What Xi’s First Decade Tells Us About the Next

Bottom line: The world should prepare for a bumpy ride.

By , a senior China fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.
Visitors look at a painting depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing on June 23, 2021.
Visitors look at a painting depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing on June 23, 2021.
Visitors look at a painting depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing on June 23, 2021. Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

The international community is now preparing for Xi Jinping to remain in power as China’s supreme leader for an extended period. The Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, convening in Beijing on Oct. 16, is poised to renew Xi’s mandate, which would make him China’s longest-serving leader since Mao Zedong. It’s entirely possible that Xi could stay in power for another 10 to 15 years. He has already removed constitutional and other shackles on term limits, and his age is no hindrance. After all, U.S. President Joe Biden will turn 82 before the end of his current term, whereas Xi won’t turn 82 until 2035. To be sure, Xi cannot define China’s destiny all by himself: A number of other factors will shape China’s future, including the international system, rivalry with the United States, and China’s national characteristics and constraints. Nonetheless, with Xi emerging as one of modern China’s most powerful leaders, reviewing his first decade at the helm provides us with useful information about China’s short- and medium-term future.

Since Xi came to power in 2012, China’s foreign policy and interaction with the world have changed in four major ways.

First, China no longer hides its power. When Xi took over the reins in 2012, China’s GDP had just surpassed Japan’s, and its navy was still weaker than Japan’s. Today, China is a superpower and the only peer competitor of the United States. To put China’s rise into perspective, its economic might has now regained its pre-Opium Wars position. In 1820, China’s GDP, based on purchasing power parity, accounted for approximately 60 percent of the total GDP of China, India, Japan, and Russia. From then on, a combination of imperialism, civil wars, and internal social upheaval continuously weakened China’s position. In 1990, at the end of the Cold War, China’s share accounted for a mere 17 percent. However, by 2020, China had regained a similar position among the four major Asian powers as 200 years ago. If not for the U.S. forward posture in Asia, China would undoubtedly be the regional hegemon today. The most important aspect of China’s new power is its growing naval capabilities: Even though China’s sea power ambitions were present before Xi’s reign, the Chinese navy has expanded significantly on his watch. China is now a major sea power for the first time since the early 15th century, when China ruled the seas with its famous treasure fleet—until successive Ming emperors decided, from 1433 onward, to gradually shut down China’s major shipyards and turn the country inward. China’s contemporary rise as a sea power challenges U.S. naval supremacy in the region.

The international community is now preparing for Xi Jinping to remain in power as China’s supreme leader for an extended period. The Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, convening in Beijing on Oct. 16, is poised to renew Xi’s mandate, which would make him China’s longest-serving leader since Mao Zedong. It’s entirely possible that Xi could stay in power for another 10 to 15 years. He has already removed constitutional and other shackles on term limits, and his age is no hindrance. After all, U.S. President Joe Biden will turn 82 before the end of his current term, whereas Xi won’t turn 82 until 2035. To be sure, Xi cannot define China’s destiny all by himself: A number of other factors will shape China’s future, including the international system, rivalry with the United States, and China’s national characteristics and constraints. Nonetheless, with Xi emerging as one of modern China’s most powerful leaders, reviewing his first decade at the helm provides us with useful information about China’s short- and medium-term future.

Since Xi came to power in 2012, China’s foreign policy and interaction with the world have changed in four major ways.

First, China no longer hides its power. When Xi took over the reins in 2012, China’s GDP had just surpassed Japan’s, and its navy was still weaker than Japan’s. Today, China is a superpower and the only peer competitor of the United States. To put China’s rise into perspective, its economic might has now regained its pre-Opium Wars position. In 1820, China’s GDP, based on purchasing power parity, accounted for approximately 60 percent of the total GDP of China, India, Japan, and Russia. From then on, a combination of imperialism, civil wars, and internal social upheaval continuously weakened China’s position. In 1990, at the end of the Cold War, China’s share accounted for a mere 17 percent. However, by 2020, China had regained a similar position among the four major Asian powers as 200 years ago. If not for the U.S. forward posture in Asia, China would undoubtedly be the regional hegemon today. The most important aspect of China’s new power is its growing naval capabilities: Even though China’s sea power ambitions were present before Xi’s reign, the Chinese navy has expanded significantly on his watch. China is now a major sea power for the first time since the early 15th century, when China ruled the seas with its famous treasure fleet—until successive Ming emperors decided, from 1433 onward, to gradually shut down China’s major shipyards and turn the country inward. China’s contemporary rise as a sea power challenges U.S. naval supremacy in the region.

China’s rise is largely the result of policies put in place before Xi’s rise to the top. Nevertheless, Xi has thoroughly linked his reign to China’s growing muscle. Upon gaining power in 2012, he immediately identified “national rejuvenation” as his main goal; a year later, he announced the highly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative; and at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi stated that China no longer would shy away from world leadership and efforts shaping international order. The Party Congress speech was a turning point because it explicitly confirmed China’s abandonment of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of “keeping a low profile” in world affairs, to which Beijing had until recently adhered, toward a more ambitious and proactive foreign policy. Although Xi simply stated the obvious—that it was no longer possible to hide China’s power—it marked a major turn toward a more active Chinese foreign policy. Whereas Mao is the symbol of China’s communist liberation from imperialism, and Deng of China’s economic miracle, Xi has established himself as the symbol of China’s reemergence as a great power.

Second, Beijing has adopted a more assertive foreign policy with increased use of coercive diplomacy. China has not been at war since it invaded Vietnam 43 years ago, and China’s rise is still peaceful. Nonetheless, the shift to more assertive behavior has been conspicuous. China is not only building military capabilities. It is using them as well—in increasing numbers and frequency. Under Xi’s reign, China has established a new normal in the East China Sea, in the South China Sea, and in the Taiwan Strait. Chinese navy and coast guard vessels now enter Japan’s contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands almost on a daily basis, and Chinese air force activities in close vicinity to Japan follow a similar pattern. Since 2013, China has engaged in unprecedented dredging and artificial island-building in the South China Sea, and it has positioned armed forces on the new islets. This brings further tensions into China’s existing territorial disputes with neighboring countries and complicates U.S. patrolling in the area. Finally, during the last few years, Beijing has been sending large sorties of fighter jets and bombers into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

Since Xi came to power in 2012, China’s foreign policy and interaction with the world have changed in four major ways.

China’s new wealth allows it to shift between carrots and sticks in bilateral relations in unprecedented ways, with Southeast Asian nations and India being particular targets of this policy. China’s increased use of influence operations is yet another example of a more assertive approach. The change in behavior is evident even down to the individual level of Chinese officials, in the form of so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Most Chinese diplomats behave in a professional manner, but increased pressure from Beijing to convey a more assertive stance has resulted in examples of undiplomatic and belligerent conduct.

A third change under Xi is the return of ideology. Xi has initiated a Maoist revival, tightening his and the party’s grip on policy, the economy, and society—and increasingly closing China off from Western and liberal ideas. Whereas opening to the outside world had been an essential part of China’s economic success over the last four decades, a number of policy changes indicate Xi is moving China in the opposite direction. The party-state is expanding its role in the economy, strengthening its control over the media and the internet, curtailing the ability of nongovernmental organizations to operate, cracking down on the democracy movement in Hong Kong, and limiting what the party considers Western cultural contamination. China and the United States both working to decouple their economic interdependence will only strengthen this development.

In addition, Xi has nourished Chinese nationalism, which manifests itself in a strong emphasis on national unity and a tough stance on territorial issues, including, as Beijing sees it, the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. China’s nationalist sentiments are fueled by continuously stoking resentment about the injustices of the past—what Beijing officially calls the “century of humiliation” by the West. Finally, Xi promotes a Sinocentric worldview. Mao did the same, but Xi’s 21st-century version of Sinocentrism is different. Where Mao hoped to reestablish China’s central position in world affairs through carving out a unique Chinese way of realizing global communism, rejected China’s own culture and history in many ways, and ran anti-Confucianism campaigns, Xi is building on the efforts of his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao in restoring Confucianism and other aspects of pre-revolutionary China and often depicts China’s pre-modern figures as a source of pride and inspiration. The bid to construct a Chinese school of international relations based on Chinese classical writings is symptomatic of this worldview. When Xi at the 19th Party Congress announced that China is ready to offer wisdom and experience from its own model to other developing countries, he was referring to a mix of state capitalism, a Leninist state, and classical Chinese thought, officially named “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Xi’s Sinocentrism may be a barrier against Western influences, but it advocates increased cooperation with the rest of the world, attaches importance to a new South-South dialogue, and emphasizes China playing a more prominent role in multilateral institutions and the international order.

The fourth major change under Xi is the recentralization of foreign-policy making. During the 1990s and 2000s, China experienced a gradual fragmentation of its foreign policy, with a growing number of agencies at the central and provincial level influencing decision-making and implementation. Xi has reversed this trend, resulting in a more centralized and personalized foreign policy. A fragmented system has its obvious risks, but a highly centralized system with an omnipotent leader at the top is likely to subdue debates and alternative views. A strictly top-down system increases the risk of strategic miscalculations, misjudgments, and errors. The Kremlin’s epic miscalculations that led to its invasion of Ukraine are a stark reminder of the potential consequences.

In sum, Xi has associated his reign closely with China’s growing muscle, pursued a more assertive foreign policy with a somewhat stronger ideological identity, and allowed less room for debate and dissent in the making of foreign policy. This approach has caused friction in China’s neighborhood and deteriorated Beijing’s relationship with Washington and European capitals.

What does Xi’s first decade in power tell us about the next? There is, of course, always the possibility that a strong leader drives bold reforms or that shocks, such as a faltering Chinese economy, could force Xi’s hand and trigger change. On the first scenario, Beijing has lately taken steps to improve its image abroad, with Xi encouraging party cadres and diplomats to be “modest and humble” in their communication with the world. China has also been conducting damage control to maintain its relationship with Europe. However, these initiatives have largely been window dressing rather than signals of radical reforms: Nothing better illustrates continuity in Xi’s foreign policy than his announcement with Russian President Vladmir Putin of a “no limits” partnership and the recent Taiwan crisis, both of which overshadow the potential effects of Beijing’s conciliatory efforts. Future initiatives to adjust policy are likely to face the same dire outcome.

On the second scenario, China’s economy is indeed stumbling, with 2022 GDP growth projected at a modest 2.8 percent, according to the World Bank. China’s zero-COVID policy and its housing market crisis have put the country’s economic growth behind that of the rest of Asia for the first time in more than 30 years. We should therefore expect Xi to address China’s faltering economy at the upcoming Party Congress. A post-pandemic reopening of the Chinese economy, for instance, will probably result in a solid upsurge in economic activity, with increased consumption, trade, and investment. China’s challenge, however, is that it became powerful and assertive before it became rich. Although China’s total GDP is the second largest in the world after the United States’, its GDP per capita is only at approximately the global average. To continue growing, China would benefit from an open and globally connected economy. But faced with the emergence of a U.S.-Chinese geopolitical divide, China’s security concerns will trump its economic needs. There is little doubt that Xi will increase China’s focus on self-sufficiency and the development of indigenous technology.

There is another powerful reason to expect Xi to stick to the course he has charted. Growing power, nationalism, Sinocentrism, assertive behavior, and restricted room to debate China’s foreign policy are all easily self-reinforcing—especially in the midst of a superpower rivalry. Thus, the most plausible scenario is that Xi will continue steering China along the same path he has followed during his first decade as paramount leader. China’s foreign policy under Xi increasingly resembles “riding the tiger”—a phrase that refers to the Chinese proverb “He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.” It describes the risk of embarking on a course of action that subsequently cannot safely be abandoned for whoever is riding the tiger. As Xi embarks on his next term in power, we should prepare for a bumpy ride.

Jo Inge Bekkevold is a senior China fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies and a former Norwegian diplomat.

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