept up in purges as Mao sought to prevent any challenge to his power.
Rather than kicking him out of the party, Xi saw him as indispensable to his own success. “He decided he didn’t want to suffer the same fate as his father. He didn’t want to become a victim of power; he wanted to become power himself,” Geiges said.
But outwardly, Xi has maintained a reputation as a reserved and diligent politician. He was not outspoken, which in part made him an ideal candidate for leadership in the eyes of officials inside the CCP. “He was smart in hiding his own positions.” Geiges added. “Now we know he’s a hardliner, but in 2012 when he became the leader of the party, most people didn’t know that.”
Much of the world only started paying attention to Xi in 2012, when he took over as leader of the world’s second-largest economy. Suddenly, this official that people outside and inside China knew very little about became a crucial player on the world stage.
Xi may not be solely responsible for the current tensions between the United States and China – from trade and free speech disputes to sovereignty issues in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan – but he may be considered to be an important driver of these.
“That competition would have grown anyway, but that’s also largely because of Xi Jinping,” Geiges said.
Many of the factors underlying the adversarial competition between the two nations were in place before Xi came to power. Issues such as China’s construction of islands in the South China Sea and military modernization efforts were already points of contention before 2012.
“He supercharged those tendencies,” Johnson said. “He is a more forceful leader who is able to tap into other channels of power than his predecessors.”
Recent months have offered rare glimpses of cracks in support for Xi and the country’s leadership, including related to the country’s zero-COVID policy and lockdowns that have affected millions of Chinese. On October 13, banners were deployed in Beijing with messages that said, “We want reform, not a cultural revolution. We want a vote, not a leader. We want to be citizens, not slaves.
Xi’s and the party’s desire for absolute control has become a double-edged sword. Immense administrative resources and draconian measures have largely spared China from successive pandemic waves, but China now remains at risk of lockdown as the rest of the world opens up.
“He made this zero COVID policy part of his ideology. And now it is very difficult for him to take a step back,” Geiges said. That would require acknowledging a political misstep, and massive exposure to the coronavirus among China’s huge population could have unintended consequences.
These and other challenges, including heightened tensions with the United States over a range of issues, ensure that Xi’s third term will be no less turbulent than his second. On Taiwan independence, Xi appears to have backed into a corner, making Taiwan’s reunification with China a central tenet of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, thus risking losing face if anything less had to happen.
Last week, the Biden administration announced measures targeting semiconductors that put in danger All of China’s technological capability. Increasingly, one man is seen as responsible for China’s success, but he may find it hard to distance himself from its failures.
“It would appear that Xi underestimated the challenges China faced in overcoming its reliance on foreign, mostly American, companies in key ‘core’ or ‘hard’ technologies like semiconductors,” said Paul Triolo, technology analyst at consultancy Albright Stonebridge Group. told CNBC. “He also failed to take into account growing US concern over semiconductors as the foundation of key technologies.”
Yet, as Sunday’s vote attests, Xi is far from any immediate danger of losing power. While Chinese coverage of Xi’s nomination for a new term will be designed to make him appear larger than life, it will underscore the unity of the party and its strong leader. And if a third term illustrates that he still has the support of the Chinese Communist Party, it may also demonstrate that the party has come to rely just as much on Xi.