Will Xi’s Paranoia Defeat Him?

The Chinese leader has taken security worries to a new level.

By , chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.
Pro-democracy protesters are arrested by police in Hong Kong in protest of China's new security legislation.
Pro-democracy protesters are arrested by police in Hong Kong in protest of China's new security legislation.
Pro-democracy protesters are arrested by police in Hong Kong on May 24, 2020, ahead of organized protests against a Beijing plan to enact new security legislation. ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past decade, Chinese President Xi Jinping has expressed many of the same anxieties as his predecessor, Hu Jintao, about domestic threats to social stability. Both leaders have worried about the fragility of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule in a rapidly changing society and sought to secure it by exerting greater control over social and economic life. Both, moreover, see security dangers as emanating mainly from domestic problems, though they also cast a suspicious eye on “malign” international forces. As Xi often observes, the security threats confronting China come from the “increasingly complex” external and internal threats that “are interlocked and can be mutually activated.”

However, Xi takes the paranoia that has been endemic to Chinese politics since Mao Zedong’s rule to an extreme. China is stronger than ever. It has a hugely successful economy, a capable military, and growing global influence. The government enjoys a high level of public support. Yet Xi’s fixation on security betrays his persistent feelings of vulnerability. Xi’s “overall national security outlook” is more holistic than Hu’s, more party-centered, and more explicitly highlights external threats.

In 2013, Xi established the Central National Security Commission to focus on domestic security threats and, more broadly, turned China’s political system into what one security scholar has described as a “national security state.” Another has argued that Xi’s grand strategy centers on the survival of CCP rule. Rather than being just a “constraint on foreign policy,” internal security “is one of the chief ends of China’s strategy.” No wonder Xi’s Politburo put political security first in its national security strategy for 2021 to 2025. Security considerations inform every party and government decision. Nearly every phrase in the communique of a CCP Central Committee meeting in October 2020 included the word “security” (anquan); the document itself was an illustration of the goal of “integrating the development of security into every domain,” as the communique put it.

Over the past decade, Chinese President Xi Jinping has expressed many of the same anxieties as his predecessor, Hu Jintao, about domestic threats to social stability. Both leaders have worried about the fragility of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule in a rapidly changing society and sought to secure it by exerting greater control over social and economic life. Both, moreover, see security dangers as emanating mainly from domestic problems, though they also cast a suspicious eye on “malign” international forces. As Xi often observes, the security threats confronting China come from the “increasingly complex” external and internal threats that “are interlocked and can be mutually activated.”

The cover of Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise
The cover of Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise

This article is adapted from Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise by Susan Shirk (Oxford University Press, 424 pp., $29.95, October 2022).

However, Xi takes the paranoia that has been endemic to Chinese politics since Mao Zedong’s rule to an extreme. China is stronger than ever. It has a hugely successful economy, a capable military, and growing global influence. The government enjoys a high level of public support. Yet Xi’s fixation on security betrays his persistent feelings of vulnerability. Xi’s “overall national security outlook” is more holistic than Hu’s, more party-centered, and more explicitly highlights external threats.

In 2013, Xi established the Central National Security Commission to focus on domestic security threats and, more broadly, turned China’s political system into what one security scholar has described as a “national security state.” Another has argued that Xi’s grand strategy centers on the survival of CCP rule. Rather than being just a “constraint on foreign policy,” internal security “is one of the chief ends of China’s strategy.” No wonder Xi’s Politburo put political security first in its national security strategy for 2021 to 2025. Security considerations inform every party and government decision. Nearly every phrase in the communique of a CCP Central Committee meeting in October 2020 included the word “security” (anquan); the document itself was an illustration of the goal of “integrating the development of security into every domain,” as the communique put it.

Xi sees himself as waging a life-or-death struggle for the survival of party rule against subversive forces directed by hostile foreign governments and organizations. Although China’s security environment had not drastically deteriorated when Xi came into office, his perspective on it was “darker and more menacing” than Hu’s. Xi may be less sanguine about China’s international situation because by 2012, Beijing’s belligerent actions already were estranging other countries. And because his power is more concentrated than Hu’s—and his decisions more arbitrary—Xi’s fears that his critics are plotting his downfall are also greater.

Xi’s moves to suppress domestic threats have often shocked the world in part because they have been so sudden. These include the revision of the constitution to allow Xi to remain leader for life, the incarceration of around 1 million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, the imposition of the 2020 national security law that destroyed Hong Kong’s freedoms almost overnight, the 2021 regulatory storm against private internet firms, and the two-month COVID-19 lockdown of Shanghai. These actions came as bolts from the blue because Xi decided on them with little broader debate or deliberation. The combination of Xi’s unbridled power and the competition of other officials to prove their unquestioning loyalty to him propelled policy toward overreach.


Xi’s sudden decision to abolish presidential term limits by revising the constitution in 2017, before the end of his first term, remains one of the most stunningly unexpected events in my decades as a China watcher. I am not alone. His power grab sent shock waves throughout China and abroad.

One Chinese private businessman told me shortly afterward that he felt traumatized by Xi’s move. If the provincial leaders, who constituted the largest bloc in the CCP Central Committee, had been unable to prevent Xi from destroying the regular turnover of top leadership, he said, neither would they be able to stop him from expropriating private wealth. The 2021 regulatory storm against private internet firms seemed a fulfillment of the businessman’s darkest fears.

Overturning the hard-won rules of succession of power could backfire on Xi. A Leninist party leader who doesn’t share power or patronage is bound to frustrate other politicians, especially if no end to the monopoly is in sight. And many of Xi’s policy choices are controversial; critiques have appeared online before being erased by censors. Even after purging large numbers of officials during his first and second terms, Xi can’t be fully confident he has the loyalty of party elites. As one political scientist observed about Xi’s China, “elite discontent seems to be growing faster than social discontent.”

Overturning the hard-won rules of succession of power could backfire on Xi.

The inquisitors who had helped Xi get rid of potential enemies and consolidate his power in 2012 and 2018 are now themselves the targets of a third wave of purges to help Xi feel safer. As political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his classic 1956 study of the “permanent purge” in Soviet totalitarianism, after some officials fall, “the vacuum thus created is rapidly filled by a realignment of power, and the internal struggle continues between new alliances, new leaders, new pretenders.” In the meantime, Brzezinski wrote, the purge “has swallowed more victims.” The same could be said of Xi’s China.

It all came full circle when China’s former minister of justice, Fu Zhenghua, a man sometimes called “Xi’s muscle,” was himself arrested in April for corruption and disciplinary infractions. Another former deputy head of public security, Sun Lijun—who was considered so reliable that Xi sent him to Wuhan, China, after the COVID-19 outbreak—was arrested last year. Xi replaced Fu and Sun with two of his more trusted followers, Wang Xiaohong and Chen Yixin, who are likely to be elevated to the Politburo at the 20th Party Congress. Just weeks before the Party Congress, Fu and Sun were sent to prison for life.

By last fall, nearly 180,000 officials working in China’s judicial and law enforcement sectors as well as its party disciplinary departments had been reprimanded or punished for “violating party discipline and the law,” according to the leading group in charge of the “rectification” campaign. Xi’s campaign is modeled on the Yan’an Rectification Movement of 1942, which was about achieving Mao’s goal to “‘drive the blade in’ and ‘scrape poison off the bone,’ setting aside personal loyalties to expose wayward colleagues.” Chen, who is heading up Xi’s campaign, has called for officials within the political and legal system to “root out the harmful members of the herd.”


Xi’s centralized version of social control is far more granular and pervasive—closer to a totalitarian state—than Hu’s fragmented bureaucratic version. The regime has unprecedented capabilities to surveil people and collect and analyze their personal data. For instance, China leads the world in facial recognition artificial intelligence. The security apparatus has grafted these surveillance technologies onto a system inherited from the Mao era of mutual supervision by neighbors.

Xi has consolidated all the internal security organizations, including the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and placed them under the CCP’s Central National Security Commission, a body Xi chairs. He holds in his hands both internal security and the military. Xi has also had the legislature pass laws on national security, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and national intelligence. These laws formalize the party state’s long-standing broad powers over all Chinese citizens, reinforcing the idea that everyone is required to assist in protecting the state’s security. The 2017 Foreign NGO Law, for example, drove most international NGOs out of China because it required them to be supervised by the Ministry of Public Security; as of October, only 671 NGO offices were successfully registered.

Like Hu, Xi wants to shift social management down to the grassroots to relieve the center’s burden. He has adopted the Hu-era slogan: “Small issues don’t leave the village, big things don’t leave the township, and no conflicts are passed on to higher authorities.” Since becoming party secretary of Zhejiang province in 2002, Xi has been promoting a method developed in a Zhejiang township during the Mao era in 1963. It is called the “Fengqiao experience,” referring to the way this community involved the masses in its struggle against reactionaries, along with the party and the police. Mao believed pressure from one’s neighbors is more effective than formal enforcement at bringing deviant thinking into line. It is what in CCP lingo is called a “mass line” approach to stability maintenance.

Xi has promoted the Fengqiao model of party-led social control at the village, township, and community levels as well as combined it with grid management, which uses surveillance technology on a mass scale. The high-tech version of the Fengqiao experience is supposed to be rolled out nationwide in the years to come. Many Chinese living in apartment communities throughout the country welcomed this high-tech social policing system as a force for good during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they resented it during the enforced monthslong lockdowns during the omicron surge. People outside of the country also have become more afraid of artificial intelligence technology empowering an Orwellian totalitarian state in China.

Xi’s sense of political vulnerability is reflected in his strivings to impose almost totalitarian social control on Chinese society and eliminate all potential rivals. Security has eclipsed economic development as the CCP’s defining goal. But this approach to governance could backfire on Xi during his third term. A party that puts ideological loyalty ahead of economic results is not going to retain its popular appeal for long.

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Susan Shirk is chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego. She served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 1997 to 2000. Twitter: @SusanShirk1

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