Xi Jinping and the perils of overreach

The Chinese Communist Party congress, which opens on Sunday, is expected to hand Xi another five years as general secretary of the party.
Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping

President Xi Jinping’s first decade in power has been a study in hubris. He has purged political rivals and adopted heavy-handed policies that have imperilled China’s economy. He laid the groundwork for a crackdown in the Xinjiang region that drove Muslim citizens into thought reform camps and has alarmed and alienated neighbors with an aggressive foreign policy.

And things just might get worse.

The Chinese Communist Party congress, which opens on Sunday, is expected to hand Xi another five years as general secretary of the party. Rather than a reassuring sign of continuity, his third term as the top leader of China could spell years of uncertainty as problems mount around an unbound leader who has shown little inclination to share decision-making.

Xi fell into the same trap that has ensnared dictators throughout history: He overreached. He has concentrated more power in his hands than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, looming so completely over the country that he’s been called the “chairman of everything.”

Rivals — real and imagined — have been removed through an extensive anti-corruption campaign. Two more top former officials were jailed last month, accused of financial crimes and disloyalty to Xi. Xi has openly accused other politicians of plotting against the party from the outset of his purge ten years ago. He values fealty to himself as more important than competence, and subordinates compete to prove their loyalty by carrying out his policies to the extreme rather than raising harsh truths about negative consequences.

This is precisely the sort of situation that Deng Xiaoping and other former Communist Party leaders had set out to prevent with changes introduced decades ago.

The over-concentration of power in Mao’s hands led to decisions such as his misguided Great Leap Forward, a campaign to greatly increase agrarian and industrial output in the late 1950s that led instead to a devastating famine, and the chaotic political violence of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng made leadership competition more predictable by introducing term limits and retirement ages for leading posts in the government and military and giving party institutions more authority. A pattern of decade-long reigns set in. But Deng refused to give China’s legislature and courts authority over the party. Party institutions — their members all appointed by senior leaders — proved to be pushovers for Xi. No visible resistance was raised when he engineered the abolition of presidential term limits in 2018, which could allow Xi, who is 69, to stay in power until he dies or is deposed in a power struggle.

The costs of his overreach are piling up.

Xi, who favours a state-led, centrally controlled economy, began an abrupt crackdown on major Chinese internet companies last year, part of a plan to redistribute wealth and rein in the private sector. That has been put on the back burner for now, but not before it wiped billions of dollars from the valuations of innovative companies and cast a pall over entrepreneurship, exacerbating an extended Chinese economic slowdown.

And while the rest of the world has learned to live with the pandemic, Xi has stubbornly refused to loosen his zero-tolerance approach. Officials nationwide are over-zealously imposing mass lockdowns and surveillance in a bandwagon dynamic that has echoes of the Great Leap Forward, when officials over-complied with Mao’s damaging directives.

The Covid policy has angered citizens and saddled local governments with the huge costs of constant testing and quarantining. Private companies stricken by the disruption and regulatory crackdowns are laying off employees, and college graduates are struggling to find jobs. For the first time in years, unemployment has become a serious political risk for the party, and a tanking Chinese real estate market threatens to pull down the entire economy.

On foreign policy, Xi abandoned decades of Chinese restraint in favor of a muscular approach designed to restore China’s historical status as a leading power but which is harming its standing in the world.

China has militarised disputed islets in the South China Sea, threatened military action against Taiwan, picked a border fight with India and cut off many imports from Australia after that country’s government called for an international investigation into the origins of the pandemic. Xi destroyed Hong Kong’s autonomy and has deepened China’s isolation from Europe and the United States by aligning with President Vladimir Putin of Russia just before Putin launched his brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Countries that could have been Beijing’s valued partners have joined ranks against China in coalitions like the Quad, which groups together the United States, Japan, Australia and India. The United States and some European countries, whose trade and investment inflows were crucial to China’s re-emergence as an economic power, are now apparently less willing to do business. As Germany’s economy minister, Robert Habeck, said of Chinese protectionism and pressure to ignore its human rights abuses, his country would no longer “allow ourselves to be blackmailed.”

The greatest risk now facing China and the world is that the consequences of Xi’s misrule could lead to a point where he feels compelled to provoke a foreign conflict to divert domestic public attention. Xi’s continued reluctance to share power also could increase the risk of an internecine split in his third term. The level of dissent within the secretive Communist Party is difficult to gauge, but possible signs of frustration have emerged.

It’s anyone’s guess how much longer Xi’s rule will last, but there appears no end in sight. The party normally selects a successor five years in advance to groom and introduce him to the Chinese public. But everyone is in the shadow cast by Xi, who has so far given no hint who his eventual successor might be.

Next week’s congress will be closely watched for clues that other leaders might be allowed to take on more power and responsibility. But that seems unlikely. Xi is almost certain to stay in character, packing the top leadership with his loyalists. And the more concentrated his power, the greater the hazards for China and the world.

Shirk is chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego

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