Xi’s Third Term Is a Gift in Disguise

With China’s leader, what you see is what you get. That’s good news for Western policymakers.

By , a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening session of the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Oct. 16.
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening session of the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Oct. 16.
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening session of the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Oct. 16. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

To exactly no one’s surprise, Xi Jinping will secure a third term atop the Chinese Communist Party at this week’s 20th Party Congress. Xi’s political triumph—which has been months, if not years, in the making—overturns decades of party precedent that used to limit Chinese leaders to two consecutive five-year terms. But in breaking the rules, Xi has done the United States and its allies a favor by taking the guesswork out of China’s path forward.

The formal extension of Xi’s tenure locks in China’s current policy orientation—one that is unabashedly hostile to political pluralism and free market forces. Indeed, for the last few years, Xi has outlined, often in excruciating detail, his desire not only to deepen the party-state’s influence over China’s economy and 1.4 billion citizens but also to extend that influence far beyond China’s borders. Rarely has a geopolitical rival so unambiguously telegraphed his plans. Yet the Western world remains woefully unprepared for the coming “decisive decade” in its rivalry with China, as U.S. President Joe Biden described it last week.

Policymakers may not realize it yet, but the relative certainty that comes with Xi staying in power is actually a gift in disguise. With his takeover complete, what you see with Xi is what you get, including his proclivity to recycle his own talking points and rehash his familiar vision of China’s future. Indeed, today’s great-power irony is that while Xi appears to have no new ideas to cope with a changing geopolitical landscape and clings to policy prescriptions formulated during the pre-pandemic era, the West appears awash in a whole range of competing ideas to effectively counter China.

To exactly no one’s surprise, Xi Jinping will secure a third term atop the Chinese Communist Party at this week’s 20th Party Congress. Xi’s political triumph—which has been months, if not years, in the making—overturns decades of party precedent that used to limit Chinese leaders to two consecutive five-year terms. But in breaking the rules, Xi has done the United States and its allies a favor by taking the guesswork out of China’s path forward.

The formal extension of Xi’s tenure locks in China’s current policy orientation—one that is unabashedly hostile to political pluralism and free market forces. Indeed, for the last few years, Xi has outlined, often in excruciating detail, his desire not only to deepen the party-state’s influence over China’s economy and 1.4 billion citizens but also to extend that influence far beyond China’s borders. Rarely has a geopolitical rival so unambiguously telegraphed his plans. Yet the Western world remains woefully unprepared for the coming “decisive decade” in its rivalry with China, as U.S. President Joe Biden described it last week.

Policymakers may not realize it yet, but the relative certainty that comes with Xi staying in power is actually a gift in disguise. With his takeover complete, what you see with Xi is what you get, including his proclivity to recycle his own talking points and rehash his familiar vision of China’s future. Indeed, today’s great-power irony is that while Xi appears to have no new ideas to cope with a changing geopolitical landscape and clings to policy prescriptions formulated during the pre-pandemic era, the West appears awash in a whole range of competing ideas to effectively counter China.

That’s why this period of seemingly endless China policy inertia in the West—and the lack of a unifying framework with clearly defined end-states—needs to end and soon.

With the Cold War’s demise, Kremlinology, or the study of Moscow’s inner political workings, largely went out of style. (It has since come back into vogue following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.) For China watchers, however, this sort of divining of hidden meanings has always been a mainstay, especially following a leadership shake-up. While top-level turnover in the Soviet Union often occurred after a leader’s passing, Chinese transitions have functioned like clockwork for more than a quarter century. What invariably followed each reshuffle were years spent by Western scholars parsing public speeches and essays in party journals in an attempt to uncover each new generation’s governing philosophy—and with it, China’s likely trajectory.

What makes Xi’s coronation a gift is that he has effectively laid nearly all of his cards on the table, with the single ace still up his sleeve being his Taiwan “reunification” timetable.

Time spent by Western governments studying each new leadership cohort’s intentions often came at the expense of formulating, revising, and executing their respective China policies. Meanwhile, Chinese leaders made the most of the West’s mystification and used that time to codify their policy agendas, first in private among the party elite and then later and only selectively with outsiders. More importantly, however, Chinese leaders capitalized on these nebulous interludes to take steps aimed at shaping, and in some cases neutralizing, actions by the West and other competitors that could undermine China’s position or revisionist aims.

One need look no further than the last Chinese leadership transition to understand how Western uncertainty about a new leader has benefited Beijing. Back in 2011, during former Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s final months in power, China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. China’s rapid rise raised serious questions in Western capitals about how Beijing profited from its connectivity to world markets despite stacking the deck against foreign firms seeking to tap into China’s lucrative market. Responsibility for allaying Western concerns (and buying much-needed time) fell to Xi at the start of his first term. That’s why, in a 2013 speech during the party’s Third Plenum, Xi hinted at a significant number of “decisive” economic reforms, including enhancing the role of the market—not the state—in determining the allocation of resources and capital. Xi’s liberalization language was directed at least in part at the outside world, and it went a long way in mollifying the West.

The international response to Xi’s overture, particularly from financial markets still reeling from the global economic crisis, was overwhelmingly positive. Observers hailed Xi as “bold,” with some calling him the second coming of Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping. The Obama administration went on to champion cooperation with Beijing on “shared regional and global challenges” such as “economic growth” while eschewing serious measures to rein in China’s market abuses. Western companies and capital rushed into China, leading various stakeholders to pressure their governments to avoid confrontation with Beijing. Yet Xi spent the next decade thoroughly and systematically dismantling any hint of liberal economic governance. Instead, he deepened the party’s organizational integration throughout the commercial sector, wielding industry regulation and political control as both a sword and a shield.

The culmination of Xi’s efforts, articulated during this week’s Party Congress, is nothing short of a new ideology-infused economic order, in which the party-state’s ostensible ability to steer economic development and technological modernization is seen as maintaining a distinct systematic advantage over freer markets.

As Xi has consolidated his control over the party and rooted out potential competitors, he has employed this same approach on a range of other issues—but always in ways that benefit Beijing. For instance, Xi’s evolving interest in global governance and standard-setting was initially predicated on China’s ostensible desire to contribute to a “more just and fair” world order. Similarly, Xi’s recently unveiled Global Security Initiative purports that China’s security model represents the world’s best hope to avoid wars and ensure international peace. Such messaging is consistent with Xi’s rhetoric at the Party Congress that the Chinese way offers a “new choice” for humanity.

But unlike in the past, when China’s ambitions appeared at least outwardly ambiguous, it is now abundantly clear that China’s interest in setting and shaping global narratives, values, and norms is not for mankind’s betterment. Rather, Beijing’s growing discourse strategy blatantly seeks to bolster China’s composite national strength and, more importantly, to legitimize the party-state’s power at home and abroad.

What makes Xi’s coronation a gift, then, and what distinguishes this moment from other transitions is that Xi has effectively laid nearly all of his cards on the table, with the single ace still up his sleeve being his Taiwan “reunification” timetable. Regardless of whether Xi assumes the title of party chairman—not used since the Mao Zedong era—this year’s Party Congress makes clear that Xi already has this power in all but name. An ever more entrenched Xi will not risk burning down what he has spent the last 10 years constructing by embracing political liberalization and market reform or even softening China’s general hostility toward the United States. Instead, like most autocrats, Xi intends to double down, with China’s economy and people set to suffer the most from his self-destructive policies.

But whereas Xi and his predecessors previously benefited from an initial post-transition honeymoon, during which they quietly formulated their ambitious agendas, China need not enjoy any such grace period this time around. That is, unless Western capitals continue to spin their wheels on the China challenge.

To be fair, the United States and its allies faced difficulties coming to terms with the Soviet threat, particularly in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The current debate around China—crystallized in the Biden administration’s recently released National Security Strategy—risks an unnecessary repeat. Western leaders and policymakers mistake competition with Beijing for an end, not a means, eschewing the hard work of defining the West’s desired end-states vis-à-vis China. Moreover, Washington’s current approach clings to a fast-fading unipolar period rather than the likelihood of a coming multipolar moment and all of the burden-sharing opportunities that kind of order will bring. Even worse, the White House’s not-so-subtle strategy of pitting countries against one another along democratic or autocratic lines risks alienating like-minded partners that might not be impeccable democracies but that share Washington’s concerns about China’s belligerence and have a vested interest in modernizing—not toppling—the creaking rules-based order.

Policymakers of all political stripes have also spent altogether too much time responding to each and every Chinese provocation rather than prioritizing those issues that matter most to core Western interests. If left unchecked, the West will continue wasting its limited resources on a range of illusory Chinese threats. And, lastly, even on issues such as trade, in which the West has agency to promote a prosperity agenda capable of rivaling China’s geoeconomic clout, too many countries, including the United States, lean instead on protectionism.

Which gets to the other gift that could come with Xi’s third term and the certainty of China’s policy stance: simply that Xi’s unbridled boldness could finally force Western countries to get out of the habit of endlessly studying the China problem and get on with the much harder work of confronting it.

Craig Singleton is a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. diplomat. Twitter: @CraigMSingleton

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