Commentary |
9 November 2020

Xi Jinping’s Strength is China’s Weakness

Unlike any other Chinese leader since 1949, he has no identifiable rivals and no likely successors. Originally published in The New York Times.

Richard McGregor
Richard McGregor

SYDNEY, Australia — President Xi Jinping has accumulated legions of powerful critics in China since he took office in early 2013. There are the once-powerful officials who have been felled by his sweeping anti-corruption campaign. There are the economists who resist his statist instincts. There are the academics who have objected to his authoritarian measures, such as his decision to abolish presidential term limits.

Yet the latest meeting of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, held in late October, suggests that Mr. Xi is stronger than ever. Unlike any Chinese leader since the C.C.P. took power in 1949, he has no identifiable rivals and no likely successors.

Some of Mr. Xi’s detractors have fallen silent; others have come on board with his program, reluctantly or after taking an intellectual leap. Those who dared to keep criticizing him have been punished.

Mr. Xi’s ascendancy is remarkable on many counts, especially considering that at the beginning of the year the new coronavirus took hold in Wuhan, then quickly spread elsewhere in China and to the rest of the world.

The outbreak would become “China’s Chernobyl,” some headlines and U.S. politicians screamed at the time, a societal and political meltdown that would expose the regime’s structural bankruptcy and fatally undermine Mr. Xi’s standing with both the party and the people.

Ten months later, Mr. Xi seems to be getting his way on nearly all fronts.

The C.C.P. recently held its semiregular plenum of the Central Committee, the 370-odd-member body that formally approves major decisions, such as the country’s five-year economic plans or the choice of top leaders.

In years past, observers of the gathering would typically try to unearth the hidden meaning of top-level personnel moves or any signs of shifting power dynamics between long-jostling factions, such as the China Youth League or the so-called Shanghai Gang.

The pundits never had much hard evidence to go on. Communist habits die hard: Delegates are locked in at the gathering’s venue for several days, and all media are excluded from the event. But for years, there were at least visible signs of jockeying and horse trading among political clans with links to past leaders and others with revolutionary pedigrees.

This year, though, no one has even bothered to do much of a Youth League vs. Shanghai Gang head count. The longer Mr. Xi stays in office, the less the old factions and clans matter.

His predecessor, Hu Jintao (a former leader of the Youth League), has barely been seen outside of ceremonial occasions since he handed all of his positions to Mr. Xi in late 2012.

Mr. Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin (the titular head of the Shanghai Gang), who maintained influence over senior appointments and the military during Mr. Hu’s tenure, is now an ailing 94, and he and his acolytes have been kept in their place by the threat of anti-corruption investigations, should any of them be tempted to push back.

And now, too, Mr. Xi’s strength has only been reinforced by the coronavirus pandemic.

After early cover-ups of the outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese government deployed the authoritarian tools at its disposal very effectively. Unencumbered by the messy discussions that have bogged down some democracies, China promptly closed provincial borders, stopped domestic travel, shut down businesses and confined millions of citizens to their homes — measures that were implemented firmly thanks partly to the state’s surveillance capacity.

A crisis that risked looking like a systemic meltdown was soon recast as a battle of national will and patriotism — of the rally-around-the-party, more than rally-around-the-flag, kind.

Ren Zhiqiang, the real-estate tycoon known as “Big Cannon” Ren, called Mr. Xi a “clown” during the early, difficult stages of the coronavirus outbreak. In the past, Mr. Ren’s excellent connections in the party had afforded him protection for his outspokenness. Not this time. He was investigated for corruption, expelled from the C.C.P. and in September sentenced to 18 years in prison.

By then, Mr. Xi and the party were enjoying a major propaganda windfall. The population could readily see how the coronavirus had largely stopped spreading in China, whereas a mess was unfolding, again, in the United States and many European democracies, as new outbreaks were about to force some of those countries back into lockdown. China’s economy grew by 4.9 percent in the third quarter of 2020, and some economists project that it may soon return to pre-pandemic growth rates.

The intensifying confrontation between China and the Trump administration has only played into this narrative, allowing Mr. Xi to portray various policies as necessary measures in an existential struggle against an implacable enemy dead-set on destroying China.

China’s state media were effusive at the close of the recent plenum, lauding the country’s leaders for “injecting certainty into a turbulent world.”

The official communiqué released after the meeting stated that China must “comprehensively strengthen training and preparedness” in the military — a notable injunction since post-plenum statements rarely mention war readiness.

Mr. Xi is also doubling down on efforts to make China self-reliant in key technologies.

In a speech published recently in the party magazine Qiushi, Mr. Xi called on China to forge “killer technologies” and protect itself against possible disruptions of foreign supplies.

China is not decoupling so much as it is de-Americanizing. Although that shift was accelerated by the Trump administration’s own policies, the election of Joe Biden as the United States’ next president is unlikely to fundamentally change matters in the near future.

The trade war with America has already given momentum to Mr. Xi’s domestic economic policy, which is something of a balancing act between reinforcing the state sector while encouraging the benefits created by vibrant private businesses.

Some of Mr. Xi’s chief economic advisers — like Liu He, a vice premier; Yi Gang, the governor of the People’s Bank of China; Guo Shuqing, the chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission — are closely aligned with the pro-market factions in economic policymaking. But Mr. Xi seems to be pushing for the state and the private sectors to cooperate in a kind of hybrid economy designed to serve the party’s interests first and foremost.

Private companies are allowed to grow and prosper, but they face increasing demands from the state. Not only does the C.C.P. require that committees of party members be set up within private companies; those committees are now expected to have a say in major aspects of the businesses.

In this way and others, the plenum has confirmed the ideological pillars of Mr. Xi’s rule, set out most notably in the now all-pervasive “Xi Jinping Thought,” the president’s program for strengthening the party and the country, as well as his own rule. This reassertion of hard-core principles also helps soothe the angst of the conservative constituency within the C.C.P. — in Chinese political parlance, “the left” — which has long been critical of China’s capitalist excesses.

Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader from the 1970s through the late 1980s, had said that China should become an advanced state by 2050. Now that timetable has been accelerated. The new target for completing the “socialist modernization” of China — code for building it into a wealthy and powerful country on par with the United States — set out at the recent plenum is 2035.

Mr. Xi will be 82 then, but he could quite conceivably still be in office, or at least in power behind the scenes.

According to the conventions of Chinese politics, Mr. Xi already should have named his successor and be preparing to step down at the next party congress, scheduled for late 2022. He has not done so. Instead, he has removed formal constraints on the length of his tenure, such as term limits.

And here lies the paradox of Mr. Xi’s rule. Now that he is so firmly in charge of the party, with no clear rivals and no known succession plan, he is also setting the stage for a full-blown crisis of leadership in the future. The greatness of Mr. Xi’s power is its greatest weakness.