Kerry Brown is the author of CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, just published by I. B. Tauris.
Were China a multi-party democracy and had Xi Jinping been elected by competitive elections in 2012 for a five-year term, a process of assessing his achievements over the last four years would be starting around now as he gears up towards a bid for re-election.
Even though China is clearly not a democracy, it is still a useful exercise to wonder about the basis on which Xi would stand for a second term. Late next year, there will beat the 19th Party Congress in Beijing, Xi will likely be reappointed, probably with a largely new group of elite leaders around him. No one really knows how, and on what basis, leaders are promoted or reappointed in China. But we can try to guess what sort of factors are going through the heads of the Communist Party elite as it approaches this important occasion. What is the balance sheet on Xi's leadership so far?
On economic growth, Xi has done worse than all of his predecessors at least since the early 1980s. From 2012, the GDP figure has steadily crept down. China is a less dynamic and growing more slowly than at any stage since the early reform era after 1978. Were Xi to be standing simply on his prowess as an economist, he would be in trouble.
But of course politics anywhere is about much more than GDP. There are three areas where he would stake a bid for reappointment: success in foreign policy, success in fighting corruption, and success in getting a better deal for the emerging urban middle class in China.
In foreign policy, Xi has been the most proactive leader China has had in modern times. He has visited forty countries since 2013, ranging from India and the US to Fiji and New Zealand. With his One Belt, One Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, he has mapped out new ways for China to engage the world. He has been more assertive on the South and East China Seas, and was the first leader of the People's Republic since its establishment in 1949 to meet the president of the Republic of China. Chinese people now have a leader who they feel strongly represents their country's interests abroad, and who is willing to do deals on climate change, environmental protection and outward investment that create a global network of Chinese interests and diplomatic alliances. [fold]
In fighting corruption, Xi has spearheaded a sustained campaign to take down the vested interest of the previous generation of leaders, cleansing the Party of its ties with commercial and business interests and smashing elites who were siphoning off vast amounts from the state's balance sheet. While the suspicion of the whole exercise being politically motivated has never been fully dispelled and the methods have been brutal, among the Chinese public at least the 'struggle' (as it has been called by officials) has proved a big success.
This comes to the third pillar of his potential successes: being a leader who urban Chinese (the source of growth in the new, more service sector-orientated economy being created in China) feel stands up for their interests. Xi has supported greater property rights, stronger clarity on legal procedures, and a sense among Chinese that they are more secure, their country more respected, and the Party more stable than it was in the previous decade.
Any opponent of Xi (and there have been some who have spoken up within China against his style of rule) would attack him for his ruthless suppression of lawyers and dissidents, the relentless focus on ideology, and the signs of autocratic tendencies. These, however, are concerns shared among a relatively small elite. What evidence we have shows that Xi is a popular leader at the moment, and that his focus on cleaning up the Party, strengthening China's international capacity, and setting down clear rules and procedures are considered effective domestically.
The Chinese public, however, is as fickle as those anywhere else. At the moment, Xi can point to hostile forces within and outside China for his problems: Americans blighting China's rights in the South China Seas; dissidents and separatists sabotaging stability at home. If growth continues to fall, the public might start to focus much more on how their prosperity and living standards are not as good as they used to be. They will prove impatient with excuses and finger pointing, and want to hear a positive vision of where China is heading; something more than just abstract musings on China dreams and grand visions. Xi's second term (which is almost a certainty) will need to be about the positives, not the negatives. If he fails to deliver, he might face a public response which will make the democratic route to vengeance – through the ballot box – look very mild in comparison.
Photo: Getty Images/Win McNamee