China Has Entered ‘Maximum Xi’

Three experts offer takeaways from the 20th Party Congress.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
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China’s worst-kept secret is out: Xi Jinping will begin a third term as president after a highly choreographed 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rubber-stamped his control over the world’s most populous country. What’s more, Xi managed to pack the new 24-person politburo and its powerful seven-person Standing Committee with loyalists—meaning he will face few dissenting views and no competition for at least the next five years.

A dramatic moment was nonetheless caught on video, as Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was escorted offstage, looking visibly confused. Xi was unperturbed, adding to the humiliation for the man who led China for a decade.

The 20th Party Congress meeting was arguably the most consequential gathering in the world this year, so how do we decipher what it means—for China and the world? Foreign Policy interviewed a group of China experts on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism: James Palmer, the author of FP’s weekly China Brief; Melinda Liu, a longtime Beijing-based journalist; and Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who served as China director of the U.S. National Security Council under former President Barack Obama. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript. Subscribers can click on the video atop this page to watch the full 45-minute discussion.

China’s worst-kept secret is out: Xi Jinping will begin a third term as president after a highly choreographed 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rubber-stamped his control over the world’s most populous country. What’s more, Xi managed to pack the new 24-person politburo and its powerful seven-person Standing Committee with loyalists—meaning he will face few dissenting views and no competition for at least the next five years.

A dramatic moment was nonetheless caught on video, as Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was escorted offstage, looking visibly confused. Xi was unperturbed, adding to the humiliation for the man who led China for a decade.

The 20th Party Congress meeting was arguably the most consequential gathering in the world this year, so how do we decipher what it means—for China and the world? Foreign Policy interviewed a group of China experts on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism: James Palmer, the author of FP’s weekly China Brief; Melinda Liu, a longtime Beijing-based journalist; and Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who served as China director of the U.S. National Security Council under former President Barack Obama. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript. Subscribers can click on the video atop this page to watch the full 45-minute discussion.

Foreign Policy: Evan, as expected, Xi got an unprecedented third term. He’s packed the Standing Committee with loyalists. Were there any surprises for you in the last week?

Evan Medeiros: The biggest surprise is how fully, completely, and resoundingly Xi Jinping and his confidants dominated this Party Congress. We are in a new era of maximum Xi Jinping. There is literally no balance in this leadership. Xi Jinping has stacked the top—the seven men that run the country—with people that are his closest friends, including those like Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang and even Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi, who have mixed records. And if Li Qiang is, in fact, chosen to be the premier of China, he doesn’t have any executive experience. Typically, the premier has served for at least five years as a vice premier, and so what Xi Jinping has said is, “I’m interested in loyalty and I want control, and I’m going to do that by putting my people in place.”

FP: Do the Chinese people even want a third Xi term?

Melinda Liu: Well, obviously, not everyone’s happy, as [a protest on Oct. 13 calling for an end to lockdowns] would suggest. I would caution people from reading too much into that one protest. However, there are many people who are not happy to see the third term because they remember what happened the last time there was a leader with such overwhelming power, with no checks and balances, and that was Mao [Zedong]. And there were disastrous things happening under Mao—the Cultural Revolution being one of them but also the Great Leap Forward, which was a cockamamie economic initiative based on bad science and bad administration.

Some people are beginning to wonder whether the zero-COVID strategy is similarly based on bad public health knowledge or lack thereof and an obsession with stability.

EM: For the last 30 years, the CCP has had a de facto bargain with the Chinese people: We’re going to improve your standard of living. We’re going to grow the economy. We’re going to give you more opportunities. And in exchange, you’re not going to question our political authority.

Many of the policies and the preferences that Xi Jinping has articulated to date—zero-COVID being the most recent manifestation of them [as well as] building a more self-sufficient economy, his emphasis on the state sector, his crackdown on key parts of the private economy, his emphasis on income redistribution—all of these ideas are going to face real challenges in the next year and really put to the test what maximum Xi Jinping delivers for the Chinese people.

FP: Anti-corruption was such a big theme over the last 10 years for Xi. Evan, tell us a little bit more about the themes you’ve seen emerge over the last few days. If you’re a big businessman or tech mogul in China, should you continue to worry?

EM: Yes, and yes. The themes that have emerged—and I think they’re reflected in the amendments to the party constitution—are themes of dual circulation, the idea that China wants to reengineer its interdependence, so it wants to reduce its dependence on the rest of the world but increase the rest of the world’s dependence on China. And China will do this by relying more on domestic demand.

Xi Jinping and the party now talk a lot more about balancing development and security: the [Deng Xiaoping] view that growth, and especially growth via market forces, will be the top priority. Xi is saying now security, national security, and threats to China’s development and efforts by foreign forces to contain China should get as much of a priority in emphasis on the state sector, an emphasis on common prosperity. So, a greater redistribution of income [and] military modernization. And then on foreign policy, very interestingly, they now have inserted phrases like, “uplifting the fighting spirit and enhancing the ability to fight or struggle,” building a world-class army, and “resolutely opposing and foiling secessionist activities aimed at Taiwan independence.”

So, when I talked about this being an era of maximum Xi Jinping, it’s not just Xi Jinping’s confidantes and acolytes. It’s Xi Jinping’s ideas of governance, governance within China and global governance, and the way China plans to interact with the rest of the world, both economically and on foreign-policy, diplomatic, and national security issues.

FP: James, given some of the stuff Evan just said about a more forceful China externally, how does this change some of the thinking around Taiwan?

James Palmer: One of the big factors is whether the economic slowdown speeds up the Taiwan timetable or delays it. When we think about China’s legitimacy, there’s been three legs of stability or legitimacy. There’s been ideological legitimacy, which they leaned on much more heavily in the Maoist era. There’s been economic legitimacy—the idea that the party is the engineer of China’s growth and its escape from poverty, which was the main source of legitimacy from the 1980s to 2013 or so. And then there’s been nationalist legitimacy, the idea that China is reclaiming its place in the world and Taiwan is deeply tied in with that.

Now, economic legitimacy may be disappearing. If you’re going from a country that has been at 8 to 9 percent growth to a country that is maybe at 2 or 3 percent growth for the foreseeable future, you’ve lost that idea entirely, particularly among the Beijing big city upper classes. They’ve really tried hard to restore ideological legitimacy. We’ve seen the attempt to restore Maoist figures too—to make movies and TV free of foreign influences. All this has failed.

And all that leaves is nationalism, and the ultimate nationalist safeguard is invading Taiwan now. But the problem is, if you invade and fail, you’ve cost the party massive legitimacy.

FP: Melinda, you’re living there. What’s your sense of how that nationalist sentiment may have been impacted at all in the last week?

ML: Nationalism is the card being played by Xi Jinping in many, many situations and Taiwan being the one that impacts the world the most. I think the problem with that is that it’s not exactly clear whether Xi has done what he’s just done because he’s supremely confident or whether he’s done it because he’s supremely paranoid and insecure. And there’s even a possibility that he’s kind of both—that he’s so trapped in his own echo chamber that he’s lost touch with some of the realities of the outside world, similar to how people are perceiving [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in a way.

FP: Evan, if you were still advising the U.S. president, how would you decipher the events of the past week? Are we more or less likely to see China act aggressively toward Taiwan? How would this change U.S. policy, if at all?

EM: I’m very worried about the new normal around Taiwan. I’m concerned because we’re about to head into a Taiwan election cycle for the January 2024 presidency. And once that cycle really gets going, probably around the second quarter of 2023, it’s very likely that both candidates, the [Democratic Progressive Party] and the [Kuomintang] will say things and do things that mainland China doesn’t like. And so I do worry about the future and both the coercive toolkit that Beijing has in place currently as well as its propensity to use it.

That said, here’s my counter-consensus point. There’s really not much that came out of this Congress that suggested a new level of anxiety or any kind of dramatic change or any kind of hardening. I don’t take that as reassuring. The trajectory of China’s policy in Taiwan is toward a greater degree of coercion, especially military coercion. But the language in Xi Jinping’s work report and in his speech about Taiwan last week was unexceptional.

I think the key challenge for Xi Jinping is: Does he want to take on the Taiwan issue right now, especially given the depth of challenges he faces with managing COVID and trying to restart the Chinese economy? But he may not have a choice because as the electioneering in Taiwan picks up, statements will be made. Actions will be taken that may demand a response from mainland China. And so I’m expecting a pretty bumpy 2023 when it comes to cross-strait relations.

FP: Is Taiwan’s chip manufacturing capacity likely to survive a Chinese attack?

JP: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the main Taiwanese company, actually has scorched-earth plans in place: basically burning down its own facilities, destroying its capabilities, evacuating personnel. And it’s really personnel that are one of the key factors here since China can’t just invade and take over the expertise and talent of the Taiwanese without literally enslaving them or forcing them to comply with a new system. These are people who had the option of going anywhere else in the world they wanted. The U.S. would take them in an instant.

There’s been this idea that semiconductors are part of China’s reason for wanting to seize Taiwan. China has wanted to seize Taiwan since the existence of Taiwan. It doesn’t need any more motivation. And I don’t think it really factors that deeply into its plans. Where Taiwan itself tries to use this capability is its leverage with the U.S. China has been pushing very hard to try and recreate those capabilities at home, but it’s hit a bunch of bottlenecks. It was way behind its 2020 targets, and it’s probably going to be even more behind its 2025 targets.

FP: Evan, what are the chances that Xi would be willing to intercede with Putin to get a negotiated end to the Ukraine war?

EM: Next to zero. Very, very unlikely. The Chinese have been studiously neutral, though they’ve been careful to avoid military assistance and violating the U.S. sanctions. But the Chinese are not going to carry any water for the United States. I think absent some kind of dramatic event by Putin—like the use of a nuclear weapon—the status quo of China’s position on Ukraine and Russia will continue.

FP: James, in terms of the zero-COVID policy, ultimately when you have three years of lockdowns, people become more and more frustrated. Is this the kind of thing that could reach a tipping point? And is a tipping point something that the Chinese power structure actively thinks about?

JP: They’re very worried about street protests. They always have been. They have nightmares about color revolutions, as they call them, the Arab Spring scenarios. But all of that is, I think, very unlikely. And it’s unlikely for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as [former economist] Adam Smith said, there’s a lot of ruin in a nation. And the Chinese are kind of used to putting up with it at this point. So you can have these grumblings, you can have this frustration, and you have these occasional eruptions like protests in Shanghai. But it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where this becomes like full blown zero-COVID protests on any kind of national level because also any local-level incident would be crushed so thoroughly that it would send a message to any other potential protesters.

The other thing is that there just aren’t enough young people in China like [there were during] the Arab Spring. Other things were driven by basically a swelling population of unemployed young men on the streets. And China has the reverse problem. It doesn’t have enough young people. So I think while they’re very worried about it, they’ve actually found ways to contain it.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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